Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dahlia CUPCAKES! These blossoms know no season

Sarah MacIntosh created these dahlia
cookies in typical dahlia colors.
What do dahlia growers do once they've dug their dahlia bulbs and there's a long winter stretching ahead?

If you know Lynch Creek Farm well, you know that the dahlia-growing gang has a big, busy alter ego: Lynch Creek Wreaths. Andy, Nathanael, Patty, Mike, Evé and the rest of the crew are just coming down from a huge season producing lush and lovely evergreen Christmas wreaths, holiday swags and garland, and seasonal centerpieces.

Sarah's cupcakes are definitely
formal decorative dahlia types.
Meanwhile, their dahlia tubers wait (all snug in their beds, as it were) in storage for sorting and packaging for spring shipping.

Now that the pressure's off and when the phone rings it's usually someone exclaiming over how fresh, fragrant and beautiful their Lynch Creek evergreens are, the gang's taking time to enjoy this best time of year in the spirit of giving and sharing.

Mike Maddux from the Lynch Creek crew goes for the
flavor as well as the form.
That's how it happens that Sarah MacIntosh, who has been glued to the telephone for two months, managed to find the time at home to create these stunning treats to share with the staff. Having seen almost enough of snowmen, bells, holly and other Christmas icons, Sarah looked ahead to Lynch Creek's new year and—voila!—dahlias.

If Santa didn't bring you a certificate for dahlia tubers, you can brighten your wintry days by looking at the array of colorful dahlias awaiting shipping season. It's never too early to start planning your summer garden, and never too early to order your dahlia tubers from Lynch Creek. Reserve your favorites now for shipping when the time is right for your part of the country.

We'd like to say the crew will send you a dahlia cupcake when you order, but Sarah's going to take a well-deserved vacation.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dahlias Make Great Holiday Gifts

Colorful "Ringo" should ring anyone's bells as
a holiday gift.
Dahlia tubers make great Christmas gifts, Hanukkah gifts, Kwanzaa gifts, Winter Solstice gifts, and gifts to celebrate Eid, Samhain, Epiphany, Chinese New Year, Pancha Ganapati or any other winter festival.

Of course nobody's going to be planting dahlias this time of year, and Lynch Creek Farm won't ship dahlia bulbs (correctly speaking, dahlia tubers) until the weather warms. But your gift recipient can receive notice that the beautiful dahlia tubers you've chosen are reserved for him or her, and that your thoughtful gift will arrive at the appropriate time for planting wherever he or she lives.

What could be more delightful, during the cold days of winter, than receiving a holiday card announcing the gift of flowers: not a bouquet of flowers to last a week, but months of blooming delight, year after year?

"Snowbound" is a perfect choice as a winter holiday gift
to provide cool blooms in summer's heat.

Does holiday color sound enticing? Among the many colorful offerings at Lynch Creek are "Cherry Drop," a bright red waterlily dahlia with compact form; "Nicky K," a spiky, showy laciniated pure red; and "La Bomba, a red and deep wine red combination collarette.

Several dahlias come in candy-cane red-and-white combinations. Consider "Ringo," a small formal decorative with white tips on rich red florets; or the dramatic "Wildman," a giant red semi-cactus dinnerplate dahlia in brilliant red splashed randomly with white.

"Wildman" is a big, exuberant dinner-plate dahlia.
What could be more in keeping with the season than "Snowbound," a big, white formal decorative dahlia; "Snowflake," a stunning white five-inch waterlily type;  "Brookside Snowball," a white ball dahlia, or even "Blizzard," another formal decorative dahlia?

There are dozens of other wonderful colors and color combinations to choose from; color, after all, is the essence of dahlias. A few minutes of scanning the gorgeous dahlias on the Farm's dahlia site will help chase away winter doldrums, but you may find making choices difficult.

Or you can make it easy on yourself: purchase a dahlia tuber collection. Collection offerings include the experts' selections of staff favorites from the colorful collarettes, petite pompons, splashy big dinnerplates, the best of the cut-flower dahlias, and even (now here's a gift that's sure to impress) a collection of all the Farm's collections.

Happy holidays to you all!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dividing Dahlias: Separate Tubers Any Time Now

Evé looks over a tuber mass, recently dug and rinsed.
In most parts of the country, frost has put an end to the last dahlia blooms of the season, and many of you have already dug your dahlias for winter storage.

Each dahlia tuber you planted has no doubt become a mass of new tubers, many of which have the potential for producing new plants like the ones you grew this year. Dividing your dahlias into individual tubers now will get them ready for safe storage this winter and for spring planting next season.

To find out how the pros divide dahlias, we spent some time with Lynch Creek Farm's go-to guy of the garden, Evé Munguia.

Here's Evé's advice, step by step, on making the most of that mass of dahlia tubers, roots, and rootlets you're storing.

