}

November 30, 2016

Winter Conservatory Chrysanthemums

Vintage Japanese lanterns illuminate the greenhouse last Friday night as we celebrated the peak bloom of my exhibition and Japanese Chrysanthemum collection. There were only four of us for cocktails, but I felt that I had to do something to celebrate these amazing, vintage and nearly forgotten late autumn and early winter flowers so rarely seen anymore.

Time for this years' chrysanthemum photos, as clearly, I have not had the time to write a proper post given an unusually busy fall for me. If you missed my Martha Stewart Living magazine feature this November, I have provided a link here to the on-line version. I felt that I should at least share some of this years mums, since I did spend so much time training them throughout the summer, and because no one gets to see them if they just stay in my greenhouse all fall and winter! (me, included - since I am a bit overwhelmed with a kitchen remodel and other responsibilities for a bit.).

I obviously have not been posting as frequently lately, and I apologize to you if you have been sitting patiently by your computer waiting for a post (right!). Mostly, I have been consumed with a remodeling project at home - one which began as a kitchen tweak, but has grown into basically a 'half-of-a-house' remodel. I need to accept that it won't be complete by Christmas and just move forward, but for now, I am surrounded by plaster dust, 100 year old horsehair plaster dust, and brand new plaster dust.

Not to mention wires and lath hanging from he ceiling, holes in the floor and everything that comes with a remodel. If you've ever survived one in an old house, you know what I am dealing with. I could reeeeally use some decompression time in the greenhouse right now as well, but my day job as an elf for Santa also gets a little hectic this time of year, not to mention other governance dates with a couple of board positions, committees, plant society positions and everything that comes with end-of-year campaigns. I think I really need to take some time for myself this Holiday season, but until then, I do owe you all a post, even if it is brief.

On sunny days, the greenhouse still can get pretty warm, but the short day length stimulates these chrysanthemums to bloom. Their long bloom period can last nearly 2 months under glass, one can see why greenhouse and exhibition mums were once so popular and essential in Victorian and earlier glass houses and conservatory displays.

The chrysanthemums this season in the greenhouse at home are spectacular. They are so fragrant too, which surprised me, as I am trying a few new varieties, as well as many old ones. Again, these are not common garden mums, but rather, conservatory chrysanthemums - we really don't know what to call them, as they are a somewhat endangered type of non-commercial, non-hardy chrysanthemum which a hundred years ago or so, was so popular as a fall and winter flower, but today, have evolved into what most of us know as 'pot-mums' or 'hardy cushion mums'. They are neither, but rather chrysanthemums which are either trained to single stems to increase their bloom size or grown and disbanded to perfection.

Immensely popular and culturally significant in Asia, as well as in Mexico where they still play an important part in Day of the Dead celebrations, in the rest of the world, these conservatory plants of the late short-day seasons, have virtually been forgotten. And it's no wonder, since home greenhouses are not common by any means, and estates with conservatories where displays could be raised and set up, are just about exitinct as well.  So exhibition chrysanthemums or Japanese chrysanthemums will probably always remain a novelty - something to be viewed on rare occasions at the few botanical gardens who may bother to raise them, or in Asia (China, Korea and Japan) where they have more importance.

The chrysanthemums in this print by Charles Courtney Curran shows how important chrysanthemums once were in turn of the century conservatory displays. I like how he captured the correct light and colors as are in my greenhouse in late November.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries however, and a bit into the early 20th century, the tall, trained greenhouse or exhibition chrysanthemum was the choicest fall blooming plant. Local flower farmers and florists raised them, since air travel limited choices, and the fact that they only form buds and bloom in the autumn and short days of early winter meant that they were naturally designed for that season. Today, one can find vintage Holiday cards with mums on them, and images of impressive displays at museums, public gardens and private estates where the chrysanthemum reigned until late December.

Now, only a handful of us bother to raise them. Maybe it's just out of nostalgia, or perhaps because of their rarity, or their history - which dates back hundreds of years to the 14 century (as the chrysanthemum was the first plant to be raised as a potted plant by the Chinese) - there is just something captivating about a plant which has fascinated mankind for so long, and it seems tragic that so few today understand or appreciate their cultural DNA.

