A Severe Case of Dahlia Fever

Dahlias at Manito Park in Spokane, WA

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with dahlias. Last year I grew 22 different varieties in my garden, and this year I anticipate that number will climb to the high 30s. Dahlia people are totally a thing, and I’m unabashedly one of them.

My infatuation began when my husband and I were living in Spokane a few years ago — his parents were visiting, and we decided it would be fun to check out the gardens at a local park. As we exited the rose garden and rounded the corner toward the towering jungle of the dahlia garden, I knew I was done for.

Up until I’d seen a dahlia in person, they sort of made me uncomfortable. They’re so spiky and aggressive looking. (Which, I’ve since learned, is only true for some of them — there are so many different classifications of dahlias: Some have water lily-like petals, some are more puffballs, some are delightfully frilly like petticoats. And that’s just the tip of it!) But as I peered through the wire fence enclosing a forest of dahlias taller than all five feet of me, all I could think about was how I wished I could walk between the towering stems and surround myself with such beautiful and unusual flowers.

A few apartments and a house later, I never stopped thinking about that garden. After moving into our house in 2017, I bought some clearance dahlia tubers from WinCo on a whim. It was near the end of June, a little too late to plant dahlias, but they were already sprouting, so I put them in the ground and held my breath.

My very first dahlia

Only one bloomed, taking its sweet time and announcing itself around early November with a breathtaking display of butter-yellow petals. Only one flower out of six plants, but I was instantly hooked. I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

That winter I researched different varieties and acquainted myself with basic dahlia-growing information. I requested a catalog from Swan Island Dahlias and pored over it one drizzly day with a steaming cup of tea, dog-earing the ones that caught my eye. It contained just enough sunshine tucked between its glossy pages to tide me over until spring, and in the summer we made a special trip to Canby, Oregon, to attend the dahlia festival. You could call me obsessed, if you’d like. I don’t mind.

Autumn stroll with dahlias and cat

Now here I am, in 2019, with a cupboard in the garage dedicated solely to storing my tubers in the off season, and a plethora of new-to-me varieties somewhere in the U.S. postal system, steadily making their way toward me for the next growing season. I’ve got it so bad that I’ve even created a spreadsheet to keep track of the varieties I have!

I don’t know what it is about this particular flower that makes me feel so good just looking at it — no one in my family grew dahlias until they saw mine (dahlia fever is contagious!), so there’s no nostalgia at play with my fascination — and, yes, roses are beautiful in their own way and I’m a little obsessed with them too, but dahlias are something special. If I could choose only one type flower to grow for the rest of my life, it’d be dahlias, hands down.

If you’ve never grown dahlias before, I can’t urge you enough to get your hands on a tuber or two and experience their appeal for yourself. They’re easy to grow, and at the end of the season you’re rewarded with many more tubers than you planted — which you can either save for next year or give away to friends. And trust me, once your friends experience the magic of dahlias, they’ll be begging you for tubers.

Kelvin Floodlight

So, have I converted — I mean, convinced — you yet? You definitely don’t need to go all out like I have, but at least try planting one tuber. Once it blooms, you’ll be so glad you did. And who knows? Maybe you’ll catch dahlia fever too.


Winter Sown Update #8

Hi, everyone!

I wanted to take a moment to share a few peeks inside my winter-sown containers now that almost all of them have have life inside! Hooray!

It’s been pretty warm here over the past few weeks, so I’ve been leaving the tops/lids off most of the containers during the day and usually at night. Some seedlings, like the snap peas and megaton cabbage, are now too big to keep the lid on — and, unfortunately, they got pretty pummeled when we had some unexpected hail last week. Everything seems to have recovered pretty well, minus the Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, and broccoli, which were all obliterated. I suppose I’ll just have to start some more.

But I digress. Look at all these happy green seedlings!

winter sown hollyhocks
winter sown rhubarb
winter sown pickling cucumbers
Pickling cucumbers
winter sown snap peas
Snap peas
winter sown megaton cabbage
Poor, hail-battered megaton cabbage
Winter sown kale
Sad, hail-battered kale
winter sown foxgloves
winter sown comfrey
A variety of winter-sown cosmos

And there’s lots more than just the above pictures — some of the seedlings are just so tiny they don’t show up well on camera. Bee balm and butterfly bush, for example.

