Fabulous, Glorious Dahlias

When I got Timber Press’ Encyclopedia of Dahlias in the mail, I thought, well, they’ve gone and done it. They’ve printed up dahlia porn, and now they’re distributing it on the Internet. It’s only a matter of time before the Feds show up and shut them down.

There may be some words in this book, but all I could do was flip through the pages, ogling one up-front, in-your-face flower shot after another. At first I was disappointed that there were not more photos depicting dahlias growing in a garden with other flowers, but soon I ceased to care. Who needs a plot, anyway? The freckled ‘Rolf’ dahlia, with its finely feathered markings of red and yellow, drew me in, and the crazy twisted petals of ‘Camano Classic’ got me hooked. I ignored the captions. I ceased to care about how they would fit into my garden. Just show me more dahlias, baby.

I’m not sure what it is about dahlias that inspire this kind of lust, but I’ve got a pretty good guess. The flowers are incredibly versatile, ranging in size from a modest little daisy-shaped blossom to an overblown dinner plate-sized whopper. They come in every color but blue, and that’s a pretty impressive range. They make great cut flowers. And they are stubbornly seasonal, which means that you’re stuck spending a fair part of the year waiting for them. The anticipation is half the fun.


Eventually I realized that this showy hardcover book by dahlia hybridizer and grower Bill McClaren did have words in addition to pictures. That only made it worse. Consider this description of ‘Orange Flame’, a wild and frilly AA dahlia with split and curvy tangerine-colored petals. (In the world of dahlias, as opposed to—well, never mind—the largest dahlias are called ‘AA size’ and smaller flowers are ‘B size’ or ‘miniature.’) Anyway, the description includes this warning: “The bloom is often too large for the stem to support, making the flower side facing.” Well, that’s a real drawback. I hate it when a flower is too large to even stand up on its own. Excuse me while I go order a couple dozen of them.

This book is clearly for the show growers, the county fair and dahlia society set, and as such, it’s a bit out of my league. The flower descriptions often include such statements as “Wins in its competitive Class, Cream of the Crop, and Fabulous Fifty,” whatever that means. But don’t worry about that—just use this book as the guide to finding your dream dahlia, and then turn to the appendix in the back, where you will find an awe-inspiring number of dahlia growers ready to deliver your fix.

Winter is the time to plant dahlias. For years I stayed away from them because I’d read that you need to lift dahlias out of the ground and store them through the winter. (Yeah, right. Like I’m going to remember where I buried something in the backyard.) But along the coast in Humboldt County, where temperatures rarely get below freezing for any significant length of time, you can get away with leaving them in the ground, as long as you accept the fact that a very wet winter might make them rot. That’s a chance I’m willing to take. So if you head to the nursery now and choose your tubers, you’ll have some of these gorgeous blossoms in your garden by summer.

If you have sandy soil, you can bury the tubers three to four inches deep, but if you struggle against heavy clay, add all the organic matter you can get your hands on and plant them just two to three inches deep. Be prepared to feed them, too—remember, you are not growing dahlias for their foliage. It’s all about the flowers. Use a balanced organic fertilizer in spring, but once the plant gets ready to produce some buds, switch to a ‘bud and bloom’ formula that will push the flowers along.

And if you do live in an area that gets a heavy freeze, use a golf tee or a plant tag to mark the spot where you planted the tubers so you can find them again in the fall. Dig them carefully once the foliage has died back (I know you’re not really going to do this, but I’ll feel better if I tell you about it, so just bear with me), then shake the dirt off and label each tuber with a marker so you can keep the colors and sizes separate (yeah, you heard me—I told you to write on the tubers with a Sharpie). Store them at around 40-50 degrees in a ventilated plastic bag until the frost has passed and it’s safe to plant them again. Have fun with that.

As for the rest of you, just feed, water, and cut yourself some flowers. Dahlias desperately need to be deadheaded in order to keep producing year after year, so please don’t feel guilty about snipping a few and bringing them inside. You’ll find dahlia tubers of every shape and size at the nursery now, so bring them home and get them in the ground. With any luck, you’ll have show flowers in time for the county fair.

