Follow by Email

The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias

 Order from
Until I received a copy of The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon, I never knew there were so many varieties of this plant.

I love that the first chapter of Vernon's book is devoted to using Dahlias in the garden. It's one thing growing a plant that demands attention -- and Dahlias are certainly in this category -- but integrating it into an established garden requires a bit of thought and staging.

The Inn on Mackinac offers a small Dahlia display.

This section of The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias offers lots of suggestions for Dahlia companions -- plants that don't steal their thunder but complement their colors and forms. Vernon's photos offer up some inspiration, but if you live in the Midwest, you might consider going with some of his other recommendations that aren't pictured at Great Dixter, a garden in Sussex.
Unknown pink Dahlia with Sedum and a small yellow daisy.

Last year around this same time, I visited Mackinac Island, and snapped some photos of Dahlias cavorting with annuals and perennials in front of the Inn on Mackinac.  Whoever does the gardening around this historic home turned inn.

Anyway, if you want to see Dahlias playing well with others, this a good place to start.

 As you can see from my tangent, The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias definitely drives inspiration. Besides looking back at last year's photos, the book had me looking online for more Dahlias I could add to my garden next year.
Unknown Dahlia with annual geranium and Cosmos.
There were plenty of named examples, each accompanied by gorgeous photos and descriptions of the flower type, height and spread, along with growing recommendations. For example, a variety called 'Classic Swanlake' is a peony type that grows just 3 feet tall and does well in a container. 

'Bumble Rumble' is an adorable  Collerette type that grows 42 inches tall and works well in containers. It, and several of the varieties listed in The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias, are available at several suppliers, including many of those I found listed at this great Dahlia resource called The Big List, compiled and kept up by the Colorado Dahlia Society.

So with all the online resources about Dahlias, why do we still need books? One reason is that books published by well-known horticultural publishers (one of which is Timber Press) have been vetted for accuracy. Another is that, with a well-organized book like The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias, you can find nearly all of what you need about the plant inside its covers. That includes how to design with, grow, propagate, store and choose Dahlias for your home garden. Add to that 200 varieties pictured in gorgeous color, plus a section on cutting and arranging for indoor decoration, and you have the perfect carry-around floral eye candy you can refer to any time.

I like to keep The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias on my dining table to page through while I eat. Although I am not sure where to find it, I'm sure there is a study that proves that looking at pretty things while eating aids digestion. And there are usually napkins handy in case you over-salivate.

August is a Garden Color Free for all

August can turn into a colorless month if you don't plan ahead. Most of my perennials have petered out. Sure, some are gearing up for another round in mid-September, but I'm not holding my breath for more Monarda or an additional flush of Liatris.

To help ease away from the raggedy remnants of once perky blooms, I've tucked Zinnias I started from seed among the bee balm. I've scattered among them a few spiky-flowered plants like Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious', Salvia 'Mystic Spires' Blue, and Salvia 'Black and Blue'.

Salvia 'Mystic Spires' with waning bee balm.
Meanwhile, in the new cutting bed, the larkspur is flagging, but the Ageratum and 'Blue Monday' clary sage I grew from seed are still giving off that great blue aura that makes warm colors pop. 

It's hard for a garden to have too much blue, especially when that garden is host to lots of brightly-colored Zinnias.

My goal is to always have color and more color around the corner. In my back garden, that means I'm looking forward to asters and Dahlias. One Aster has been in bloom already for a couple of weeks. It's called 'Tiny Tot' and it's true to its name.

And then there are the Dahlias, one of which is already blooming, but the flowers are held within the plant's foliage, so I'm waiting to see how it will do once I pick those little guys for a tiny vase.

'Dahlia 'Little Beeswings' on the plant.
Dahlia 'Little Beeswings' in a tiny vase.
I couldn't resist the name or the cuteness of the flower. 'Little Beeswings' is an old variety. Introduced in 1909, it's also hard to find. Luckily I located it at Old House Gardens, a company that specializes in heirloom flowers.
The other two Dahlias are not blooming yet, but that just gives me something else to look forward to in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, on the shady side of the garden, things are still rotating through their bloom and growth cycles. I absolutely love the Bergenia ciliata, which I suppose you could call a "squeakless pigsqueak." You see, this Bergenia has tiny hairs, which is a departure from Bergenia cordifolia, a species with thick leaves you can make squeaky noises with. (Hence the name.) I like this plant because its leaves are so big and healthy-looking during a time when most of my plants are chewed up by some sort of bug or another.

It took a long time to become established, but Cyclamen purpurascens looks like it finally has taken hold. One thing that intrigued me about this particular Cyclamen was its origin in eastern Europe where my ancestors originated. According to the Cyclamen Society, it doesn't mind a little lime and is at home among tree roots and leaf litter. Although I planted two tubers in the spring of 2012, only this one survived, and appears and disappears seemingly at random, the flowers first and then the leaves. It obviously is happy beneath the boxwoods in heavy shade. I've cleared out the area surrounding it as it spreads, removing sweet woodruf (Galium odoratum) from around it.