Look for the tiny pointed eyes, like
the eyes of potatoes, where the tubers
connect to the central stem.
Keep in mind that every dahlia tuber, to be viable, must have at least one eye, which you'll see as tiny pointed protrusions on or near the neck of the tuber (the neck is the tuber's connection to the central part of the root mass).
Clip away the thin rootlets and
tubers without eyes.
1. Prepare for dividing your dahlias by putting together what you need. You'll want a good cutting board or countertop under nice strong light so you can see the eyes and make your cuts where they need to be. Your cutting implements should be clean and sharp. A pair of sharp long-nosed clippers is best, although some growers use knives. Assemble the dahlia clumps to be divided; they should be rinsed before dividing.

Cut the eyed tuber from the central stem making
a V into the central stem and leaving
a bit of the fleshy stemwood on the tuber neck.
2. Eliminate from the tuber mass the small roots, rootlets and stuff that doesn't have eyes.  Not all the tubers that form will have eyes, and tubers without eyes won't produce new plants. Also eliminate any tubers whose necks are wiggly or broken; they won't grow.

3. Identify the eyed tuber that's easiest to reach and remove with your clippers. If you're unfamiliar with eyes, look for a tiny point at the center of a rounded protrusion. Don't cut too close to the neck. Making a V-shaped cut into the central part of the tuber group will give your tuber more strength and stability.

The mother tuber will have coarser skin than new tubers.
4. Check out the "mother tuber," the one from which your plant grew this year. It is easy to identify because its skin is coarser and usually darker than the newly-grown tubers. If the mother tuber looks viable, with a significant eye and no signs of rot, it can be used again. Mother tubers are more susceptible to rot because of their size and age.

5. If a dahlia tuber without an eye or eyes is adjacent to an eyed tuber, and it's convenient to leave the two connected, do.  Often it will be hard to separate an eyed tuber and an adjacent eyeless tuber; there's no need to do so. The plant that comes from the eye will benefit from the early-season vigor provided by the additional tuber.

An eyed tuber and one without eyes can be paired to
give next year's shoots a good start.
6. Keep separating out eyed tubers until you have utilized all of them in the tuber mass. Shape isn't an issue; a long, skinny tuber, if it has a viable eye, will produce a plant. Under optimal conditions, a healthy, well-grown dahlia can produce a dozen or more tubers under optimal conditions.

Often when you dig your dahlias, your shovel will break off part of a tuber that extends beyond the main mass. Don't despair if the cut-off tuber is one of the eyed tubers; if there's a significant amount of flesh remaining, it will likely produce a new plant.  As long as the cut area is exposed to the air and allowed to dry after the dahlia has been dug, it will heal and harden.

And speaking of the cut surfaces of your divided dahlia tubers: you may be tempted to look for some kind of antibacterial or other powder to dust your tubers before storing them. If your tubers are healthy, they won't need it. Just store them in an appropriate medium. At Lynch Creek Farm, the crew uses peatmoss, very lightly dampened to maintain humidity.

Take good care of those tubers (see our September 25 blog), and next spring you'll have abundance for your garden and tubers to share. Be sure to give some to friends so you have room for new favorites from Lynch Creek Farm.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dahlias Show Off in Bavarian Gardens

Dahlias form a municipal planting in Peiting, on Bavaria's
famous Romantic Road.
Once they were brought back from Central America by European botanists, dahlias enjoyed popularity throughout much of Europe.  They were largely cultivated in Germany, where many of the first varieties were developed; when the small, bouquet-type dahlias became popular in England, they were initially known as German dahlias.

So it wasn't really surprising to discover that these colorful, easy-to-grow perennials are popular in flower-loving Bavarians' gardens and public places. When we arrived in mid-September, it was a little late to see them in profusion, but we found them in a number of public plantings, including a municipal garden in the major intersection in Peiting, a beautiful town on the Romantic Road (Romantische Strasse) that runs south from Würzburg to Füssen.

Spent dahlia plants are just visible in the you-cut flower
rows in the upper left; pumpkins and gourds now take
center stage in this roadside farmstand near Wasserburg.
That's the honor-system cash stand at left.
Bouquet dahlias are still a big thing in Germany, as well.  Like Lynch Creek Farm, many growers offer bouquets of cut dahlias for sale during the summer, then sell dahlia tubers in the spring.

We encountered numerous you-cut flower gardens, although most of them were close to finishing their season and the dahlias and gladiolas had been supplanted by late crops of sunflowers.  Many of those we saw were operated in conjunction with a stands of pumpkins, gourds and artichoke blossoms, offered on the honor system: pumpkins were stacked on racks or in piles by the roadside, and a small kiosk for payment stood nearby.  It's nice to know that this kind of arrangement worked, and it seemed to.