Go Here to Read More Gardening Articles and Essays by Amy Stewart

Geums and the Art of Sticking to What Works

I’m always surprised at what flowers won’t grow in my garden. I have a great deal of trouble getting annual sunflowers to stick around, for instance. Either the snails mow them down or they just don’t get quite enough heat and sunlight to push them along. I say this with full knowledge that a neighbor just two blocks away has gorgeous sunflowers all summer. Maybe she has better soil, better protection from the wind, or better luck. I can’t explain it.

Any number of easy-to-grow plants fall into this category, and sometimes the list changes from year to year. Last year I couldn’t get cosmos to take off. I’ve had trouble with poppies. I’m embarrassed to tell you how much I’ve spent on bareroot clematis, only to have them wither away to nothing and disappear.

These mysterious failures have taught me one valuable lesson: when you find something that works, stick with it. Plant lots of it. Turn it into your signature look. I’ve done this with maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii), for instance. It’s a perennial cousin to the annual sunflower and it grows like a weed once established, blooming reliably every fall with bright yellow flowers that are smaller than most sunflowers but just as cheerful.


This year, I’ve decided to promote geum to more of a starring role. It’s proven itself to be loyal, hardworking, and reliable, so much so that I’ve been snapping it up every time I see it at the nursery and planting one in any empty space I have available.  I didn’t love it at first, but once I realized that it was prepared to stand by me no matter what, I started to see the possibilities.

Geum is a perennial with low-growing foliage, which means that it will stay well-hidden when it’s not in bloom. It tolerates a little shade, but it likes the sun. It blooms in yellow, orange (including a tangerine/salmon orange) and red, so you can work it into almost any color scheme. The flowers, which are only a little under two inches across, rise on slender one to two foot stems and generally take the shape of a camellia or a wild rose in full bloom. There are single and double forms—the doubles tend to be more rose-like.

Most of the geums you’ll see in the nurseries around town are G. chiloense, a species native to Chile, but there are also varieties that come from Asia, Europe, and there’s even a species called prairie smoke (named for its feathery seed pods) that is native to the Midwest.

The flowers are a bit too small to make much of a statement massed together. This is an informal flower that works best when it’s just stuck in among something else. Because the stems are so slender, the flowers always look like they’re bobbing and swaying. Geum is never going to stand up straight or march in a line, but it will weave in among whatever’s planted next to it and fill in little gaps in the border. I planted a couple underneath a blue salvia last summer and the brilliant orange-red flowers popped up among the stiff blue spires of salvia and looked spectacular. The yellow ‘Lady Stratheden’ works well among a bunch of Shasta daisies, and the tangerine version pairs with creamy yellow roses and just about any pastel color.

They make good cut flowers, and whether you want them in a vase or not, you should keep cutting them anyway to get more blooms into the fall. The foliage can get a little scraggly and has a tendency to form a mound, but I just rake the dead stuff out and divide them in the fall when they get too bulky.

I see geum in nurseries around town throughout the year, but they’re not the sort of flower to burst into bloom and look gorgeous in the pot, so they tend to get overlooked. Keep an eye out for them in affordable six-packs and four-inch pots—even smaller, younger plants will probably bloom the first year, so there’s not much point in spending extra money for the one-gallon size. Besides, once you have them, you’ll be able to divide them and move them around every fall.

And unlike certain other plants I could mention, they will never, ever let you down.

Go Here to Read More Gardening Articles and Essays by Amy Stewart

Questions I Get Asked


Q:   What kind of  recorder do you use to do interviews?

A:  This is actually a very good question.  If you’ve got interviews to do, here’s what you do:

Get a hand-held Olympus digital recorder.  You can buy them online or someplace like Radio Shack would carry them.  If you’re doing phone interviews, spend another $20 for a little device that lets you plug your Olympus into your phone line and record your phone interviews (always ask permission to do this, of course.) 