Hydrangeas Range From Vigorous to Lethargic

Hydrangea 'Let's Dance Big Easy'
My Hydrangeas this season are a mixed bag of successes and failures.'Endless Summer' has finally formed some dime-sized flower buds, while 'Let's Dance Big Easy' makes no apologies for sporting the biggest bloom in the border. The plant is no larger than it was last year. It still has two blooms. But each is sized somewhere between a mushball and a bowling ball.

Both specimens of Hydrangea 'Rhapsody Blue', planted last spring, don't care that they've only got three or four stems--they're going all out to keep my love of their mophead flowers going strong.

I didn't lose one of the dozen or so Hydrangea macrophyllas in the ground when the flakes started flying last December. But it certainly wasn't a banner year. None of the non-remontant (I know, that's a lot of negatives) Hydrangeas bloomed, and even some of those that have consistently bloomed on new wood have been shy with their flowers.
'Let's Dance Starlight' bloom in 2013.

Proven Winners Color Choice Reblooming (ability to bloom on this year's new growth) Hydrangea macrophyllas that I was given to try (along with the year they were planted) include:
  • 'Let's Dance Rhapsody Blue' (2013)
  • 'Let's Dance Big Easy' (2012)
  • Let's Dance Starlight' (2008)
Hydrangea in too much heat and sun.
Surprisingly, the one that's been in the ground the longest among these three varieties provided the least impressive show. 'Let's Dance Starlight' was a stunning bloomer in 2013. This year, although it's healthy, had two flowers, with no sign of anything coming along on the tips of its stems.

Hydrangea 'Everlasting Revolution' in sunny spot (2013).
'Endless Summer' has been in the same spot since 2003, when I received the plant to try. It's had its ups and downs (mostly ups once it was established), but this year I hadn't seen a sign of flower buds until just today. In a glass-half-full way of looking at things, that's fine. The spot where it's planted will have some much-needed color in mid- to late-September.

One thing I've found with Hydrangeas is that you'll never have a happy plant if you keep moving it around. It takes at least two seasons to settle in and act like it should. For the most part, anyway.  I planted Hydrangea Everlasting Revolution in August, 2011 after being given one to try by Plants Nouveau. The next spring, I moved it. I moved it again in 2013, and it bloomed although it was getting so much sun it looked terrible on hot sunny days.

Hydrangea 'Everlasting Revolution' this year.
So in the fall of 2013, I moved 'Everlasting Revolution' for the third time--to a place where it is somewhat overwhelmed by other plants, and  definitely doesn't get an overabundance of sun.

I have to say that this plant doesn't know when to say when. It seems to thrive no matter how it's treated. As you can see from the photo, each flower head starts out with small, tightly formed florets that expand and fade as they age.

This spring, I was thrilled to receive some of the other Everlasting Hydrangeas, including 'Everlasting Ocean', 'Everlasting Amethyst', 'Everlasting Coral', and 'Everlasting Revolution'.

I didn't really expect any of them to bloom, as they were quite small when they arrived. But one variety that has been wowing me is 'Everlasting Ocean'. I planted two of them in different spots in the garden--one in high shade with good light and a short period of direct sun, the other in a spot that has been overgrown by an exuberant Clematis.

Surprisingly, the one that was covered up by clematis has the most flowers--four to be exact. But the one in high shade is easier to get to with my camera, so here are three sequential photos starting on July 11. This sequence gives you an idea of how its color changes over nearly five weeks.
'Everlasting Ocean' July 11
'Everlasting Ocean' July 31
Hydrangea 'Everlasting Ocean' August 11.

Dashing Dahlias

There's no doubt about it - I'll be growing more Dahlias next year.

An overview of Hamilton Dahlia Farm in Hamilton, Michigan
My three dahlias are not in a hurry to bloom, so I sought out other spots to see dahlias. First I visited Hamilton Dahlia Farm in southwestern Michigan. Here are a few of my favorites:
'Ferncliff Copper'
Much more than copper, this dahlia sports a concentration of magenta at its center that is lightly brushed on each petal. 'Ferncliff Copper' was developed by D. Jack of Ferncliff Gardens in British Columbia, and introduced in 1990. It's labeled a small, bronze-colored full double by the American Dahlia Society Classification and Handbook of Dahlias.

'Formby Crest'
George Harding of Tasmania is responsible for the breeding of many dahlia cultivars with the name "Formby" in their title, including 'Formby Crest', a miniature formal decorative ball dahlia.
'Mary Lou'
 'Mary Lou' is a large, yellow semi-cactus form dahlia that reaches about 4 feet tall.  
'Peaches N Cream'
'Peaches N Cream' is a miniature formal decorative bi-color that has won some prestigious awards. I'm not surprised.

'Vasio Meggos' is a large formal decorative lavender dahlia with huge flowers.
'Camano Buz' is a miniature formal decorative orange dahlia introduced in 2002 by Dick Ambrose of Camano Dahlias in Washington.            