Over commercialized and hybridized into dwarft, meaningless potted plants at hospital gift shops, or a cheap, sterile cut flowers at the supermarket, - even as carefully timed and growth retarded mounds of mums as standard fall decor at farm stands, the Chrysanthemum seems to have lost its connection with its audience, which is a shame, yet perhaps just a reality of modern life (no home greenhouses and conservatories, little interest or knowledge on how to raise them, and yes - only one source on where to find them commercially in the US - Kings Mums.

This year I trained some different styles of chysanthemums in traditional methods using bamboo and wire. A long process, the cascades often required the most training. These brush-style forms,a  variety called Saga Nishiki is a favorite in Japan and with collectors but is rarely trained into a cascade (I accidentally did it! But they look OK as this is a difficult form to train and display.
If you wish to raise these as garden plants, only a very few will bloom in time before frost, as they would require shading each evening in August to promote early bud formation, or a carefully selected early blooming variety. These are not exactly the same type of mum as standard hardy garden mums, not the same as truly hardy perennial types - all have their merits, but they are indeed different selections.


This anemone form is variety called 'Daybreak'.

Perhaps the most impressive are the varieties from Great Britain, those bred by a well know chrysanthemum enthusiast - Ivor Mace. This one is one from his collection - 'Salmon Harry Gee', a variety rarely seen in North America.

I will say that you could try raising these plants, but be forewarned that to achieve results like this, you should make the effort to at least disband, pinch and train a bit based on whatever of the 13 classes or different type of mum you buy, to at least, try to get a result that meets why one selected the variety in the first place.

One could raise, let's say an 'formal incurve' or a spider mum from a cutting purchased at Kings and set out into the garden or in a large container in late May, and train the plant minimally (pinching every few weeks, and keeping the plant well staked and fertilized), and then dig it up just before frost and bring it onto an unheated porch or deck with protection, and have amazing flowers by Halloween - that is possible, and something I would encourage many of you to try.

Step-by-step directions are something I should probably prepare for this, right?




'Gillette'' is a large, white mums - this one has a little decay on it - too damp in my greenhouse and I didn't keep the vents open this autumn.



Cascade style chrysanthemums have weaker stems, which can be strategically trained through careful pinching techniques to a shape not unlike a waterfall.  This variety, 'Bronze Fleece' is a particularly nice one for cascades, and it is fragrant too!

'George Couchman' trained into a pyramid form, once very popular in Victorian conservatory displays. These are the blooms that one would associate with the Holiday season at one time.

Training chrysanthemums into bonsai is also popular with enthusiasts in Japan. This was my first attempt at training a grove, using the variety 'Kotoi No Kaori'. Not perfect, but not bad I think as a first attempt.

Last year I started collecting vintage early and mid 20th century paper Japanese paper lanterns (mostly American-style ones, which are kind-of funny with 1950's graphics). I illuminated some near evening, to see what they would look like imagining what a greenhouse in 1900 might have looked like.

En masse in the greenhouse, these mums look the best. Somehow, all of the odd colors work which may seem impossible when one looks at a catalog where pink, magenta, yellow, gold and brown are all shown side-by-side, but experiencing a display in a greenhouse with the low angle of autumn sunlight, somehow it all seems 'right'. Even to a color geek like me.


The effect as the sun began to set was insanely beautiful, and I felt bad that no one could enjoy it except us.

I added some vintage Japanese lanterns to the greenhouse this year (not real Japanese cultural ones, but rather mid-century interpretations of Japanese-style generic Asian paper lanterns - the sort exported to the West for party decorations in the 50's, and probably for Chinese restaurants - crazy Americans! They are still pretty, in a naive way, but they remind me that I really do need to get some authentic Japanese lanterns into a collection (they are just too expensive for me right now!). So I will settle on kitsch as long as it is vintage.


The cascade mums had tons of blooms. I am always impressed at how the colors blend well together - pink, gold, brown and yellow never looked so in-season.
As nightfall comes, the lanterns are fitted with candles which will illuminate the greenhouse and transform it into a very special experience. Sadly, only I saw it this evening, and of course, Doodles who joined me, as she hunted for mice.


Spoon-shaped mums are beautiful. I trained this variety 'Maryl' into multiple sprays.
I did add a few Ikea lanterns as well, which were solar powered. Nothing like a little high-tech to break the mood, but they were on sale and fit the budget.

Speaking of budgets - here are a few embarrassing pics of the kitchen remodel. Maybe I should do a post on this? Before and after? How we did the entire project for less than 10k?