I wish we'd been there a couple of weeks earlier, when we could have gone down the rows of dahlias, choosing blooms to cut and take back to our gasthaus hosts. We still saw some beautiful dahlias in gardens and on the incredibly well-tended graves in churchyards. In the place where dahlia popularity began, dahlias still rule.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Conversations with McClaren: Grow Your Dahlias Organically

Bill McClaren grows his dahlias
This is the third in a series of conversations about dahlia-growing with dahlia guru Bill McClaren, author of the Encyclopedia of Dahlias from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon, and a noted dahlia hybridizer. Bill and Lois McClaren have introduced more than 150 new dahlia varieties from their Alpen Gardens in Kalispell, Montana.

Lynch Creek Farm: Bill, you mentioned in an earlier conversation that when you began growing dahlias, you depended upon chemical fertilizers. Is that still your practice?

McClaren: No, it's not. I would highly recommend anyone growing plants to grow them organically. To do this one must have healthy soil that is teeming with microbes. I started organic growing in the early '90s.

LCF: Why did you switch to organic gardening?

McClaren: We did not think all the chemicals I was using were healthy for our family. Actually, that was Lois who came to that conclusion, and as always, she was right. Since switching, I grow better dahlias with less insects and in th same soil year after year without any effect on the dahlias.

There are a number of excellent publications on organic gardening on the market for anyone interested. It took me several years of experimenting before I saw success. Since that time I have continually improved my practices so that I am convinced it is the only safe way to grow dahlias.

LCF: Will you talk a little more about organic dahlia-growing?

Alpen Cherub, another of McClaren's hybrids, is a
classic collarette with a tinge of green at the base of
the ray florets.
McClaren: Organic growing is a total way of life. It is not possible to grow organically part way. You need to be convinced that it will not be possible to use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or chemical insecticides in any way. No more weekly spraying, no more chemical fertilizers, and beginning a no-till soil system.

The first year growing organically will be a disaster. It improves somewhat the second and by the third year you can breathe a sigh of relief and begin to see a difference.  Read everything you can on organic growing, especially the newer organic books, and also Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web.

LCF: Are there specific techniques you use?

McClaren: I practice no-till gardening. With no-tilling, you do not bring up the seeds that are in the soil so that helps. I also use white Dutch clover between the rows and this controls many weeds since they can’t get started in the shade of the clover. I also use lots of mulch: grass clippings, alfalfa hay, compost. They all keep weeds under control. It does take time, usually several years to see a great improvement.

If you give this serious thought you should be ready to switch next year. Good Luck.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Conversations with McClaren: Hybridizing Dahlias Offers Gratification in a Single Season

Dahlia hybridizer Bill McClaren
This is the second in a series of conversations about dahlia-growing with dahlia guru Bill McClaren, author of the Encyclopedia of Dahlias from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon. At Alpen Gardens in Kalispell, Montana, McClendon has produced and introduced numerous beautiful dahlia varieties.

LCF: How did you become involved in developing new dahlia varieties?

McClaren: When I first got involved with gardening in a major way, the two flowers that I especially liked were gladiolas and dahlias. I have always been interested in growing plants from seed.

I found that it took 2-3 years to see the first bloom from growing gladiolas seed and only the first year for dahlia seed to produce a bloom. I’m sure I am not long on patience so dahlias soon become the flower I wanted to grow and hybridize.

Without many dahlia growers in Montana I did a lot of experimenting. The different forms, sizes and colors convinced me this was the flower to grow. I also found that dahlias could be grown organically but never was successful in growing gladiolas without chemicals. I have always had great support, encouragement, and assistance from Lois my wife. She always assisted in planted, digging, washing, and dividing. No matter how many thousands I grew, she was always there when the work began.

LCF: How do you decide what form or type of dahlia you want to work on developing?

McClaren: At the present time we have introduced nearly 150 varieties. It would be difficult to select a favorite. It’s like asking which of you children is your favorite (some days I do have a favorite). I think it is important for the beginning hybridizer to select the form, color, and size of dahlia they like the best. Grow as many of that type as possible and become well acquainted with how they grow, which have the best color, form, tuber production, and which have the best growing habits.
Bill McClendon's anemone dahlia Alpen Fury
is a favorite at Lynch Creek Farm.

I hybridized miniature cactus (dahlias) for a number of years, and then have progressed through orchids, anemones, singles, and I'm now working with dark foliage and mignon singles. Some of the greatest hybridizers work on one type during their lifetime. I tend toward getting bored after reaching my goal, and I start over. But I have worked as long as 10 years on a certain type before reaching my original goal. 

LCF: Where do you start with hybridizing?

McClaren: It is seldom that dahlia growers have sports (mutations) and they often miss seeing them in their gardens. I'd suggest that dahlia growers begin hybridizing by growing dahlia seed. Some begin by buying seed and growing their first seedlings. This is not nearly as exciting as saving your seed and using that as a starting point.

