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.