Dallying With Dahlias

I’ve always seen the garden as a natural laboratory and the gardener as the chief scientist or principal investigator. In the making of a garden, we are but creating something of our own ideas and vision. Under certain given parameters of geography, climate and such, the gardener attempts to come up with something that fulfills a human need. These are contrived spaces where nature is manipulated. And when the hypothesis is realized, the work is deemed a success.

In truth, sowing a seed is nothing but an experiment.

A gardener will tweak, adjust, change and alter things all the time. Improving and trialing plants, colors, designs, shapes and always pushing boundaries both literal and metaphoric. No two gardens are ever alike because conditions are never identical even on plots sitting side by side. It’s always about experimenting.

Trying a rose in a seemingly unsuitable location in front of the air-conditioning compressor only to find success because nobody else accounted for the ideal combination of light, rich soil and the healthy air circulation resulting from the compressor hard at work cooling the house.

Or planting apple trees in the perfect location but ignoring the big cedar tree on the adjoining neighbor’s plot. Apples abound but all affected by cedar rust. The fruits taste fine but don’t look great. An experiment with mixed results. I have personal experience here and I’ve learned to live with blemished fruit. Keeps me humble but well fed.

We experiment with watering, light/shade requirements, new plants, new combinations of colors and/or plants, locations, styles – every effort is a mix of knowledge, hope, risk and curiosity. That last factor is the very essence of the mind of a scientist. Curiosity – the more we have it, the better the gardening experience. It’s not really about the successes at all. Success feels good but like a drug, one just keeps wanting more of it. Failures teach much more. There’s real growth from learning from mistakes. But curiosity is what drives the whole experiment, Every single time.

Curiosity makes us ask questions – What if? How about? Will this work? Why?

This year, my biggest experiment was all about growing dahlias. I tried them in pots and in ground. The pots got a head start because they went into the greenhouse as soon as it was vacated by all the over-wintering plants. The ground however had to wait till it was warm enough.

The spot I’d thought would be good for planting dahlias turned out to be smaller and not as sunny. Still, the plants grew and bloomed. It became crowded though. The asters nearby became thuggish and encroached on the newcomers. Clearly, my first mistake was in ordering too many dahlia tubers. That was sheer greed. And beginners optimism.

I ran out of big pots and crammed all the remaining tubers into a space that was inadequate. The lilac tree on one side cast more shade than I’d realized. So it is quite surprising that I got a fair number of beautiful flowers. The site however was not attractive at all. Despite the staking, it looked rather messy. Okay, ugly.

The pots did well. They started early, got moved outside and grew handsomely. A couple of them got attacked by some bug but appeared to overcome the problem on their own. I was too busy traveling so failed to be diligent. Pots were also watered regularly by a drip system set up for all pots in our absence while the dahlias in the ground were left to Nature’s mercy. In both cases, they came through well. I understand from dahlia veterans that this was a difficult year. Intense heat and lack of rain affected when the plants started blooming. Commercial growers were uncertain about the harvest. Last Christmas, I’d been given a dahlia subscription for this year and the weekly bouquets came with a fair amount of filler blooms which I’m pretty sure was not part of the deal. There simply weren’t as many dahlia flowers this year. I personally did not mind. The farmer is not responsible for the weather and did their best to please the subscribers.

Overall, I learned a lot and was quite happy with the whole experiment. Furthering the experiment, to store the bulbs through the winter, I’m following the traditional rules to pull up the tubers from the ground, clean and air dry, then store in cool, dry and dark location. Checking periodically to make sure they hadn’t gone moldy or desiccated. The tubers in pots however are going as is inside the unheated basement. The plants have been cut down of course. But I want to see how those tubers do compared to their naked cousins. I’m also experimenting similarly with the Canna, dwarf banana and Elephant ears. Other than all the big pots really crowding up the multi-purpose basement, the investment is very minimal. But the pay off could be good! Shall report on how it all goes.