There are many things a hybridizer can do for greater success, but that is a whole other lesson.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Conversations with McClaren: Growers Search for the Perfect Dahlia

Bill McClaren
This is the first in a series of Lynch Creek Farm staff conversations with dahlia guru Bill McClaren, author of the Encyclopedia of Dahlias from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon, and a major Northwest dahlia grower.

"For many years," notes Harry Rissetto, trustee of the American Dahlia Society and a contributing editor to the Bulletin of the American Dahlia Society, "Bill and Lois McClaren have been the 'Johnny Appleseeds' of the American dahlia. …Through their extended experience with the dahlia, they have gained a wealth of knowledge and useful information. Encyclopedia of Dahlias is the culmination of a lifelong love affair; it deserves a place of the bookshelf of every dahlia grower."

 LCF: Bill, how would you describe your Montana home in terms of growing dahlias?

McClaren: Western Montana is an ideal area to live. West of the continental divide our weather is somewhat similar to the west coast with many mountains, rivers, and lakes. Kalispell is located between Flathead Lake (largest lake east of the Mississippi) and Glacier National Park. The scenery is spectacular and temperatures moderate. We have four seasons with excellent growing conditions for dahlias. Out-door activities are unlimited: gardening, camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, skiing, boating, kayaking, and swimming.

LCF: You and Lois have been proprietors of Alpen Gardens for many years. Was dahlia-growing your livelihood?

McClaren: No; I was a teacher for years. I had a high school principal who encouraged students to continue their education. I was married soon after high school and my wife was the one person who was a great assistance in supporting my educational goals. She worked while I was in college and made it possible for me to finish my education.

LCF: So how did you get involved with dahlia-growing?

McClaren: Since I was born and raised on a farm I have always been interested in growing plants. All the places we have lived I have grown vegetables and flowers. After coming to Montana I continued growing and taught a number of evening classes in gardening. I was introduced to Paul Hovey a dahlia grower in Kalispell and was intrigued with dahlias. Paul became my mentor and shared his knowledge with me about dahlias.

LCF: What do you particularly like about dahlias?

Alpen Diamond, a collarette dahlia, is one of Bill
McClaren's many introductions to the dahlia
McClaren: One of the exciting things about growing dahlias is that we never have grown a perfect dahlia. Just around the corner there is a new one better than anything that has been introduced. I have seen interests constantly changing throughout the years by dahlia growers. I would hesitate to try to determine what my perfect dahlia might be. What makes dahlias so much fun is that they are constantly changing by hybridizing, sporting, mutations. There is never a boring moment but its like Christmas every day.

LCF: You have introduced more than 150 named varieties. Many growers use their name or some key word in naming their dahlia introductions. How do we know if we're looking at one of your hybrids?

McClaren: Many years ago we sat down and selected any name that might go with Alpen, a name selected by Lois when we were in the garden looking at the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies. She said, "Look at that ‘Alpen Glow’. Wouldn’t that be a great name for a dahlia? Also a great name for our garden, Alpen Gardens." We then made a list of every word we could think of that went well with Alpen. We are still using the list.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Storing Dahlia Tubers Requires the Right Conditions

A Lynch Creek Farm staffer prepares tubers for storage.
Whether you store your dahlia tubers intact after digging them, or whether you divide them first, you'll need to give some thought to the best conditions for storing what will be the basis of your next-year dahlia garden. It's essential that the tubers remain clean and healthy if they're going to give you beautiful flowers next summer.

Dahlias differ in their ability to survive storage. Some varieties have thin tuber coverings that allow moisture to evaporate, causing them to shrivel and die. Other varieties can't tolerate dampness or temperature variations. It's a good idea, when you're choosing dahlia varieties to grow, to check with your supplier to find out if they have recommendations for over-wintering the dahlias you like. Dahlia guru Bill McClaren advises that dahlias grown from cuttings or seed are usually easy to store.

STORAGE AREAS: The area you use for storage should, of course, be frost-free. If you are fortunate enough to have a root cellar, that's the ideal place for your tubers. If you keep an extra refrigerator on hand for summer beverages, use the crisper drawers for your tubers. (This gives you incentive to do your dividing immediately, since divided tubers can be stored in far less space than whole tubers.)

Insulated containers, ice chests and cardboard boxes in the coolest part of your basement or crawl space are other options. In areas with light frost and slight rainfall, McClaren says, you can even place your tuber clumps or divided tubers in trenches in the ground, provided the drainage is good, and cover them with leaves and/or straw to protect them from frost.

While Ryan LeDoux packages tubers, Andy checks over
those still in storage. 
STORAGE CONDITIONS: The most important considerations, according to McClaren, are humidity and temperature. If these are right, your dahlia tubers should look the same when they emerge from storage as they did when you tucked them away in the fall.