Now, as for the house remodel. Here is what I am dealing with. It's a low-budget kitchen remodel which involved breaking down a wall between the old dining room and an already pretty large kitchen which my parents had remodeled in the 1940's. Yes, it required removal of one of my dad's murals but I saved the family members who are in it.
About that mural - my father was a WPA muralist in the 1930's through the 1950's (that's him in the green coat behind the clock, along with my mother, my sister and my two brothers. I wasn't born for another ten years (oops!), so I am not in the mural. We lost about 8 feet of the mural, but opening up the two rooms to create a massive space is so nice. 

The frame for a new book case for cook books - I can't wait to get rid of the blue tile from the 1950's!

Now the kitchen space will be nearly 60 feet long, enough for two farm tables maybe. Right now, if feels that it will never be done however.  I've been so depressed because I cannot cook (since October!), and I am sick and tired of the project.  The handprinted cabinets by my dad are being preserved and shared with other  family members.


Happy December!





November 17, 2016

How to Grow Winter Crops in an Elevated Cedar Planter Box



Before you say "Matt, I though that you weren't going to write any sponsored posts?",  just hold on. Yes, my legal department would agree that this is indeed a sponsored post, but my content creation department says "hold on". You see - this is a product that I really use. And, it was I who contacted them. I have not problem when it is something that I really like. You probably already know that I use these 2 x 8 Elevated Cedar Planter Boxes but this time, I decided to actually contact the manufacturer and distributor - Gardeners Supple Company in Vermont. I told them my story - about how I saw that they were working with other influential bloggers, but that I felt that I really had a good reason why they should work with me - I already had three of them!

Much of what drove this post is that I discovered that they had introduced a new product as well - a cold frame top. If you remember, last winter I tried to construct a cover for my planter boxes using ridged poly from Home Depot, to craft a sort-of home made cold frame under which I could raised some winter greens, and a collection of precious Primula auricula, but  a cold frame top was something which I felt I could really test. Gardener's Supply agreed, and here I am.


There is no denying that these solid cedar hand made  Elevated Cedar Planter Boxes are built to last, but with the addition of a cold frame top, they are even more useful in extending ones growing season both in the spring and the autumn.

At roughly $350 (it depends on what you get for features, these beds may seem pricey to some, but their quality and design far make up for it. I assure you that you and your friends will be impressed. Their design alone is somewhat contemporary - straight lines, and no weird angles, they would look nice indoors if they didn't leak! As a gift, you might want to assemble first, and certainly, be sure to find the right site for it  - they will be heavy when full of soil.


Young plants of miniature lettuce (various gourmet varieties from Johnnys Selected Seeds.) These were sown in early September, and will mature through the early winter.

For three  few years I have been adding them to my garden one at a time. It's less painful that way, ad although I've been DIY'ing various trellis' and covers, on their website there are now all sorts of accessories you can buy. My old bedspring for a cucumber trellis wasn't really a good idea, visually. I really need this.


I know, it's messy, but we are in the middle of fall clean up. I wanted to show you that this one bed we set onto the deck, so that I can reach it from the kitchen door during the winter. On cloudy days, the lids remain closed.

Now, you might be thinking why do I need these? A guy with a greenhouse and a rather big garden. Sure, these are perfect for small back yards, older folks or for those who garden on rooftops, outside of apartment or condo gardeners, but I find them great for a number of reasons, and all are practical.


Napa Cabbage and Tatsoi almost ready to pick in this one Elevated Cedar Planter Box which was left open. Because you can plant thickly, and closer together, you can actually harvest more per square foot than in the open garden. Did I mention - no  bending over? I even can work on the bed from a stool. Like a little old man.

- Less bending over (I'm in the 50's, and although I still Cross-fit, any visit to the gym still gets me sore). Did I mention that I am a lazy gardener too?

- The dogs can't pees on the veggies. Pretty practical

- Few weeds, if any

-Healthy virus-free soil since I use a sterile compost

- Some crops simply perform better in raised beds, like tomatoes, cucumbers but I am pushing the limits here with cabbage and even flowers (flower farm in a box?)

- Critters like rabbits, mice, snakes and Irish Terriers who like to munch on Brussels sprouts and Chinese Cabbage so that they can fart all night, can't reach the crops.

This past spring, I raised Speckled Trout Back heirloom lettuce, a speckled Romain type.


