Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Day of The Dahlia

Even though there are still a few more days of summer left on the calendar, the oppressive heat and humidity have finally loosened their grip. For the past few evenings the air has been cool and the mornings have sparkled with a dewy brightness. This is the time of the year that I most enjoy my gardens.Beyond some casual weeding and deadheading, there is little work to be done. Gone is the sense of urgency that marks the spring and the feeling of futility that mars the dog days of summer. All of my mistakes have been duly noted, yet there is still time to enjoy the successes.

The cooler weather brings a winsome beauty to the garden. In the late summer light the flowers seem lovelier or perhaps, because I know that the growing season is drawing to a close,I study them with a less critical eye. And of all the plants blooming in my garden now, the dahlias are undoubtedly one of my favorites.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who gardens in Greenwich, Ct remarked that there was very little blooming in her garden after Labor Day. When I suggested that she plant some dahlias, she replied that she didn't like them much. Needless to say,I insisted that she take a second look at the genus. Very few flowering plants are as easy to grow or come in as many colors, shapes, and sizes. Some have blooms that are as small as thimbles, others as large as dinner plates. There are single varieties reminiscent of daisies and a whole assortment of doubles. Some like "Bishop of Llandaff", which for years I've planted in the hot-colored garden, have striking red-toned leaves. I'm particularly fond of the waterlily types, which as the name suggests have flowers shaped like waterlilies. For ease of maintenance I usually select varieties with flowers no larger than 4 or 5 inches across. Those that produce larger flowers are tiresome to keep staked and appear out of proportion with the perennials in my gardens.

Generally, dahlias prefer full sun and rich soil and benefit from a dusting of bonemeal at planting time. Because they aren't hardy here, I dig the tubers every fall and store them in the cool dry, crawl space area beneath my office. Last July I noticed a yellow dahlia growing somewhat horizontally through the blue-flowered nepeta that edges my cottage garden (see blog dated 6/11/09).I realized that I must have accidentally tossed a tuber in the general vicinity when I was planting a group of the same variety nearby. I liked the effect so much that this year I decided to plant a row of them beneath the nepeta. The tubers grew up through the nepeta foliage and then unexpectedly kept growing straight upward. Since this was not the effect I was hoping for, I waited until the plants were about three feet tall and then carefully bent them over. Now they are growing almost like a ground cover and have produced an amazing abundance of flowers. It seems that they actually bloom more heavily when the stems are trained horizontally.

Canna Pretoria (pictured above between Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' and Helenium 'Moorheim Beauty' ) is another favorite late summer bloomer. The yellow striped leaves topped by bright orange flowers make a wonderfully bold statement in the garden this time of year. Like dahlias, cannas are not hardy and must be dug and stored in a similar fashion. While they do not exhibit nearly the same range of flower color or form, they are available in a variety of sizes and many have colorful foliage. I often plant them between my tulips. Once the summer heat arrives their robust growth quickly fills the empty space left by the dormant bulbs.

The yellow Ligularia 'Desdemona' that edges the "farm pond" has been blooming with great abandon this year. At the moment Its flowers look particularly lovely combined with the blue ageratum-like blooms of Eupatorium 'Coelestinum'. It seems my attempt at mimicking Mother Nature has fooled at least a few of her children. This summer some newly hatched painted turtles decided to take up residence amongst my waterlilies.

In memoriam:
At the end of August my dog, "Crash", was struck and killed by a car on the road near my house. He was my dearest pal, my boon companion,a goodwill ambassador, and a favorite of friends and clients alike.He kept me company while I worked at the drafting table and accompanied me to many job sites. His absence has left an indescribable void and the garden remains a less joyful place without him.