Storage temperatures should range between 40° and 50° Fahrenheit (4° to 10° Celsius). Humidity should be about 90 percent.  If the tubers are too warm or too dry, they will shrivel. If the humidity is too high, they may mold or rot and disintegrate.

STORAGE MEDIUMS: Indoors, there are several materials that will serve you well as storage mediums. Newspaper, plastic bags with vent holes, or even loose plastic wrap can be used to wrap individual tubers or small groups of tubers, McClendon notes. (Be sure to include labels!)

Organic materials including peat, sawdust, or cedar or pine chips can be used, but be certain that both medium and tubers are dry. McClendon says these mediums have been charged with causing fungal infections in stored tubers. Some growers prefer sterile preparations like Perlite or Vermiculite. If you use these commercial products, take care not to inhale the fine dust they produce, which can be harmful to the lungs.

INSPECTION'S A MUST: It's essential that you inspect your tubers regularly to make sure they are weathering their storage well. Check first within four to five weeks of storing, and then every two months for the remainder of the winter and early spring.

If the tubers have begun to shrivel, mist them with a fine spray of clean water. Then occasionally mist the area lightly to increase the humidity. If, on the other hand, the tubers are limp or show signs of mold or rot, remove those with any signs of these conditions and decrease the temperature and humidity of the area. It may be necessary to use a pot of dessicant to reduce the humidity. If the area is too warm you may need to remove the tubers to a cooler area.

Get it right, and you'll have a full complement of tubers to plant in the spring. And be of good cheer: if you lose a few tubers, you'll have the fun of choosing dahlia varieties to replace them.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Dig Those Dahlias Till Foliage Dies Back

When an informal decorative dahlia
shows its center, it means it's closing down
its blooming season.
Once the days begin to shorten and the nights grow cold in the fall, your dahlias will reflect the end of the growing and blooming season with certain changes.

The flowers will lose their form and you'll see open or "blown" centers. Stems will weaken, and the flowers will begin to set seeds. All this is a signal that your dahlias are going into dormancy. When the first frost comes, it's all over.  But in temperate zones, frost may be late in coming, and it may be long rainy periods that signal the end of your dahlias. Whatever the case, don't get tidy-minded and dig them as soon as you see blown centers and failing stems. They need to enter dormancy for the tubers to be ready to dig.

If there's a chance the ground will freeze before you can get your dahlias dug, suggests dahlia expert Bill McClendon, don't succumb to the impulse to tidy up by removing the blackened foliage after frost. Leave it to protect the soil and tubers from freezing. Before digging your tubers, remove the stakes and any wires or other support materials. And check your labels. If you didn't label your dahlias in the summer, try to recall the variety names now while there may be a lingering remnant of bloom to jog your memory.

When you're ready to dig the plants, McClendon advises, cut away the top growth, leaving 4 to 6 inches of stem attached, so you'll have someplace to attach the label and a good way to handle the plant. With a garden fork or shovel, begin digging well away from the stems so you don't damage the outer ends of the tubers; remember that there will be much more tuber than what you planted last spring. Lift the tuber mass gently, being careful not to break the fragile necks on the tubers.

Clean your dahlia tuber before you store it.
With a spray attachment, hose away all the loose dirt from the tubers. Use a fairly forceful spray to clean the tubers well but not so much force that you damage the outer covering of the tubers. Let them air dry, and dry well if you are storing them undivided. You may want to keep them a little damp if you plan to divide them right away before storing them.

McClendon advises dividing the tubers immediately, but other growers suggest drying and storing the tubers intact and dividing them later. At Lynch Creek Farm, they're dug and stored intact but divided later. Both methods have advantages. If the tuber clumps are divided in the spring, it'll be easier to see the "eyes" where new growth begins. But if you have large numbers of dahlias and limited storage space, the divided tubers take up far less storage space.

By the way, once you've dug your dahlias, DO clear away all the leftover plant material to make sure no dead foliage picks up unwanted diseases. In upcoming blogs we'll discuss dividing the tubers and storage techniques.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Want Dahlia Progeny? Like Games of Chance? Try Saving Seeds

A dahlia bud, left, and maturing seedpod, right
This time of year, as the season moves toward its end, you'll see that some of your dahlia flowers have less perfect form, and they may display their centers. This is actually a signal that they're making seeds; the open centers increase the likelihood of pollination.

If you're enjoying your dahlias and want more, and you have plenty of garden room and the patience for experimentation, you might try saving the seeds from some of your favorites.

Professional dahlia developers recognize that the chances of getting a dahlia with great color and form from a seedling is small, but that doesn't keep them from trying, and it shouldn't deter you, either. You can increase your chances of something predictable if you control the pollination or know the likely pollen parent.