On warm days, I can prop open the lids to allow cool air to enter.


This fall I am testing both the 2 x 8 elevated cedar planter box and the Grow House top or Cold Frame attachment, which is really what I wanted to play with. The Actual Grow House product looks interesting too, as the wood extends down to the bottom. Maybe I will save up and get one of those next year.

This fall I have planted a few crops in each of my elevated cedar planter boxes. I sowed 2 type of kale, one Russell Kale which I harvested as baby kale, and dinosaur kale, to get a jump on spring. I also sowed some viola and pansy seed. They have just been transplanted into the covered planter box, and I am looking forward to see how they survive through the winter. I expect that they will grow and bloom earlier than ones set out into the garden. Next fall, I plan on using this bed to keep alpine plants through the winter in.

Napa cabbage when it was first set out, in mid September.

It wasn't that long ago when retail garden centers didn't exist, and a farmer or a gardener had to raise their own seedlings or propagate their own crops. maybe seed saving is important to you, but for me, sourcing the varieties I want to grow requires much more work than picking up a pre-curated 4 inch Proven Winners at the nursery.


Here is a good example of miniature heads of lettuce, and standard-sized heads of heirloom Speckled Trout Back lettuce.

Most of plans for these elevated cedar planter boxes will be for summer crops, but I have a long list of projects that I am eager to try as well. Most of my ideas are inspired by classic gardening techniques only modernized for today's lifestyle and tools. I can imagine using the cold frame top as a stratification chamber for perennial seeds that I will sow in December from Jelitto seed (Anemone species, Delphinium, and Peony seeds), for alpine seeds from the NARGS, Scottish Rock Garden Club and AGS seed exchanges, for rooting evergreen cuttings and for keeping other plants that might need a bit of extra protection from only the most extreme temperatures - like scented violets. Viola odorata and Parma Violets were traditionally raised in cold frames in the North East.

Young Napa Cabbage are first sown into 2 inch pots in late August and then easily set into the raised beds, once the tomato plants are removed in late September.

I am already using one of mine for pansy seedlings, which were sown at the end of August, as well as for three varieties of dwarf lettuce and kale. I should mention that I feel that dwarf or miniature vegetables are best in these containers.

Baby lettuce will grow better with the onset of colder weather. In most years, I can harvest lettuce through the Holidays as long as it is covered with Remay fabric. I expect similar cold hardiness with the raised bed that is covered.

Selections and varieties bred for their small growth and space-saving qualities. But beware - even the 'dwarf zucchini' that I planted this summer taught me, even dwarf can be a relative term! Dwarf lettuce is a must - the tiny heads allow one to set 4 or five heads across, and an entire bed could be filled with a couple hundred plants. If you stagger the sowing, one can have fresh lettuce all winter long.

Young tatsoi when first planted.

I might overlook some crops however. You might want to be careful with crops which require you to harvest the entire bed at one time, such as spinach. It just does not make sense to me, as an entire bed would probably only produce enough spinach for one or two meals, and that isn't worth the time or space. But I highly recommend the sowing of mesclun, arugula, micro-greens, Asian greens and mini lettuce.


Young pansies which were also sown in late August, are also set into the new soil under the cold frame top.


As for assembling, these beds are easy to assemble, and they are solid wood. All you will need is a screw gun, a rubber mallet and some muscle. They come together in about an hour or less. Again, move them when they are empty!

The beds are designed for easy assembly. Screws are included and the legs are powder coated and very strong.


If you decide to get the cold frame top, the lids open with a very simple bar of wood, which easily adjust the height of the lids. It is a very simple design. If there is a downside (and I have not experienced this yet) is that when or if you want to remove the upper cold frame portion, some reviewers have said that it is difficult to slide off.  To avoid this, we used paraffin wax on the legs before inserting them. It seems to still be slick enough to remove, but I am not sure that I would ever want to remove it.


It can get a little tight when assembling some of the tooled parts, but everything fits nicely after some wiggling. An extra pair of hands will be helpful.

Once you have the top constructed, you will need to invest in good soil, and by good soil, I suggest a sterile professional mix such as ProMix or if you are peat adverse, a composted mix like BioComp. This may be the greatest challenge for some, but really, this is perhaps the single more important thing when it comes to raising plants. Do not garden loam, and be wary of Scott's or the commercial brands of potting soil, or any bag that is labelled 'top soil or garden loam. Peat may be unethical, but it is still the best growing material for raised beds. Pleas help me find something else, but I have never had luck with coir, and really - flying coir from South East Asia and thinking that you are saving your carbon footprint just doesn't add up for me.

Success is dependent on the site, and the soil. Don't skimp here, for good soil means everything.

Make your own compost with leaves, and add a lightener like Perlite, or go in for the ProMix.  Two bales of ProMixBX can run $75-$80 but it should last for about two years until you will need to replace it. Peat decomposes, and if you are planning on raising tomatoes, you will want to keep the soil free from disease.

These cold frames will work differently than those set into the ground, so some experimentation will be necessary, and you will obviously need to match whatever your crop requires. Generally, One wants to avoid  the cycle of freezing, thawing and refreezing, opting for a 'stay frozen, until spring comes' approach (for alpines and seeds) or 'keep just above freezing' (for winter greens).

To achieve this, once the temperatures begin to drop to 20 degrees or so, I may keep the lids cracked open just a bit. But I am not sure yet. It's not the cold which often ruins crops in cold frames, it's freeze-thaw, or heavy, wet snow and winter rain sitting on top of frozen soil.


The design here is simple. A twist, and the lids can remain open with just a wing nut and a piece of cedar. Good Yankee ingenuity.


Also, with the  real old glass light style 'on-the-ground' cold frames, Yankee New England farmers would have had to unroll quilts of hay (often sewn into a sort of quilted blanket) across glass which helped the structure retain solar warmth gathered from the day.  I doubt that the two wall plastic will achieve this, but it should reduce some heat loss for spring crops. It may do little for deep winter protection.



The best way to manage these beds through the autumn would be to keep the lids cracked open a bit, and then close then during the harsh, winter weather. In spring, you may need to open them in the morning, and the sun will becoming stronger in mid-February, but perhaps close them in the evening, depending on what you are growing. In the old days, life on a farm often evolved around letting the chickens and ducks into the coops at night, and shutting all of the cold frames. If I can do it, you can too.


Napa cabbage, almost ready to harvest. This is a mini variety called 'Minuet', but the are still larger than you might imagine.

Some radiant heat also began to extend the season from mid-February onwards if you beds are positioned where they will get winter sun.  Like my greenhouse, I looked for a spot where I knew
some sun would hit, even on the shortest day of the year in December. Some heat will be retained if sun is allowed to strike them on those short, dark days of winter but I also need to remain realistic.

I plan on getting more of these beds in the coming years, as I can imagine so many uses for them.

I highly recommend the Elevated Cedar Box. If you are interested, check out all of the different types and accessories at Gardeners Supply here



November 7, 2016

Digging and Dividing Dahlias

This is dahlia digging and dividing season. If you've ever wanted to know how to divide them like the experts, here is a rather long post on how some growers approach this challenge.


Digging, dividing and storing dahlias is a topic which comes up often not only at dahlia society meetings, but I get asked this question all the time - when  I am out and about, speaking on-the-road and in my inbox.

 I should preface this post with the disclaimer that there are far more qualified people out there who can provide advice on dividing dahlias, my preferred methods (both - the 'right way' as well as my 'lazy-ass way' work for me, so I will share both of them (Squirm dahlia society experts!).  Then again, most of them kind-of know what they are doing, so I would also highly suggest that you check to see if your local dahlia society has a page on the best method for your region.

Some growers especially those who raise many dahlias, suggest cutting stems down before frost, which is how I began dividing my dahlias this year. Always remember to save the tags so that things don't get mixed up.


However, I will warn you since there is more than one way to dig and store a dahlia, few experts will agree on precisely what is considered the most perfect way. I started to augment my method this year after seeing a large dahlia farm showing images of how they store their dahlias, but I just found out that the wood-shaving they used have been causing problems, and that they are switching to vermiculite.

Dividing and storing dahlias is a topic which certainly raised heated disagreements even at dahlia society meetings, but usually everyone will err on 'if it works for you, keep doing it. Good advice, but.....first, you will need to find that ideal method that 'works for you'.

A search through your favorite content providers will result in a list of various methods - some as contradictory as "just wrap tubers in plastic wrap" (hey - they say it works!)  to "just dig 'em and store em' in your cellar until spring" (basically, my 'last-ass' method - except I store mine in the greenhouse under a dry bench where it is cool).

All of these methods share some similar tips.

First, dahlias are a bit like potatoes, so the ideal storage conditions are usually dark, cool and slightly damp - just enough so that the tubers don't sprout. Beyond this, things can get kooky.

Most of my clumps were loaded with tubers this year. Probably due to good fertilization with low nitrogen, and high phosphorus and potassium.

Look to the wild dahlia for hints.

Understanding where dahlias grow in the wild helps one understand what conditions to try to recreate when growing them in the home garden. Primarily dahlias grow in the more mountainous areas in Mexico in volcanic soil which quickly goes dry in the winter. Summer brings cool, rainy weather and then even cooler if not cold, yet dry winter. Trying to recreate this environment at home can be difficult. Difficult unless you live in an old farmhouse, that is.

This fact helped me understand a misconception I had made about dahlias - mainly that the require heat and humidity. Maybe my misunderstanding evolved from the very basic knowledge that dahlias come from Mexico and central America, but the truth is that dahlias grow in the cooler conditions found in the volcanic mountainous area of southern Mexico. No wonder they perform best in Oregon and Washington State - and not as well here in New England, that is until the cooler weather of September comes along.

Since we are talking about the proper storage of dahlias, their native land informs us as well. Dahlias like to be in a medium which is dry for the entire winter (volcanic soil in Mexico, but vermiculite in my cold cellar), Dry and cool are the conditions one wants to find, but also the addition of a medium in which they sleep is essential as well. One doesn't want to store a dahlia out in the open, or in a sealed plastic bag. They need material around them, to help them breath and to  retail moisture, but they also need air so that they don't rot.


Where most struggle however is with dividing, and proper winter storage.


So, why bother dividing dahlias at all?

  Well, while it's true that in the wild no one is digging and dividing dahlia plants, the reason we divide them is to propagate the plant (sharing or selling the extras) and to plant out a smaller tuber in the spring which will produce a healthier, more robust plant.

but remember that modern dahlias  that we all know and love are nothing like the wild species, of which there are nearly 30. Today's dahlias are ancestors dahlias which were first raised as a food crop by the Aztecs, and it is this reason that all modern dahlias have larger tubers than the wild species. Much like all of our carrots and potatoes, the dahlia has been genetically altered through selection.  Sorry.


Understanding Dahlia Tubers - they're not exactly the same thing as potatoes (but close)

Just some basics here -  In the plant world, there two kinds of tubers.  Stem tubers and root tubers. Potatoes are stem tubers, and sweet potatoes are root tubers. No need to go into details beyond the basis facts that root tubers function differently (those old potatoes on your counter sprout all over, while root tubers sprout stems and roots from more defined real estate on the the tuber.

Dahlias are botanically root tubers. This means that they are more like sweet potatoes than regular white potatoes. In short, dahlias produce stems from buds only located on or near the tissues where the original plant stem was attached, and no where else. So if you break a nice, fat tuber off of your clump, and if it doesn't have a bit of the old mature stem attached, it's useless and will never sprout new grow. Toss it.

This one clump  - a variety which only produces a couple of tubers, is still fine. Not all plants will produce a massive clump like the AC Ben on the left, a dinner plate variety. This center clump came from the anemone flowered dahlia 'Alpen Fury'.


It's not always about size.

Sorry to disappoint you, but....yeah. Just sayin'.

Have you ever felt cheated when ordering a dahlia and you get a tiny little tuber? How about when you dig your clumps - are you only keeping the large sweet potato sized tubers and tossing all the others?  DOn't over think this, but I have heard this over and over again, the best dahlias often grow from medium to smaller sized tubers (it depends on the variety), and sometimes the best come from cuttings which serious dahlia growers will take from their tubers which they start early under lights or in a greenhouse.

This giant tuber was too big, so I cut in half, with the top portion which was a large as a sweet potato saved to dry and scab over, and this bottom portion discarded.


I even know of one dahlia grower refers to those very large, fat dahlias tubers as 'Lazy Tubers'. (sorry Donna!). Many pro's will cut the larger tubers in half, discarding the bottom half or third, and allowing the tuber to dry before storage. I even saw this being done at a dahlia tuber demo a couple of weeks ago by dahlia expert Marjorie Schneer from Connecticut who's been growing them for nearly 45 years.

The 'mother tuber' is obvious in this clump. It is older and not worth saving for another year.

Toss the 'Mother Tuber' from last year.