Additionally, I’ve all together abandoned the idea of replanting dahlia tubers in the ground. I simply do not have a really suitable spot. Instead, I’m going to put them all in pots and keep them in the greenhouse throughout their growing season. It’ll be the dahlia cutting garden under glass (doors open of course). They’ll get enough light, regular watering, good air circulation. We shall see if this pampered set up yields an abundance of flowers.

Hot house beauties of a sort!

Note: I’m very pleased to be participating in the KMAA ‘Members Best’ Art Show at the Katonah Library all through November. Please visit this exhibit – creativity abounds!

My painting in the KMAA show’. Moon Shine’_watercolor

 

Dahlia in a pot

Dahlia plot looking unkempt

Dahlia in pot – ready for winter sojourn

Canna before being pulled up and prepared for storage.

Tropicals before being cut and moved into basement

Dahlia and Canna. Awaiting cleaning, drying and storage.

The meadow ready for bulb planting

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Performance Report

Going about the business of autumnal chores and putting the garden to bed, gives me time to review the growing season gone by. Even as we’re closing out the year, gardeners are planning and preparing for the next year. It’s a time of ending and beginning, the cycle of life in continuum.

I think about what plants did really well and what did not. Most importantly, I ask why. Often, the weather had a big part to play. A cold/warm spring, early arrival of summer, a lack of or too much rain, long spells of high heat – the garden responds to every shift and change. The consequent reduction in pollinators and/or increase in pests. Plants that thrived before may now be struggling as surroundings have changed – growing trees, new construction, trees coming down create a whole new environments. From sunny to shady or vice versa, the change demands a rethinking of the plantings.

And then, there is ones own part in the success or failure of the gardening season. This, for me, is the most humbling experience. Owning up to my mistakes and recognizing that the high points had less to do with me and more to do with the grace of Mother Nature or sometimes, pure dumb luck puts my role into perspective. I see this as a positive thing. Arrogance has no place in good gardening. The more I garden, I realize how little I know. Nature has been at the job since the beginning of time after all. She teaches well but does not tolerate big egos.

This year in the garden began well but then a cold snap affected the apple blossoms that were getting ready to bloom. No apple harvest. On the up side, the tulips lasted longer. Very hot, humid days with scarcely any rain marked the summer. The flowers of oakleaf hydrangea got roasted. Leafy green veggies bolted fast. Some plants like the native wisteria bloomed later. Others bloomed early and for a shorter period. The Concord grapes had been coming along really well but then they succumbed to the heat and drought and simply surrendered and dropped to the ground. Things were discernibly out of sync though in general, native plants not only fared better, they saved the summer garden.

Climate change underway.

I noticed fewer butterflies which was hugely upsetting. The diversity of bees observed lifted my spirits somewhat.

Then, by going away for half the summer, I left the garden to manage on its own. While we’d set up a watering system for the plants in pots, the rest of the garden had to deal with the temperamental weather and gross negligence. The garden actually coped rather well. But not the vegetables. Lack of due diligence put paid to them. I’m reconsidering the whole summer vegetable garden – what;s the point if I’m not going to be around. And I do like to get away for a good part of the summer – I realized just how much when travel was not possible the previous two summers.

Some plants did not do so well because yours truly had not divide them last year. Often, older plants do not bloom in abundance because they’ve grown too large. By dividing, there are not only more plants but they do better overall. Time constraints and laziness are my pathetic ‘excuses’.

The big success were the dahlias. To be fair, this being the first time I’ve grown them, there is no reference point to determine the degree of success. From all reports, the dahlia season was delayed due to the weather. Since my return from vacation in mid-September, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying a daily crop of new and assorted blooms to display around the house. I’m desperately hoping they will keep blooming for a few more weeks. Weather Gods! I beseech you to prolong the season!

Fingers crossed I do right by the tubers so they’re in good shape for next year.

So, what is the final performance verdict?

Garden – an all-round good worker. Highly self-motivated, resilient and independent performer.

Gardener – Average worker with potential to do much better. Needs to improve time management skills. More focus and less distraction recommended.

Please indulge me as I proudly share some images of my dahlias –

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar