Down to earth – Dahlias’ days are over

(Originally published November 13, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

It’s dark now. As I look out the window towards my garden, a reflection of the mess on my desk bounces back at me. I don’t really need to see the garden to know what’s out there but over the last few months I have gotten used to scanning that view for inspiration. And if that failed, I’d go outside. But along with being dark, it’s cold too. The end of Daylight Saving Time and the first frosts (in pretty perfect sync this year) make the transition from growing season to dormancy feel abrupt. But looking back on a fall still so full of color it takes make breath away, I can recall that the darker season has been sneaking up slowly in its usual series of fits and starts.

I was ready when frost finally settled in patches on my garden and hope you were too. But now my back deck, so recently the prettiest place, looks like it was abandoned in haste. Pulled weeds and dead leaves are littered about; pots of blackened surplus coleus—they were the first to go—make for macabre decoration. It’s just as well I can’t see all that out my windows right now or I might feel like a slacker. I’d forget to pat myself on the back for hauling angel’s trumpet, lemon verbena, a fig, lantana, begonias, and some fuchsias down cellar last week. I intentionally left them outside just long enough for them to set their dormancy clocks to chilly short days in preparation for their exile into darkness. For the bees’ sake and hummingbirds’ (not that I’ve seen any for a while) I also resisted digging up stock plants of Cuphea ‘David Verity’ and red velvet sage (Salvia confertiflora) until hours before the temperature fell into their danger zone. Those plants, still wilted from transplant shock and added to the menagerie wintering on my south-facing entry porch (the plantry), might not make it but it was worth a shot.

dahlias down cellar
Dahlias down cellar along with a still-blooming lantana and fuchsia.

My dahlias are next. Some gardeners who are in more of a rush than me to put their garden to bed, cut down and dig their dahlias before they’re hit by frost. For any of the robust varieties with thick tubers, that’s perfectly fine—although bumblebees will miss the last flowers. I am a procrastinator. I like to wait until stems and flowers turn to sludge and then procrastinate some more to make extra sure that their tubers get the signal to fatten full of the carbohydrates they’ll need to shoot out 4’ stems and flowers again next summer. A week or two past frost should do the trick.

After digging, drying them for a few hours to a couple of days in the sun, and shaking off most of the soil, I wrap the tubers loosely in newspaper and stuff them in a plastic storage bin to wait out winter in my basement. But that’s by no means the only way to store them. There are almost as many options for dahlias as there are gardeners. Some pack their tubers in crates of sawdust, peat moss, or potting soil. I know a few who stick them in paper bags. Others swear by plastic. It all depends on the temperature and humidity level of your cellar, garage, or closet. My cellar happens to be on the warmish, dampish side and so far (knock wood), I haven’t lost any tubers to either rot or desiccation. I have also never found it necessary to dust them with fungicide, which some old-school dahlia enthusiasts insist upon.

Once the dahlias are out, I can procrastinate again. I’m all for leaving seedheads for the birds and pretty stems standing for insect habitat and winter interest, and I’ll get around to cutting everything else back later. I can’t see any of it out my windows anymore anyway.

As you can see, they’re out. I could have waited (procrastinated) a little longer but wanted to get some tulips in (where the dahlias came out) before I lost steam completely. 

How do you store your dahlias?

Down to earth – It’s time to move the keepers back inside

(Originally published October 6, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

My back deck has been one of my favorite places in the garden this year. There are just enough potted plants displayed on it to be lush and interesting but not overly jungle-y. (Unlike the rest of my garden.) The angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) loomed and bloomed in a corner and is about to bloom again. The array of house plants (begonias, jasmines, mistletoe fig and the like) on a bleacher-style plant stand looks like a living wall against the otherwise boring blank of the house. I love the color and texture contrasts in an assortment of ‘Wasabi’ coleus, dark red dwarf New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax ‘Jack Spratt’), echevaria, and golden creeping Jenny clustered in individual containers on the deck’s risers. And even as I write this, I’m entertained by hummingbirds visiting a big Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ parked right under my window.

a mid-September deckfull

I don’t want to let go of the garden on my deck. Especially since the sun has lost its bite and I can finally kick back and drink my morning coffee out there without feeling scorched. All summer I have also enjoyed the spaciousness of a nearly plant-free living room. I left some token plants inside for their green (a house entirely devoid of plants feels weird to me) but most are out. Their shelves and tables have collected small stacks of books instead and the empty square-footage under the windows makes the room feel that much bigger.

Nevertheless, chilly nights have cued the start of the move back inside. For the tenderest of plants such as begonias, some ferns and citrus, it’s best done early anyhow. They’re less likely to sulk, become stressed or look like death if they’re not subjected to temperatures they hate. As for all the others that can take a chilly night on the chin but can’t survive a killing frost, they will be much happier if we bring them inside before closing all of the windows and turning on the heat. Give the poor things a chance to acclimate to their winter exile.

view of the deck from the bathroom window...My natural inclination, because I love to be on and look out to a deck full of plants, is to wait to bring them inside until the very last minute. But because I’ve procrastinated in the past I know exactly how the frost-warning panic and subsequent backache feel. Not great. I also remember how messy a rushed move in can be. If I’m going to leave my houseplants outside longer I’d be smart to at least take the time to clean them up a bit. Over the summer they have accumulated debris, their own dead leaves and others’, as well as weeds and the occasional insect or spider. I like to think that the birds and other bugs take care of the pests on my houseplants but that’s not always the case as I discovered today. Two of the ferns that might have come inside before the latest dip into the 40s were still infested with scale, and I discovered that a pretty little Cape primrose (Streptocarpus) was harboring a legion of mealy bug. Even though those plants still look remarkably healthy I might leave them outside permanently rather than attack their dinner guests with my fingernails, soapy water, or any stronger pesticide. I have more plants than I need and better things to do.

In fact, I should use my time to clean plant saucers and clear all indoor surfaces and windowsills of books, clutter, and cats. If I were as ambitious as I imagine you are, I’d wash the windows too. I’m sure my plants and I would be happier in the darker seasons if light could enter the house unfiltered by pollen, dust, and cat snot. In the meantime though, I feel a magnetic pull back outside. It’s much too pretty a fall day to not spend it relaxing out on the deck, face to the sun, with a good book and a cuppa.

It’s now October 13th or thereabouts and I still haven’t moved everything back inside. Have you?