A dry seedpod ready to harvest
The seedpods on your dahlias resemble buds but they're longer. Once the ray florets have dropped off and the pod has formed, it will take 10 to 14 days of dry weather to mature the pod. It's a good idea to label the stem with the name of the dahlia if you are saving seeds from more than one variety. Paper adhesive tape is a good labeling medium; use a waterproof pen.

When the seedpod has dried, pick it and place it in a dry location. When it is fully dry and feels light and papery, shell the seeds out of the pod. You'll also find immature seeds, dried bracts and disk flowers in the pod.

Mature seeds should be dark, full and firm; save only the fullest seeds from each pod. Put them in a labeled paper envelope and keep them in a dark, dry location. They should keep for several years.

Look for the dark, full mature seeds when you open a pod.
In the spring, plant the seeds in potting soil. When they sprout and develop their first set of leaves, transplant them into 3-inch pots and grow them in a protected area, planting them outside when the first danger of frost is past.

While dahlia propagators intentionally cross varieties they think will make good stock, it's always interesting to see what happens with random crossing. And seedlings are "in" these days; nurseries, for instance, offer pots called "The Bishop's Children" with seedlings of the popular Bishop of Llandaff variety.

You probably won't want to depend on a garden full of guess-what dahlias; you'll probably want to order dahlias on your wish list and nurture your old favorites. But you'll have fun seeing what characteristics your experimental dahlia flowers develop, and if you like them, the pleasure of saving the tubers for years to come. Who knows? You may be rearing the next must-have dahlia.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The End of Dahlia Season: Three Options for Growers

dahlia Grand Finale
For most dahlia growers, the season's still at its peak. Dahlia flowers are showing off in glorious profusion.

But for some dahlia afficionados in the northern ranges of the country, the evenings are growing shorter, the nights colder, and frost is near, if not at hand. So it's time to take a look at dahlia growers' options at the end of the growing season.

In their native land, and in their original wild forms, dahlias are perennials. But they originated in Mexico and Central America, where climates are temperate to warm year-round and freezing isn't an issue. In much of the United States and in Canada and Alaska, as well as in much of Europe where dahlias are also popular, they're not always likely to survive overwintering. In the cooler zones, 1-6, there's no way they'll make it through the winter; freezing will destroy the tissue of the tubers.

So here are the options for growers:

USDA zone map
1. Dig and divide dahlias each fall. This is essential in zones 1-7 to be sure of dahlia survival, and even in zone 8, a hard winter freeze can penetrate deep enough into the soil to kill dahlia tubers. There are a number of advantages to this option. One is that dividing tubers will increase your dahlia supply or enable you to share favorite varieties with friends. Another is that it's a good way to maintain healthy dahlia plants. Dahlias need to be divided at least every other year even if they overwinter, or the mass of tubers that develops will overwhelm itself and produce a mass of weak, spindly shoots. The disadvantage, of course, is that it takes time and effort.

2. Allow the dahlias to winter over. If you're in a very mild planting zone (zones 9-11) chances are this will work for you, especially if you have well-drained soil and employ some mulch for protection. One advantage, besides the fact that it's easy, is that a little tough-love Darwinian factor will figure in, and over the years your dahlia garden will feature the fittest varieties. The disadvantages are that you're likely to lose a few favorites, and that you'll still need to divide them every year or two to keep them healthy.

sprouting dahlias
3. Think of your dahlias as annuals, and replace them every year as you would other annual bedding plants. If you buy dahlia tubers, rather than ready-grown potted plants, this option is relatively affordable. The advantage of this approach is that you can try new varieties every year.

Whichever option you choose, you'll find yourself in midwinter looking at dahlia catalogs and dahlia web sites and waiting for the time when you can plant your tubers or pull aside the winter mulch and start watching for the first dahlia sprout in spring.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dahlia Flowers for Winter? Try Drying Them Now

kasasagiIn the fall, after a summer blessed with dahlia flowers, it's hard to think of going without.

Dahlias — some dahlias — lend themselves well to the flower-drying process. And while dried dahlias aren't the same as fresh, some of the color and most of the form remains.

Folks who have tried drying dahlias agree that some techniques work better than others. They don't lend themselves to pressing; there's too much substance to the centers. And they don't work well for hang-drying; some kind of drying agent, or dessicant, is required.

The best flowers to use for drying, according to dahlia expert Bill McClaren, are the smaller ball and pompon dahlias. These have the most tightly-attached ray florets and the most reliable substance. Tempting as it might be to try to save the gaudy dinner-plate dahlias, they simply have too much water content and they don't lend themselves to working with dessicants.

Some home crafters have had good luck with borax or a blend of cornmeal and borax. Put about a half inch of borax or two-to-one borax and cornmeal mixture into a shoe box; lay two or three flowers on it; completely cover them with the borax or borax mixture and put into a warm, dry place for a week. An advantage of borax is that it's relatively inexpensive and easy to find; it'll be next to the laundry detergents in your local supermarket.