I hate to say this, but it is true. When dividing your clump, be sure to toss the old tuber ( with Swan Island, it's the one with the name printed on it - you know!). This is referred to as  'the mother tuber' by exhibitors.  She's tired, and really won't be worth saving, at least, not worth it if you have a handful of new, feisty young tubers to plant. You know - just like real life!

Don't email me! Don't be greedy and run a puppy mill. Hey - she's done her job, she just needs a rest.

A washed clump of dahlia tubers ready for dividing. Can you see where the tubers attach to the main stem? Also, note the old 'mother tuber', which should be discarded.


Do I even have to divide my dahlias?

No, you could just replant the entire clump, but don't expect a bigger plant. People divide dahlias mainly to get healthier plants for the next season, and a load of more tubers. It's really about economics  and really - - the best part about dividing dahlias, is that single 9 dollar tuber that you set out in the spring, just produced  10 tubers.  Cha-ching. IF you are growing for cut flower or for show, one really needs a row of each variety, not just one plant of each. Oh - the same goes for those in the border - remember, the British set out 5 -10 of each variety together in the perennial border.

A freshly dug clump loaded with tubers. Sometimes I just keep my clumps intact like this until I am ready to divide later in the winter, but most people suggest doing it in the fall just after digging. 


How to Divide Dahlias - First - The 'Proper' Way

Once your clump is carefully dug, wash it off with a hose and dry it off in the shade.  If there is any trick it's that the tubers when first dug are crispy-fresh, and can easily be damaged, so dig and hand carefully. I've been taught to cut the stems just before or after frost, leaving about 5-6 inches which you can use as a handle (yet never try to pull them out of the ground this way). Dig with a pitch fork or shovel around the stem at some distance depending on the variety (perhaps 1.5 feet) so that you don't pierce any tubers (I did ruin some this weekend just by guessing).

I place a new tag along with the entire clump and line them up on a shelf, in an old seed tray or in bread trays until they are dry, perhaps a few days.

Wash all soil off of tubers to reduce disease and insects if you are storing in the house or in material such as vermiculite. Allow clumps and tuber to dry first, by setting out of direct sun.


Decide if you are going to divide now or not

I should have said 'don't wash them off, if you are going to wait until spring to divide, but since that is the riskiest method, try to plan on dividing now.

If you are wondering why most books and dahlia grows advise one to wait until frost to kill the foliage, then wait a week or so to dig and divide, it's because of this. There are little pimply-like buds which will emerge if the plant is stressed by frost, but these same buds will emerge if you cut the main plant down before frost, and may dahlia growers do this, especially if one have many plants.

The goal here is to dig and divide all of ones dahlias before a hard freeze, which can damage the tubers themselves. SO know how many you can handle before digging and dividing, and the last thing you want to deal with a hectic drive home when a hard freeze is forecasted.

If you are not going to divide in the fall, the entire clump could be stored in a cool, dry location but plan on keeping some soil around the tubers (or store them in a medium like vermiculite). I know, soil can contain worms (eew) or insects, so this could raise the risk of disease, but I have had no problems with this.



Before Cutting and Separating,  Manscape First

Begin by cutting off all unnecessary roots, rootlets and secondary tubers not attached to the stem. Also, look for damage at the intersection where a tuber attaches to the central stem. Often this becomes bent during digging and extraction, and if crushed, will only rot in storage.

Remove smaller feeder roots and the very this tubers. These are near the surface, and are useless.

With a sharp knife or secateurs, begin dividing the stem portion of the dahlia. Sometimes, one can easily cut off a section of the stem base with a tuber attached, at other times, the tubers may be too close together to allow a clean cut and one tuber may need to be sacrificed. Don't feel bad, just do your best starting with the healthiest looking tubers.

A cut and some careful pulling to first separate clumps into smaller, more manageable pieces. Take care in tearing clumps this large, one can easily ruin a fine tuber which could get split or separated from the main stem tissue.

Then cut (carefully!)

Cutting off tubers with a bit of stem is more difficult than it looks. Stems are woody and hard this low near the ground and not crispy like celery as the stems are near the top, so be sure to have the sharpest knife possible, or use sharp clippers.

This stem portions is perfectly positioned so that three tubers can be saved, each with a portion of the set and tiny buds.

