December 25, 2016

Making the Best of it, at Christmas

I could have cleaned the glass better on this cloche, but with the amount of stone dust around here. this gives you an idea of what I am dealing with. Still - no stopping Christmas and Hanukah!  A few clippings from the cold greenhouse bring a bit of fresh winter cheer indoors for the Holidays. Camellias, Nerine and some tender winter-blooming greenhouse shrubs.

As the kitchen remodel comes along, the Holidays (the original deadline) seemed to have beat us out. So rather than cancel our traditional Lithuanian Christmas eve fete, we kept our invitation list open, cleaned-up a bit, and cranked up the stove to make lots of yummy food, since we know what friends and family really care about - good food and good drink. Along with great friends, this is was the Holidays are all about, right? Thanks too, to the greenhouse, which helped as I scooted out just before sunset last night to grab a few bits of greens, herbs and winter blooms from the early camellias and sub-tropical shrubs which do so well in a cold, winter greenhouse. A few Nerine sarniensis were also in bloom along with a large acacia tree.

Merry Christmas everyone!  Here are a few pics from last night, as our kitchen remodel continues - ( I certainly won't bother you with that nonsense! f you've been through one before, you know exactly what I am talking about!).

Camellia 'Yuletide' tries to distract house guests from walls being torn down. I was pretty effective, except that my brother thought that I has wired some flowers to the stems of some branches.

I brought in many plants from the greenhouse to help hide construction.

A very special gift from my dear friend Abbie (Zabar) - one of her infamous hand-made potholders (we both share a family story and memory bank regarding this vintage simple weavings. I love them, and adore this one even though I know it will eventually get dirty from use (hey, I'm a foodie and a cook!), she understands - once sending me laundering instructions.

So this Christmas day, the kitchen remodel which involved combining two rooms to create one great space, it coming along, but no complete - we just had to make the best of it. Here is a shot of our new concrete-topped parson's table (Crate & Barrel), and the Bodbyn cabinets from Ikea.

The dogs are adapting well to all of the changes. Daphne here doesn't care where she eats her Christmas dinner, and even our new dog ( a temporary visit from a dog named 'Bob' a rescue from France who will be staying with us for a while. He is blind and will be going to Tufts Animal Hospital for evaluation).

One of the new cabinet units awaiting hardware for the drawers and doors.

This window seat will be painted then set with copper trays with gravel so that I can use it was a large display plant window, but painting won't begin until next week once the board and batten walls are installed/ These will be painted white,  the plant window in a dark slate grey, and the beadboard which runs along the upper part of the walls, in a light grey.

I can't wait for everything to be complete, until then, I am driving our builders (Joe's nephew Curtis and his friend Phil) crazy by bringing in plants.

...and Christmas decorations. Even though I have only used a few.

Last night we celebrated our traditional Lithuanian Kuchia's (sp?) a Christmas Eve dinner with traditional foods from Lithuania, Scandinavia and other northern European countries. Friends and family dined on many fishes, beef, herring rye, salmon and sweets. Not to mention cocktails enough to keep everyone happy.

Cake decorator extordinaire my friend Jess, created this masterpiece in homage to mix-match Holiday decor. I loved it - it reminded me of my mom's old tin of vintage buttons that she would dump out on here bed when I was a toddler to play with. How simple times once were, right?

Acacia (Mimosa) blossoms from the  greenhouse helped decorate a side table with rye and smoked salmon. Our countertops won't arrive until early January, so we had to improvise with bits of chopping blocks and old countertops balanced onto new cabinets.

When the kitchen is complete, we will have much more storage, but for now, we are trying to stash things were they fit, as we dream about one of those kitchen where everything has a place. When the countertops arrive (white marble) we will be happier.

We had a few hours to hang a few lights outdoors.

We  discovered what was killing our ducks over the past few weeks - I heard Joe yelling for me to come out ( from way out back, thinking that maybe he slipped on ice or something I rushed out -  but this is what he found. A snowy white owl!!Illuminated with his high power flashlight,  we first presumed it to be a Snowy Owl, but now believe that it was a Barred Owl in light plumage. It's not a great shot, but he took off just after I snapped this. He was mostly white with some spots - the all black eyes may indicate that it was a very white Barred Owl as a Snowy Owl would have yellow eyes. He was eating a duck on top of a dead tree.

December 20, 2016

Have Yourself a Very Mandarin Christmas

Mandarin oranges are a seasonal treat around the Holiday season but have you ever wondered why?
(I apologize if you had tried to read this post earlier in the week, somehow I accidentally deleted it. I had to rewrite it but this time, I kept it much shorter.).

Christmas time and Mandarin oranges - it's a pairing that started long before there branded varieties marketed under catchy brand names such as 'Cutie's' and 'Halo's', even before there were clementines. the truth is that these sweet, easy-to-peel citrus have a far more interesting story than simple being seedless tangerines.