Many seasoned crafters and dahlia-lovers say the best material to use for drying dahlias is silica gel, which can be found at craft and hobby stores. Use silica gel in an airtight container; otherwise it will absorb moisture from the air, not the flowers. Usually 36 to 48 hours is sufficient for small dahlias. Several users report that the flowers look virtually new, and retain their color well. (Not surprisingly, the bronze and orange range of colors dries best.)

Dried flowers have a tendency to reabsorb moisture, so it's not a bad idea to display them from a closed cabinet or under a glass bell. Some crafters spray them with lacquer or other preservative finishes to keep them from drying out.

They're not the real thing, but they'll remind you of summer past and spring to come, when you can plant your dahlia tubers and start the cycle all over again.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bees and Birds and Bugs and Yes, Even Snakes Benefit Your Dahlias

swallowtail on dahliaWe've talked a lot about pests in the dahlia garden. But there are lots of critters you might encourage for their beneficial effects on your dahlias, and on other plants you might want to be healthy and productive as well.

Bees are, of course, of major importance. Bees are pollinators, and we need them in our orchards and gardens to pollinate the plants that grow fruits, berries and vegetables. Dahlias, with their composite form, all those little florets, and often those lovely pollen-y centers, are attractive to bees and to butterflies, which are also pollinators.

There are other bee-like creatures that may find dahlias of passing interest, and which are useful to gardeners: various members of the wasp family are also predators that help control aphids and the larvae of sawflies and other leaf-eaters.

black-capped chickadee
Other bugs are good predators too. Ladybugs, for instance, are great aphid-munchers; in fact, many a dahlia grower whose plants are afflicted with aphids resort to purchasing ladybugs for pest control.

Birds are useful garden aids. A healthy population of nesting birds will help keep young dahlias free of aphids and earwigs and other sucking and gnawing bugs.

garter snake
Install nesting boxes and black-oil sunflower feeders for chickadees, for instance, and keep an eye on just how many bugs and little green worms the parent birds bring to the nest box every hour. Swallows and other aerial hunters also keep bug populations down.

Even snakes have their uses. A good-sized garter snake will consume not only bugs but slugs and the eggs of slugs and snails. If snakes' slithery, wriggling style of locomotion causes you what the poet Emily Dickinson called "zero at the bone," as the little guy in the photo did when I encountered it while weeding this spring, you still have to count any critter that eats slugs as a friend.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fall Color: Find It in the Dahlia Garden, and Bring It Indoors!

Sonja Benson's dahliasFall's a wonderful time to bring garden color indoors.

Cooler evenings and mornings and shorter days find people looking for color indoors, and this time of year, dahlia flowers claim center stage when it comes to color. Hot pinks, rich salmon and orange hues, bright and deep reds, lemony yellows and bronzes, all predict the warm hues of the deciduous trees that will begin to turn color before long.

To make a beautiful dahlia arrangement, start with fresh-cut flowers. If you don't grow dahlias yourself, go to a local grower or check out your local farmer's market. Chances are you'll find several vendors with great dahlias for you to take home.

shirley's dahlias
If you grow your own, be sure to cut fully open, but freshly open, blooms. Use sharp scissors or a knife designed for cutting flowers.

(If you don't grow dahlias but would like to acquire some great dahlia tubers for beautiful flowers next season, be sure to check out Lynch Creek Farm's web site, where you can arrange now to reserve your choice of varieties for shipping next spring.)

Condition the dahlias by recutting the stems and immersing them up to within a couple of inches of the blooms in lukewarm water. If you like, you can add a conditioning aid or cut-flower food. Let them stand for a couple of hours before arranging them.

kate at farmers market
Make your arrangement in a clean vase. If you use floral foam, be sure to use a fresh block so there is no residual bacteria from previous plants. Dahlias actually prefer to be in just water, so consider a glass or spiral-metal flower frog if you need to stabilize the stems.

Keep your flower arrangement away from any heat source, such as sunlight in a window or a television or other appliance, since this can dry out the flowers prematurely.

Change the water in your dahlia vases daily. It's even a good idea to rinse the stems so that bacteria don't build up along them. Your dahlias should give you great delight for a week.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Farmers' Markets Great This Time of Year

oly marketWhether you're looking for fresh produce, cut flowers (dahlia bouquets are fabulous!), woodcraft or gardening advice, you'll likely find it at your local farmers' market.

We talk a lot on this blog about the Olympia Farmers Market, because that's where Lynch Creek Farm has held a booth for years, selling dahlia tubers in the spring, fresh-cut dahlias by the stem and in bouquets (with or without statice, sunflowers and other accents) from midsummer to frost or continual rain, and luscious Christmas wreaths, garland and swags in the late fall.