Cut tubers with stem ends like this are labeled with a Sharpie and are ready to be dried well for a few days (on the shady part of the potting bench in the greenhouse where they won't freeze, or you can do this indoors), and then they are packaged in containers with wood shavings or vermiculite for the winter.



Be sure to keep varieties separated, especially before you label them. I always set aside and tore one variety each to a container - I use plastic shoe storage containers (with the wood shavings or vermiculite). Keep lids on loosely and set in a cool, dry place for the winter. A mouse trap can be handy.


How to store your dahlias for the winter

Knowing what dahlias in the wild experience with winter dryness when still in the ground - - one can begin to construct the ideal winter storage conditions based on what they can offer at home.  Look for offering cool, and relatively dry environment with slight moisture preservation provided by the medium they are stored in - enough so that the tubers don't evaporate, but enough to keep them turgid. This can mean vermiculite which is dry, Perite, dry peat or wood shavings are also used by some.

Storing tubers in an air-tight container is not advised, as some air circulation is helpful - remember, these tubers are full of stored water, and one will want to avoid rot and decay. I know of members of the dahlia society who store bulbs in large 1 gallon Ziploc poly bags in large vermiculite, with the tops of the bags kept open, and I know of a dahlia nursery who stores bulbs in plastic shoe boxes in cedar wood shavings, with loose fitting lids in a cool potting shed that doesn't freeze.

Do not store tubers in a refrigerator crisper, or in a warm, dry closet.  The gasses released by some fruit in a refrigerator will inhibit sprouting, and a warm closet will simply dry out the tubers. A frost-free unheated garage which does not freeze might work, if the tubers are stored in material where they can be dark, or a cardboard box with newspaper in a cool spot in the cellar might work in a modern home. In our 100 year old house, I have no shortage of winter storage areas, for even my bedroom closet would work! But I will most likely keep some under the bench in the greenhouse and the rest along a bench in our unheated dirt-floored cellar.



Tools that you may find useful.

a. Sharp, clean cutting tools ( and alcohol swipes to clean between cuts - really. Dahlias a highly prone to virus and they can spread faster than herpes. We had to 'put down' about 10 plants this year due to a window pane virus.
Also, you will need a sturdy surface on which to cut.
b. Hose, bucket and trays to wash tubers off with, and places to store tubers to dry.
c. A waterproof industrial Sharpie - not just water resistant, but Industrial- water proof. The ones with the red label - Amazon is best, or the source above - you most likely won't find these at a Staples.
d. Storage containers in which to store tubers. Cardboard boxes, plastic bins or bulb crates depending on where you will store them.
c. Storage medium, ranging from wood shavings to dry peat, vermiculite or Perlite.



Dahlia tubers ready for storage, look at how many I got from just one clump! The smaller ones went into the trash, the rest will be added to our New England Dahlia Society tuber swap (later this month) and a secret members tuber sale in the spring.




The process outlined in steps as a refresh:

1. Assemble all your tools, and begin by cutting off the tops of your dahlias about 8 inches above the ground, and by carefully digging out as many clumps as you can handle in a day (about 10 for me).
2. You can dig your dahlia plants up before the frost kills them, (contrary to what many advise). Many expert growers do this to save time in the fall.
3. Dig carefully, and pull gently out of the ground, dahlia tubers must be attached to the main stem without damaging this connection, and it is very easy to bend and crush this connection thus damaging it while removing the plant from the soil.
4 If frost has killed your plants, then just cut off the main stems of your dahlia, but leave a 4-6 inch stem as a 'handle'.
5. Wash off all the soil with hose  and set aside to dry - not in the full sun. Buds or eyes will become more visible in a few days, but will eventually disappear in a couple of weeks - this is your window when you can divide them, or you will need to wait until spring.
6. When ready to divide, use sharp clippers, secateurs or a very sharp knife and begin by giving your clumps a haircut. Remove small feeder roots and smaller roots first, and begin to identify the old mother tuber (which you will toss) and the better tubers worth saving. You will end up discarding many tubers. Be sure that portion of the original stem or have buds showing when dividing.
7. If storing in cellar and not washing off or dividing until spring, keep tuber clumps slightly in a medium (either the soil, or vermiculite). Rarely will tubers survive simple cleaned off and open to the dry, winter air indoors.
8. Some alternate storage methods include wrapping tubers in newspaper and then storing them in cardboard boxes in a cool location like a cold frost free cellar or garage.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...