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Delightful dahlias and other summer flowering bulbs

On a hot and muggy Saturday afternoon this week I had just about the most fun a gardener could have. On Friday I’d received a surprise crate of summer flowering bulbs from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and it was my time to play. It was Christmas. It was my birthday. Someone watching might think the project looked like a lot of work, but gardeners know: This is the kind of work we yearn for.

Mine were not the only bulbs arriving in the Buffalo area that Friday. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (Gloucester, Va., growing bulbs since 1900) sent special bulbs, corms and tubers to say thank-you to some of the people who are sharing their gardens and working to host the national conference of GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators in early August in Buffalo.

Some of the plants will leaf out or flower in time for Garden Walk Buffalo or Open Gardens. Others may bloom by Aug. 5 when the GWA tour buses (with about 400 writers and photographers) begin circling, and some will peak later in summer. The timing doesn’t matter – it’s all good, like frosting on the birthday cake.

Which bulbs go where?

When you order plants by mail, any reputable company reminds you about site factors such as hardiness zone, moisture needs and sun exposure. Co-owner Becky Heath asked the bulb recipients whether their gardens were mostly or partly sunny or shady. So when they arrived everyone had a sense of where to place them eventually. That was the easy part.

More challenging: How and where to keep large pots full of bulbs and potting mix, until they sprout? (It’s a rule not to water plants unless they have some shoots growing above the soil.) The bulbs need to sense the sun and feel the heat, but they are at risk of rotting in too much water.

A few weeks earlier, Annabelle Irey and Jim Locke of Lancaster Avenue faced a similar question on a larger scale. Jim wrote, “We plant all our dahlias at the same time. This year we planted 179 dahlias in plastic pots on April 22. The weather was warm and the forecast was optimistic but horribly wrong. We had multiple weeks of cold wet weather and moved them into the garage twice. We expected them all to rot but miraculously about 130 made it.”

The timing is fairly unpredictable, he said. While it’s clear that smaller dahlias mature quickly and dinner plant dahlias slower, the heat and sunshine are unknowns.

After my own day of potting up dahlias, gladioli, eucomis, caladiums and colocasias, I too had to figure out where to hold them. Thunderstorms were predicted. I put them under two picnic tables temporarily. That worked well but in the morning I found a great big hole where a squirrel – best guess – had dug one large bulb right out of the pot. Figuring that Mama Squirrel was planning a family reunion for the following night, I covered the pots with chicken wire and screens.

Delightful dahlias

There are reasons that dahlias have starring roles in containers all over Buffalo in summer. Quite like our WNY gardeners, who share their accomplishments unreservedly, dahlias are generous. Becky Heath calls them the “love flowers.”

“The more you cut the flowers and give them away, the more the dahlia plants give flowers back to the gardener. It’s a win-win situation,” she said. That is also why it’s apparently quite nice to be one of Annabelle’s friends or neighbors in Buffalo, as she is known for cutting and delivering bouquets throughout the second half of summer. Love flowers, indeed.

The beauty of the flowers is another best reason to grow dahlias, but we should not discount the foliage. Becky Heath mentioned the visual impact of dark-leaved dahlias that provide the feeling of a quiet, shady garden, even though they are grown in full sun.

With all those benefits it does not seem too much trouble to lift and store dahlia bulbs for the winter. (A few gardeners may pretend they live in Zone 7, mulch the bulbs heavily, provide perfect drainage, and get away with it. Mostly that won’t work.)

After some frosty nights, when the leaf tips begin to turn black, gently cut the leaves to six inches and lift the bulbs out of the soil. Do not wash. Brush off most soil and let them air-dry. In a few days trim the roots, cut the stems to one inch, and store them in sand or a paper bag between 40 to 50 degrees.

More bulbs, decisions

Many gardeners find great joy in the process of container planting. You find your pots, fill the car with potting mix (high quality mix, not soil from the garden), buy the annual and tropical plants you can’t resist, and set out the bulbs. Then you mix and match. Single species? One-color pots? Tall tropical plants (cannas, bananas, palms) surrounded by a skirt of caladiums or begonias?

Eventually you’ll know which plants you like in which containers. Then you plant, rereading instructions about depth and spacing, bulb by bulb, tuber by tuber, plant by plant. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs made it easy by providing specific instructions for in-ground and potted plants.

At the end of my own project I ran out of containers and potting mix. Since I have a large perennial garden I decided to put the lilium (lilies) into the soil, where I expect them to last for many years (with a little protection from deer). I will put the gladioli out near the raspberry plants to use as cut flowers. If you plant any bulbs in soil, the best amendment is compost, and the best ways to prevent losses are excellent drainage and a plan for winter protection.

If summer flowering bulbs are new to you, don’t hesitate to try some. Try some that are already potted up in your nursery. Then watch and plan to copy what you’ll see on tours in our region’s unforgettable gardens.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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