But we're reminded that Lynch Creek Farm got its start at the modest little Shelton Farmers Market, which has also grown since the days when Andy was in grade school and his parents and brothers began growing flowers and veggies for the local market.

goats shelton mkt
On a recent Saturday at the Shelton Farmers Market, we found fresh eggs, locally pastured beef, beautiful tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, green veggies of all sorts, organic peaches and cantaloupes, local honey (a phenomenal combination of maple, blackberry and fireweed blossom), bakery products, wood and leather crafts, a group of spinners spinning hand-dyed wool, several food concessions, jewelry, and handmade soaps. A service club was offering free books, and the local Master Gardeners were busy answering questions at their booth. A fiddler was providing great background music and a local goat breeder sat in her goat-cart, driving four mostly cooperative goats to give rides to enthusiastic children.

spinners shelton mkt
Meanwhile, at the Olympia market, the Lynch Creek gang was selling dahlia bouquets hand over fist, and handing out advice on choosing and raising dahlias to interested gardeners who were thinking ahead to next spring's planting. Conversations abound at the markets, and there's a lot of networking that goes on.

Wherever you are, chances are you're not far from a farmers' market. Buying at a farmers' market puts you in touch with your local food sources in a wonderful way, encourages local agriculture and builds community.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brilliant Dahlia Bouquets Brighten Farmers Market

Nathanael marketHead down the south row at the Olympia Farmers Market and Lynch Creek Farm's display of dahlia bouquets will catch your eye with brilliant color and texture.

Dahlias have a cell structure more like spring flowers and lilies than most late-summer flowers. The high water content in the florets that make up dahlia blossoms catches and refracts light, and the intense color of many of the dahlia varieties is eye-popping. Look carefully at most dahlias and you'll see that some of this intensity comes from shading and sometimes streaking of analogous colors.

The Lynch Creek Farm crew picks and conditions dahlias at their best and brings them to market Thursday through Sunday each week from the beginning of August to first frost.

Kate selling
In the fields at the Farm, the Lynch Creek gang also raises statice, zinnias and sunflowers, so the market bouquets may include these bright blooms as well.

Customers can choose from among a rackful of pre-made bouquets or, on the other side of the booth, pick out stems of their favorite varieties and invent their own combinations. It's the kind of activity that draws onlookers into the action.

While the market is a major outlet for the dahlia flowers this time of year, weddings and other events claim their share of the blossoms from the Farm's fields.

Kate and bouquet
On a recent weekend, the coolers at Lynch Creek Floral, Andy Hunter's mother's business in downtown Shelton, were packed to the brim with centerpiece bouquets of dahlias for a major banquet at Saint Martin's University in Olympia, as well as dahlia bouquets for weddings and a funeral. Once regarded as only a garden flowers, dahlias are now a florist's standby.

Meanwhile, at the market, it looked like every second shopper had corralled a bouquet of Lynch Creek dahlias. They were flying out of the market in a glorious profusion of color.

And all the while, back in the fields, the leaves of the thriving dahlia plants were transforming sunlight and water and nutrients into fat dahlia tubers, ready for harvest this fall and planting in dahlia lovers' gardens next spring.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dahlia Fields Are Drop-Dead Gorgeous

field pastelsAll over the country, people are complaining about the weather.

Mostly it's the heat, but in Western Washington it stayed cool through July, and despite the fact that elsewhere there were droughts and firestorms and tornadoes, the local whining was horrific.

Everywhere, that is, except for Lynch Creek Farm. The Farm crew was loving the weather.

coral semicactus
Some strange combination of a cold spring, a cool early summer, and a warm (not hot, just warm) dry August has worked together to produce the most stunning displays of dahlia flowers anyone at the Farm can remember. The moist early growing season brought on strong, healthy plants and abundant buds; the dry blooming season means perfect blossoms.

And then there are just the natural characteristics of dahlias that make them so beloved by growers: their terrific stems, the wide variety of forms, and colors that simply glow. Brides have flocked to the farm, and there have always been plenty of their chosen varieties to fill their orders.

If you're in the South Puget Sound area, check out the dahlia bouquets at Lynch Creek Farm's booth at the Olympia Farmers Market (10-3 Thursdays through Sundays) or phone the farm at 427-8145 to arrange a field visit.
Best of all, in this Perfect Dahlia Year, is the result we can't see yet. This optimal growing season means wonderful, strong dahlia tubers are forming underground. When the flowers and plants succumb to the cooling temperatures of October and the tubers are dug for storage, they'll be in the best condition possible.
This year, Lynch Creek has an early-bird offering so dahlia lovers can make sure they get their first choice of varieties for planting next spring. Check out the online catalog and reserve your favorites now.

north field