I plan to visit Bonneyville Mill County Park in Bristol, IN where there is reportedly a display bed of new dahlias that have been grown from seed to be tested for the American Dahlia Society. I haven't been able to find much information on the garden, so I will hopefully be able to scout it for anyone else in northern Indiana who might want to see dahlias. I'll report back soon.

Colorful Combos: You Can Grow That!

A gorgeous plant is even more stunning with a great partnership. Try some of these, or create your own.

Hypericum with a backdrop of Hydrangea

Hybrid Lilium with Monarda

Zinnias with Celosia
A container holding Pachystachys lutea, or lollipop plant with Coleus 'Cleo' and Cyperus papyrus 'Little Tut'

Celebrate the Joys and Benefits of Gardening


Try Anything New Lately?

If someone asked me why I garden, my answer today would be, "to try lots of things I've never grown before!" I don't buy perennials in threes or fives. I buy one; two if they're small. Every year I grow dozens of new plants-- tropicals, shrubs, annuals, bulbs and perennials. 

I started Anoda as an afterthought. I'd ordered seed of one named 'Snow Cup' from Select Seeds. I started just a few from the packet. By late March I'd realized that perhaps I over-ordered, so I was running out of room for seedlings. The tiny Anoda seedlings ended up in the special cell packs I ordered for starting sweet peas, and sat neglected under a peony in the raised bed until my husband asked if I was punishing them for some reason.

It was already mid-June when I got them into the ground. I had to admire their tough constitution, surviving as they did with a dash of water whenever they looked wilted, or I remembered. Three plants of the four made it. Two are struggling beneath larger plants and poke their heads out once in awhile, one is cavorting with a neighboring Salvia, and one I yanked out because it looked just like a weed.

Anoda cristata has been called a weed and worse. According to the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United State, this American native is terrorizing several states, most of which are in the southwestern U.S. No wonder it sat patiently in its pitiful cell packs until I was ready to plant it.

I've grown flowering tobacco before for its wonderful jasmine-like scent. I finally got around to planting the variety called Cranberry Isle, which I ordered from Select Seeds.

Nicotiana 'Cranberry Isle'
I am really thrilled with this mix. I had grown Nicotiana alata, a pure white form similar in stature and habit to Cranberry Isle.

Even the white-flowered plants in the 'Cranberry Isle' Nicotiana mix seem to have more substance.
 But the colors in this heirloom variety make the 4-footer look good even in the middle of the day when it tends to droop like a swooning southern belle.
You'd almost think a flower this color would smell like grape Kool-aid.
It's hard to imagine these statuesque beauties emerging from such tiny seed. But that's part of the fun of growing something new.

Grow Grafted Veggies

Two seasons ago, I discovered grafted tomatoes. I grew 'Japanese Trifele', a dark-hued beauty with a subtle smoky flavor that was actually developed in Russia, and an early-ripening determinate variety called 'Legend'. I won't be going back to the non-grafted varieties.

Tomato 'Pineapple'
The thing about grafted tomatoes is that, whatever you decide to grow -- heirloom or modern varieties -- you'll get more yield. But wait. There's more! The variety that performs the root duty (called the rootstock) on the plant is super disease-resistant, providing additional support from disease for the disease-prone heirloom varieties. Learn more about grafting on SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables' site.

In 2013 I grew a grafted 'Pineapple' and a double-grafted plant with 'Sungold' and 'Sweet Million'. Even my father in-law, The Tomato Don of Merrillville, was impressed with the size of the fruit I harvested. The flavor of these tomatoes is enhanced with an extra sweetness, almost melon-like with enough acidity to let you know you're eating a tomato.

'Pineapple' tomato so far this season.
Earlier this month I got to meet two of the people behind the tomato grafting movement at the Cultivate '14 trade show and convention in Columbus, OH. Alice Doyle, of Log House Plants, and John Bagnasco of Garden Life now Garden America are two of the three people who collaborated, along with Tim Wada of Plug Connection, to form SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables, LLC, North America’s largest producer of grafted vegetables for home gardens

'Wonder Bell' pepper
John and Alice told me about the challenges of grafting. If the graft plant is larger in diameter than the producing plant, it's nearly impossible to make the graft, so, as they explained, timing is everything. John was happy to hear of my success with 'Pineapple', as that variety can be a slacker in the production department. 

I'm growing 'Pineapple' again this year, grafted again, naturally. It's currently over six feet tall and has about a dozen fruits on it, many of which are nearing the size of a softball. Also this season, I'm growing a grafted sweet pepper called 'Wonder Bell' that J. W. Jung Seed Company sent me to try. The last time I tried to grow sweet peppers, I think I got two or three puny fruits. Veggies haven't been a priority for me, but I've really started to enjoy having responsibility for my own edibles. As for the sweet pepper, they're so large already it's tempting to pick a couple. But I'm going to wait til they get bright red and then roast them.