EXERCISING PATIENCE WITH SPRING, AND DIVIDING DAHLIAS

I should have called this post ‘biting my tongue’ – so can someone please tell me when it became OK for garden centers to sell plants before the frost free date? Not all nurseries, mind you, since the good ones are smart, and care about both their customer and their plants, but the larger ones – the commercial big box garden centers like the Home Depot and Lowes around us in central Massachusetts all have their tender annuals out – salvia, tomatoes, marigolds, celosia, geraniums, impatiens – don’t get me started. Our frost-free date is nearly one month away, and the soil for tomatoes, eggplant and most other warm weather crops needs to be 55º or warmer, which won’t occur here until the end of May at the earliest. It’s just ashamed, as it snowed this week here and the past two nights dipped into the high 20º’s, which brought a long line of people complaining to out local Home Depot today. I suppose, it’s one way to learn.
Tomatoes, peppers and some snapdragons await transplanting this weekend. These will be upgraded into 2.5 inch pots. No need to rush, even though nurseries are already selling tomato seedlings with blooms on them. It’s far too early here.
I do understand the issue here, though. I too am eager to get gardening, but I’ve learned over the past 45 years or so of starting tomatoes, to wait – even later and later, sowing my seed around the end of April ( see above) and learning to keep my tomato and pepper seedlings warm (near 75º) both day and night, and I’ve learned from commercial growers, that even shifts in night and day temperatures can stunt tomatoes, and peppers in particular can be damages by temperature shifts ( iron deficiency = yellow leaves and stunted growth, no matter how much you feed them). The best answer is under lights, warm and safe until mid May. By doing this, I get healthier seedlings with large root systems and large leaves, and I get tomatoes about 3 weeks earlier than my neighbors – many of whom bought pre started seedlings that were much larger than mine, but they just planted them out too early.
That nice white amaryllis that I bought for Christmas bloom, had just decided to bloom. Three more are on their way.

I can understand garden centers and nurseries loosing money with long, drawn-out colder-than-normal, or shall I say ‘seasonally normal spring temperatures, as we are experiencing this year. We have only knocked on the 70º temperature once this spring, and last week it snowed a bit two days in a row. I’ve been delaying taking plants out of the greenhouse this year, and thankfully, it’s payed off -for we’ve dipped below freezing for three days now, and I’ve had to keep the hear on in the greenhouse. Even my camellias have not been brought out yet – because their tender new shoots are just too soft.

Many of the clivia in my collection were damaged by the freeze when the greenhouse heater short circuited last January – this one, I just found today under a bench. I almost threw it out due to its damaged foliage, but I think it might be worth keeping, don’t you think?

I enjoy springs like this, as most gardeners do – a slow wakening is good for the garden, but even the greenhouse is slow this year. It may be because of our long, long, cold and snowy winter, or perhaps because of the big freeze I had in January which apparently did damage many plants which did not look damaged at first (probably root damage). The clivia which always bloom in early February are just blooming, the lachenalia, amaryllis and most of the camellias are just reaching peak bloom as well.

One of my favorite crosses from ten years ago – we call it ‘Muggle Drops’, after our late dog, Margaret.
I wanted to share this rare, heirloom double hyacinth ‘General Kohler’ which was sent to me as a gift by Old House Gardens this past fall. I came home one day and found this box full of interesting bulbs sent by Scott, the owner of Old House Gardens – I have not had a chance to write about these bulbs, but as they bloom, I will share the images. Thanks Scott! That was very generous.

Back the the nurseries for a second, Joe and I always say to each other that we probably could not own a garden center this time of year, since we probably would not have many customers – as the competition would ‘eat us alive’. Clearly, pansies and early veg crops would not be enough – for as we discovered last weekend at Mahoney’s Garden Center near Boston, a large establishment where we saw and heard staff giving advice such as “Oh sure, those Martha Washington Geraniums will bloom all summer long as long as you keep the old flowers snipped off”, or today at our local Home Depot in Auburn, MA, where a sales person was caught telling a customer that ” Yes, those English Daisies will bloom all summer long and will come up for years and years”. We drove to another nursery where a woman asked a sales person “Will this do well in a hanging basket?” as she held a large pot of Monarda. “Oh sure, as long as you pinch it” the sales person told her. I then watched an Indian couple who clearly were new to gardening, buy a flat of cilantro – already bolted and going to seed along with some eggplant and tomato seedlings (it was 34º outside). I stepped in an intervened.

I am no pro when it comes to Dahlias – still learning here. I have grown them for many years, but I tend to be lazy about digging them in the autumn, but last year, after growing some very nice cut flower varieties so popular on flower farms – those with pom pom flowers or smaller blooms, and I not only didn’t get sick of them by autumn, I wanted to save and divide them for the following year. Always good to save some money.

Cut with a sharp knife, I’ve kept many tubers together on this one, as cutting any thinner would only weaken the plant. I will trim the stems to about 3 each once the pot is underway.

Dahlias can be divided shortly after digging them, when the eyes are visible, or in the spring which is when I prefer to do it. Large clumps can be difficult to manage, especially if them have a lot of tubers connects and intertwined with each other. Most experts advise dividing them earlier. As you can see, the eyes are starting to swell – like potatoes, and it’s time to cut the tubers so that each has a piece of the original stem, as this is the only place where eyes will emerge. You will have waste – tubers without a large enough piece of the original stem base, or tubers which are nice, firm and large, but with not part of the original stem. These will never form eyes, and will need to be tossed.

When you save your own tubers you can keep four or five tubers together, which will give you a much stronger plant than those grown from just a single tuber, which is what you usually get from a mail order house.
I do keep single tubers, however, as long as they have a piece of the original stem base as this one does. It has a couple of buds or eyes already emerging on it. This is about the average size one gets from a mail order nursery, so that is OK.
I never mentioned it, but the week the Fergus died, our Lydia had puppies – I know, the circle of life, right? She is just weaning them (they already have teeth!) so this may the one of the last days that she is feeding them as they have already moved onto solid food.
While we are on the subject of tubers – potatoes are being rescued from the kitchen baskets, cut up and being planted out into the garden this week.

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