Those stories from your grandparents about getting an orange in their Christmas stocking and being thrilled about has some truth to it. They weren't just telling tales. Of course, that lump of coal was something else.

Mandarin oranges have a long history in Asia where their juicy sweetness brightened up the winter months, but across North America and Europe, the Mandarin changed how cold-weather folk thought about winter fruit.

 It all began in the mid 1800's when ships arriving from Japan and the Philippines brought crates of imported Mandarins into the ports on the west coast of the US.These crates of sweet Mandarins then traveled via train to the big East coast cities.  So popular around Christmastime, that local papers from Toronto to New York City often announced their arrival with headlines like ''Japanese Oranges Arrive Just in Time For Christmas!'.

My father remembers as a four year old child in 1918 receiving sweet Mandarins in his Christmas stocking (his brothers once told me that he would hide them under his bed so that his other 7 brothers wouldn't find them).

Trains were often painted promoting the arrival of the Mandarins. This began in the 1920's but continued into the 1970's as seen here.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence of Mandarin appreciation, with the introduction of new varieties, marketed under catchy brand names like 'Cuties' and Halo's. The true Mandarin though is larger, and not unlike apples, encompass a whole group of named varieties which share the loose skin and easy-to-peel characteristics.

In Japan, the choicest varieties are known as the 'Satsuma' type. But understanding the various classes of Mandarins is a skill few of us really need to know or master, but why not try to explain the various differences? It's just what I like to do!

Here are the several classes of Mandarin Oranges:

Class I - Mandarin (One class is actually called - Mandarin)
This class includes the varieties named 'Changsa', 'Emperor', 'Oneco' and 'Willow-Leaf' or China Mandarin'.

Class II - Tangerines:
This class includes: 'Cleopatra' , Ponki', 'Spice', 'Dancy', 'Ponkan', 'Sunburst' (the Tangelo)

Class II - Satsuma Orange: Includes varieties of Satsuma such as 'Owari', Wase', Kara' and King Tangor. There are many hybrids as well.

Mandarin oranges in my greenhouse are just beginning to ripen. This variety is once that I purchases a few years ago from Logee's Greenhouses named 'Gold Nugget'. It is much larger than the catalog description, as it is not 5 feet tall, but it bears plenty of large, easy-to-peel fruit every winter. They rarely make it out of the greenhouse, though!

The very choice 'Satsuma' Mandarin has an easy-to-peel skin, is seedless and has a flavor unbeat in the citrus world. Their short season in December makes them something to look forward to around the holidays.

Old Christmas cards often featured festive greenery and oranges.

While researching for images and stories, I discovered this blog - InkwellInsirations by a Canadian writers group with a post  written by Anita Mae Draper entitled "What happened to Christmas Oranges?". The images are terrific, and the newspaper clippings are even better.

For me, the Mandarin orange is tops. Tangelos and honey tangelos are a top favorite in January, but he December Satsuma is king.  Nothing beats a good, sweet, juicy easy-to-peel Satsuma Mandarin - seedless, with flavor that could almost be artificial (but in a good way! Like the tangerine Life Savors), but in the end, I think that its the nostalgia and history that makes the Mandarin so appealing (sorry!).

A fresh, easy to peel sweet orange must have been a real treat at a time before there were motor cars or even sushi chefs at every supermarket. Certainly worthy of a cherished place within a Christmas stocking on Christmas eve. SO this year, celebrate the Mandarin and be thankful that they are still a festive Holiday treat, even 150 years later.

Cultural Note: If you do find some seeds in those Clementines, forget about trying to grow them into full-grown trees. They won't come true, and the resulting plants will just be thorny shrubs. I know some blogs are suggesting that you can raise your own from seed, but with citrus, that just is impossible unless it is a pure, wild species, and few if any of those are edible. But if you want to grow some citrus seeds with your kids, definitely do that - it's how I first started growing plants! By the time I reached college age, those grapefruit plants that I started in first grade where taller than I was - but still no blossoms or fruit. They did their job, though!

Happy Christmas everyone!

December 4, 2016

Finding Peace Under Glass

I think I have only stepped out to see the greenhouse once in three weeks. I'm discovering that in November and December, a little break from gardening is somewhat welcome. Maybe it's because one preoccupied with other more pressing things (you know - like the Holidays, work, family issues and life), or maybe it's just a case of Post Traumatic Gardening Syndrome - recovery after a crazy hot, long (a record-breaking drought) and all that which comes with those last few weeks of gardening in which one packs into every last moment of ever-decreasing daylight - chores which have little to no chance of ever getting completely done - digging dahlia tubers, garden clean up and deciding what to do with buckets of frozen, rotten tomatoes and peppers. Not to mention still having to wrap the inside of the greenhouse with bubble wrap (let alone actually ordering it before Thanksgiving!).

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.).

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.