If you’re interviewing in person or on the phone, keep a pad of paper that is numbered 1-60.  As each minute passes (and there’s a counter on the recorder) make a very brief note of what the person is saying at that moment.  Then you’ll have an "index" of the interview.  If you’re walking and talking, use the little "index" button on the recorder–just press it whenever something interesting is said that you want to get back to.

Then you download the interview onto your computer using the software that comes with the recorder, and using your written index, you will be able to very quickly jump around in the interview and grab the quotes you need.  The software lets you speed up or slow down the vocals, so that you can either listen to it more quickly, or slow it down and type what they are saying.  If you used the "index" button, a little triangle appears in the software every time you pressed it, so you can skip ahead to the interesting bits.

Q:  What kind of advice do you have for a florist/wholesaler/flower grower with 30 years
in the business?

A:  Wow.  You’re asking me?

OK, with the disclaimer that I’m really just an outsider who was curious about where flowers came from, I’ll tell you what I think.

This industry has got to go green in a big way, and in a way that is very transparent and obvious to customers.  Sustainability is not just about how the flowers are grown, it’s also about how they’re shipped, refrigerated, packaged, and sold.  Don’t get left behind on this one.  If you’re not sure what this means, call Ray Anderson and he’ll tell you.

Florists need to get involved in "Local First" groups in their community that support locally-owned businesses.  Look to the American Booksellers Association for an example of how independent bookstores have fought to stay alive.  Florists are going to have to get feisty like this.

And I think that everybody in this industry has to be able to share their genuine passion for flowers with the world.  If you look at flowers as merchandise, everybody else will, too.  People want to fall in love with flowers.  But a photo of a ho hum arrangement of daisies sitting on a coffee table is not going to make anybody drool.   Every photograph Martha Stewart has ever run of flowers in her magazine looks better than most of the ads or industry photos I see of flowers.  if you’re still not sure what I mean, compare the photographs here to the photographs here.  Which ones do you lust after?

Q:  What are those little foamy things on my plants?

A:  Spittlebugs.  They’re pretty harmless.  Wash them off with a hose if they bother you. It’s a seasonal thing; they’ll go away soon.

At Work

OfficeIt’s kind of strange to be back home in my office, working on another book.  (No, I’m not saying what it’s about!  Not yet.)  When Flower Confidential came out and I was going to be on the road for almost three months, I realized that it was finally time for me to give up the last vestiges of a normal life and write full time. 

I’d always had some kind of day job or non-writing work before, but leading up to the book tour, it became clear that this was going to be impossible. Even when I was home, there were days when I would have seven or eight radio interviews by phone in one day.  And now, the interview requests still trickle in, I’ve got one or two speaking engagements in the works every month, a few magazine editors waiting on articles, and this new book to write.

So now I find myself completely free of the 8 -5 life for the first time ever.  It’s only been a few weeks since the end of the book tour travel, so I’m still getting used to it. I had always imagined that if I didn’t have any kind of job at all, I would completely abandon the idea of weekends or work days.  I would spend all day Wednesday in the garden, for example, or I would do whatever I wanted in the morning, when I’m not really awake anyway, and work late into the evening instead.

But so far, I find myself sticking to a routine that’s not too different than it ever was.  Saturdays feel too much like Saturday for me to want to work.  I go to the farmers market in the morning, and then the nursery, and you just can’t convince me to sit down at the computer after that.  And in the mornings, I’m finished with coffee and newspaper by about 9:30, and I’m pretty much ready to get to work, even if I do spend the first hour answering e-mails or doing other foolish little tasks that don’t require much brain power.  And I still haven’t quite got my mind around the idea that I can just take off and go somewhere for a week or two without asking anyone’s permission-except for my bank account.

Oh yeah, the bank account.  That’s the tricky bit. Health insurance has been fun, too.  We’re trying out a health savings account, which I guess makes us part of the great Republican healthcare experiment.  Lovely.

So far, the best part about this is the luxury of time.  Hours go by and my phone doesn’t ring at all.  On most days, the calendar is completely blank.  Nobody expects anything from me.  That, to me, is an utter delight.  I can just about get one page of my new book written every day, and I love watching the pages accumulate.  It feels like I’m making progress, but it also feels totally manageable.

I’m not usually the sort of person who posts little inspirational sayings above her desk, but right now there’s a card on my bulletin board that says: "Ever notice how ‘What the hell?’ is always the right decision?" 

This is going to be my "What the hell?" summer.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

And Now, This.

You won’t hear much from me for the next couple of weeks, but meanwhile, take a stroll over to GardenRant, where there’s always something going on.

Also, I just did an interview with The Blog Reader–go check them out, too.

more coming soon….

Let’s Geek Out

Excuse me while I get all geeky for a minute.

First, this website is hosted by Webmasters. When I signed up with them, I thought, oh, whatever, it’s a big old anonymous company and I’m on my own, but hey, it’s cheap.  Was I ever wrong!  These people have 24/7 live phone support with an actual person who:

(a) is not angry with you for calling, and

(b) does not tell you to reinstall Windows and call them back, and

(c) is able to actually fix the problem while you are on the phone with them.

I can’t tell you how amazing this is.  This has happened not once, but twice for me, so I don’t think it’s a fluke.  Also, the second time I called, I got disconnected and called back, thinking:  oh, great.  I’ve got to start all over with some new person.  But no, the same person answered and she solved my problem!

How is this possible?  Really, I don’t understand.  But give them a try.

In response to Angela’s question about TypePad vs. Blogger–

Yes, TP makes it very easy to import Blogger posts.  Here’s a hint: if you want your posts categorized as you import them (since Blogger does not support categories), add this to the code TypePad gives you to put in your Blogger template for the import process:


or whatever you want the category to be.  This’ll make sense when you’re reading TypePad’s instructions.  Also, you can put your Blogger blog back the way it was when you’re done importing–just follow the instructions in reverse.

And TypePad is WAY easier in terms of putting cool stuff in your sidebar, and you can do loads of customization without knowing any HTML (including uploading a photo for your header), and there’s a browser button for quick posts, and too many other nifty features to list. 

I use TypePad Pro, which allows unlimited blogs which can each be pointed to their own domains (this is tricky, so read the documentation first), unlimited authors, and unlimited fun.  Seriously, I am a total TypePad convert.  If only Picassa worked seamlessly with it, but I’m getting over that fast.  I think you can get a 30-day free trial.  Check it out.

OK, back to horticulture.  I promise.

Welcome to my new blog!

There are big changes afoot at Dirt.  First, I’ve moved to this new location and integrated the blog with the rest of my website. 

Second, I’ve rolled my three old blogs (Dirt, Humboldt Hens, and Worms of Endearment) into one.  If you’re only here for the chicken stuff, the worm stuff, or the garden stuff, check the Categories links on the left.   I’ll also be writing more about the cut flower industry, the upcoming book tour, and other news related to my new book, Flower Confidential.

Third, I’m blogging a few times a week at GardenRant, so please stop by and check us out.  We’re having a little too much fun for our own good over there.  You can read more about the inspiration for this group blog here.

And last but not least, I’ve made it even easier to get Dirt by adding a bunch of subscription options at the bottom of the sidebar.  Just scroll down and see if there’s one there that will work for your custom Yahoo, Google, or AOL homepage, or for your Bloglines account, or whatever kind of reader you might use to read all your favorite blogs in one place.  (Is this syndication talk all Greek to you? Then check out CNET’s simple explanation. An RSS reader is a great way to enable and simplify your growing blog addiction.)

Oh, and you can even get new Dirt posts by e-mail.  Just check out the "Get E-mail Updates" box near the bottom of the sidebar.

And now–for once–I’m going to go spend the day in the garden.  I’ll be back with a full report soon.