Winter sowing in milk jugs and take-out salad containers

A few nights ago I got another large chunk of winter sowing done (marigolds, zinnias, cantaloupe, dill, borage, cucamelons, California poppies, and nasturtiums), and next week I’m hoping to get all the beans and sunflowers sown. And that should be the last of it!

Nearing the end of winter sowing

The garden is looking good and is just about ready for transplants — I think the peas will likely be the first to go in, followed by the tomatoes (not winter sown), which are doing quite well! Most of the tomato plants are now between 4 and 6 inches tall with sturdy stems, and they’ve all been moved outside under the cover of the deck to harden off.

Tomato seedlings. Cat for scale.
Tomato seedlings — handsome cat for scale.

Black Krim tomato plant started from seed

The peppers are still inside and are pretty small, but I’m confident they’ll catch up soon.

Hopefully I’ll have a planting out update for you next week, but in the meantime, happy sowing!

April in the garden

April in the garden with Marge

Happy April, folks!

Here I am in the veggie plot on a dreary spring day, showing off the new tunnel trellis we put up. I’m really digging how much vertical interest it gives the plot, and I can’t wait to see my luffa gourds and noodle beans scrambling up it.

If you can believe it, the veggie plot is now at least double the size it was last year — I’ve been hard at work! I’ll try to post a more complete picture later, because there are a couple raised beds and a teepee trellis off to the side that aren’t in the picture, and I’m just so pleased at how everything is coming together so nicely.

For comparison, this was the size of my plot last year, freshly tilled by our neighbor:

Archie the corgi next to the vegetable garden
Archie for scale

It didn’t take long for the grass to creep in again, which is probably no surprise to anyone. Grass is notoriously hard to get rid of, and I hate weeding — which is why I’ve been sheet mulching (cardboard + grass clippings + newspaper) and topping it with wood chips. Not only does it kill the grass, it builds healthy soil and is much easier than tilling up the ground. And any weeds that sprout in the chips are super easy to pull. Like, ridiculously easy. (If you’re looking for more information on this gardening method, check out Plant Abundance, Back to Eden Gardening, One Yard Revolution, and the Ruth Stout method.)

While mulching, I noticed my plot already has a small handful of volunteers, which I believe might be sunflowers! Only time will tell. The compost pile also has a handful of volunteers sprouting out the top after last week’s torrential rain, but I haven’t a clue what they are yet — could be anything from zucchini to cucumbers.

Second-year rhubarb patch

The rhubarb is up and has been growing rapidly thanks to all the rain we’ve had over the past few weeks. This is my second year with this plant — a clump of it was given to me by my dad last summer from his own rhubarb patch, which originally came from his dad’s rhubarb patch. I’m hoping I’ll get to harvest a little of it this year!

Makeshift climbing rose trellis

In flower garden news, the rose trellis is holding up well, and both Cecile Brunner and Raspberry Cream Twirl have settled into their new home quite nicely. Jordan had to trim some low-hanging limbs from our birch tree, and I thought they’d make a nice border for the bed, so it’s looking much more put together now (even though it’s still not quite finished). All the roses for the back yard garden have been planted as well, so now it’s time for — you guessed it — more mulching!

Potted dahlias

I potted up the dahlias a few weeks ago to give them a head start on growing (two have already come up!), and the new-tuber orders for 2019 have been slowly trickling in — so far I’ve had orders from Eden Brothers and Triple Wren Farms arrive. (I must admit I will not be ordering tubers from Eden Brothers again — the tubers arrived horribly shriveled and in hopeless clumps I didn’t even attempt dividing up.)

Spoils of the Portland Dahlia Society's annual tuber sale

And earlier in the week we attended the Portland Dahlia Society’s annual tuber sale! I picked up a few new beauties, as you can see. If you’re local to the Portland area, I highly suggest checking out the sale next year — most tubers are only $3, which is a great deal.

And, yes, I’m still trying to decide where my extensive dahlia garden will go this year.

What’s happening in your garden this month?

A Worm Bin Report


Worm castings in a two-month-old worm bin

It’s been a few months since my red wigglers got cozy in their new digs, so I thought it’d be a good time for an update on how the worm bin composting system is working out.

Overall, it’s going really well — I harvested my first batch of worm castings from the bin last weekend, and I was a bit surprised to discover just how fast worms will eat our kitchen scraps — I think I got maybe two pounds out of the bin in just a two-month span, and I’ve already used most of it!

Here are a few things I’ve learned in my short two months of managing a worm bin:

  • Worms eat a lot. And I mean a lot — a pound of worms can consume half a pound of food in a day. And if you don’t provide enough food for them, they will either start to die off try to crawl out of the bin in search for more food. I’ve started aiming for three pounds per week — an easy way to do this is to keep excess kitchen scraps in the freezer until you’re ready to feed them.
  • Leaves don’t make great bedding unless they’re finely chopped — otherwise they’ll clump together, creating an unideal environment for the worms and taking much longer to break down. Worms breathe through their skin, and if the leaves get too slimy, the worms might have a hard time breathing and could die.
  • Contrary to popular belief, you can add citrus to a worm bin — but it’s all about moderation. It’s important that it’s small quantities and that it’s chopped up. (I eat a lot of oranges, so the majority of the peels go into our compost pile rather than the worm bin, but sometimes a bit of peel finds its way to the worms. They don’t seem to mind.)
  • You learn pretty quickly what your red wigglers like and don’t like to eat — for example, mine love banana peels, coffee grounds, and tea leaves, but they don’t like potato peels.

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking on my bin twice a day — once in the morning when I take the dogs out, and once in the evening when I get home from work. This sounds like a lot of work, but I keep the bin on our deck, and all I have to do is lift the lid as I’m passing by and take a quick peek to make sure the bedding is still moist and that the worms aren’t trying to escape the bin. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple seconds.

Overall it’s not a lot of work to maintain the bin and its population — the most work I’ve put into it was removing the castings and sorting out the worms (which took a few hours), but I plan on making a sifter soon, so it should be a much easier process in the future. It’s pretty rewarding knowing that I’ve kept a lot of waste out of the landfill and in return am left with a nice, rich, organic fertilizer. My garden is going to be very happy!

Have you ever tried vermicomposting? If you haven’t but are interested, I can’t say enough about the book Worms Eat My GarbageIt’s a great resource for getting started and troubleshooting any issues you might have later on. If you do decide to try your hand at vermicomposting, I’d love to hear all about your setup — there are so many different options out there.

Happy composting!

Winter Sown Update #7

Greetings, everyone! It’s now officially spring, and I’m seeing a lot of life in my winter sown containers. I love peeking in them when I get home from work to see if anything new has germinated. So far I’ve seen successful germination from all three varieties of cabbage, all three varieties of kale, Swiss chard, peas, hollyhocks, stock, yarrow, poppies, broccoli, rhubarb, comfrey, pickling cucumbers, and Brussels sprouts — and as I’m sure you know, that’s not even half of what I sowed! I’ll try to remember to take some pictures soon.

And while it’s not technically winter anymore, I’m still using the winter sowing method to get my annuals started. This last weekend I sowed luffa gourds, Long Island cheese pumpkins, blue Hubbard squash, one giant pumpkin (because do I honestly need more than one?), two varieties of basil, and zucchini. My garden is going to be packed!

Winter sowing annuals

Here’s a picture of some of the seed packets from the last sowing session, since I realized I forgot to take a picture of my setup by the time I was setting out the containers. The giant pumpkin seeds in the jar came from my dad, who grows a patch of giant pumpkins every year. The seeds are massive, and I watched him harvest them by aid of an axe last fall. It was a bit intense.

In other garden-related news, the peonies have started coming up — I’m hoping this is the year I’ll finally get some blooms, but we’ll see! Also, the rhubarb rhizomes my dad gave me last summer overwintered well and have already started leafing out. I’m crossing my fingers I’ll be able to harvest some of it for a rhubarb crisp this summer.

Spring things are definitely happening here! What’s happening in your area?


A Rose Trellis by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

My husband putting the finishing touches on our new rose trellis

I recently mentioned that one of my projects for this spring would be to convert our three unused flagpoles into a climbing rose trellis. Last weekend we had some cattle panels delivered and set to work transforming it into a floriferous paradise of climbing roses.

An order of cattle panels from the local farm store.

The flagpoles received a heavy duty mulching of corrugated cardboard and wood chips before we started. I’ll likely extend the mulch out another foot or so to provide ample growing space, and then add a border of pavers or large rocks to tidy it all up. But this will do for now — it was most important to get a decent amount of mulch down before attaching the panels.

The beginning stage of the flag poles turned rose trellis

Each panel is 16 feet long, and the distance between the two end poles is just about an inch longer than the panel, but we made it work with only the tiniest visible gap. We secured the panels to the poles with zip ties with a 120 pound tensile weight, so we don’t have to worry about them breaking. Cattle panels are surprisingly heavier than you’d think!

The second panel was added by butting it up against the already attached one, and then connecting them at the top with zip ties so it would act like a hinge — all we had to do was flip it upward, tighten the ties up, and have one person hold it while the other added the rest of the ties to the sides and middle pole. It was a quick and easy project, and I think we only spent 30 minutes on it, not counting the mulching (which we did the weekend prior).

The finished climbing rose trellis

Even though there’s nothing growing on it yet, it still looks much better than before, in my opinion. It at least looks like something now and provides a little visual interest.

I have two roses I’ll be planting here: climbing Cecile Brunner and Raspberry Cream Twirl, and there’s room to add another panel later on if they need more climbing space — did I mention they both climb 10 to 20 feet??

I’m thinking I might also propagate some lavender from our out of control “shrub” to plant at the bottom, and maybe I’ll add some clematis. It’s fun planning a new flower bed — I’ve got lots of options!

Next up I’ll start the process of removing the evergreen shrub border and figuring out exactly what kind of arbor I want — I love the planning phase.

If you need me, I’ll be in the field — starry eyed and dreaming of drifts and drifts of  fragrant roses.


So Close You Can Almost Touch It

The tulips and daffodils are stretching and unfurling after their winter slumber, the roses are budding up beautifully, and the cheerful chatter of birds is a welcome sound after the near constant patter of rain over the last few months. The first flower to bloom here is the humble periwinkle — so small I almost missed her presence. Spring is most certainly almost here.

Spring and I once had a fickle relationship — I never really liked her, never knew how to dress for her wildly fluctuating weather. I always wanted her to hurry up and pack her bags so summer could arrive. But these days spring feels like a new beginning, a palate cleanser — I think about how much we’d miss if we were always longing for the future and didn’t appreciate all the present season has to offer: the promising pink buds of the peony pushing up from the earth, the throaty gossip of the frogs at night, the fronds of the ferns slowly uncurling. Spring, while fickle, is fleeting, and I’m looking forward to savoring all she has to offer.

This season I’m trying to slow down and enjoy the process of tending to my place and observing my surroundings more, rather than focusing on how fast I can get something done, or worrying about how “far behind” I am compared to everyone else. My circumstances and goals are different from everyone else’s, so why should I feel the need to compare myself to them?

It’s so easy to get caught up in this game, telling ourselves, “My garden isn’t big enough, isn’t green enough, doesn’t have enough vertical interest. I’m not growing the trendy thing that everyone else is growing this year.” Sometimes it feels like a mad dash toward a finish line that doesn’t even exist.

Over the last month I’ve been watching my seedlings slowly germinate, brushing the palm of my hand against them so they don’t get leggy, and enjoying all that caring for them entails. I used to pine for a greenhouse, but now? Not so much. I’ve found what works for me. Sure, it’s different from what most people do, but I’m learning that’s fine; there is no “right” way to garden. There are multiple routes to the imaginary finish lines we’re all racing toward — each one a little different — and that’s something I’m trying to keep in mind as the season progresses.

After drafting up plans for this year’s vegetable plot and sowing more seeds than I know what to do with, it dawned on me that I’ll be in dire need of even more planting space once the seedlings are ready for transplanting, so I’m expanding the plot yet again, laying cardboard, leaves, and wood chip mulch — but I’m going slower this time.

The process is repetitive but soothing. I take pleasure in knowing the layers will smother the grass beneath, slowly decomposing into rich, healthy soil that will feed the plants and, eventually, our hungry mouths. I remind myself that homemade pickles, tomato sauce, and dilly beans come from mediocre gardens, too, and messy gardens where the grass continually creeps in, and even container gardens on apartment balconies. A great garden can take many different forms. “Great” is so subjective.

As I scoop shovelful after shovelful of wood chips this evening, plotting and expanding and dreaming about squash trellises and Brandywine tomatoes the size of my fist, I will tell myself not to rush, to enjoy the process, because my version of a great garden isn’t built in a day — and I can take pride in the work I’ve done to get there.