Tag Archives: dahlias

A Beautiful Failure: Gardening From Mistake to Mistake

A DAHLIA DISASTER is looming. It has the potential to be a colossal gardening failure on my part and is already a crushing disappointment. Crushing, but not career-ending. If in fact every single one of the twenty-five dahlia plants which I started from tubers (in the bathtub) meets an early and untimely death in our breakfast room, I will pick up my gardening ego and carry on.

I have done it before and I will do it again because I am stubborn, and because I think half the time I cause these problems by moving too fast, planting too much, trying to squeeze too much out of too little. And I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being this way. The only good news is that I’ve learned to accept the outcome. Sobriety has definitely taught me this. And that you only have so much control over things. (Well, actually very little control. Especially when it comes to nature.)

However, if whatever pariah is affecting the dahlias (could be spider mites, could be potting soil with too much nitrogen, could be a temperature swing or a moisture thing, a virus, or God knows what) migrates to the tomato seedlings (which are looking spindly and a little droopy), I will have to beat myself up just a little.

The problem is that I started way too many things indoors, everything grew super-fast under the new lights, and the weather is still too cold to move anything outside, even during the day. So I am using limited window light to provide plants that need a lot of sun with, well, not enough sun. I should absolutely know better. And just because I am always wishing I had a greenhouse, that doesn’t mean that one is going to magically appear this instant. I should really rig up a little temporary plastic hoop structure outside, but I haven’t had time to do it yet. 

Seedlings are survivors though (yay, we love survivors – tough cookies!) and my bet is that most of the vegetables, zinnias, cosmos, Thai basil, etc., will power through the less-than-ideal conditions inside and make the transition to the outdoors in a couple weeks.

The dahlias are a different story. One morning at the breakfast table I looked over at the leaves curling on most of the plants and headed for the internet (a frustrating activity if there ever was one. No two dahlia growers agree on anything). By dinner that night I told my partner that I thought the dahlias might all have spider mites (probably from our house plants) and that it might be nearly impossible to eradicate. He looked at my face, and I know he thought I was going to cry. He offered every possible kind of positive encouragement, including suggesting we buy dahlia plants from a local nursery to replace them. He knew how much fun I’d been having planning the dahlia garden – lists and charts and pictures cut out of catalogues – and he’d been planning (still is!) to build me a new raised bed just for these flowers.

We decided we’d simply have to wait and see. So far some still look okay, but several are looking worse, and others that were just starting to leaf out are now relegated to a different part of the house in the hopes that they won’t get contaminated (if in fact it is a virus). They will be the first to go out to the little temporary plastic-covered holding area if I can get going on it. 

If we do lose some or all of the dahlias, we’ll replace some with whatever similar varieties I can find at the nurseries, though certainly not 25 plants (they are pricey!), and sadly it will be hard to find the exact same ones which I chose for color and shape. Maybe in the future I’ll give up on trying to start dahlias inside to get a jump on these gorgeous blooms. But probably not. I’ll come up with what I hope will be a better way to do it next year.

Dahlia Parkland Glory from last year.

I’m fascinated by the amount of failure I am willing to tolerate when it comes to gardening. You could toss it off to the familiar adages about failures adding up to success, etc., etc. But I think there is another reason I put myself through this: I enjoy the process, the doing, the thinking, the reading, the trying, the puzzling, the planting, the watching, the coddling. I like engaging this way so much that even if things don’t work out, I’m still happy. (Some people enjoy banging their heads against the wall repeatedly!)

So I guess I’d have to agree with Winston Churchill:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

P.S. Sorry for the late delivery this week. I had my second vaccination yesterday. But now that it’s Sunday, I can wish you Happy Mother’s Day.

Last year, I paired a little Bishop dahlia with Thai basil and annual pennisetum in a container on the deck. It turned out to be a nice combo, though little Bishop grew quite tall!


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Move Over Zinnias and Cosmos, Here Come Dahlias

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

THEY have names like Brown Sugar and Cupcake, Honeydew and Café au Lait. There’s a Zippity Do Da and a Gitty Up, a Bumble Rumble and a Poodle Skirt. Throw in a Lover Boy, an Irish Blackheart, a Foxy Lady, and a Platinum Blonde, and it sounds like the cast of Toy Story took a wrong turn on the studio lot and wound up on the Outlander set. 

“They” are dahlias, and I think I’m in love.

It’s not just those names, though seriously, who doesn’t want a Lucky Ducky or a Ferncliff Dolly hanging out in the yard? It’s much more. Much, much more. Starting and ending with color. With shape, size, stature, and abundant generosity in between.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

If I’d only known. Oh, I must have known dahlias. They towered in late summer in Edgartown front yards, giant fiery blooms tipping over genteel cap-rail fences. Perhaps I dismissed them for their acerbic shades of carnation red and “highlighter” lemon (more on that in a minute). But I was in the dahlia dark.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

By chance, in my last year of growing cut flowers as a farmer, I planted a few tubers next to my rows and rows of zinnias and cosmos and sunflowers. I had no idea what I was doing, and waited patiently for the shoots and leaves to appear above ground. (Staring at the ground? Yes I was.) Even when they showed up (and actually grew tall!), I wasn’t convinced they would bloom. At last, late in the summer, a raft of perky coral, ball-shaped flowers appeared to bounce on the breeze – and kept right on bouncing through October.

Susie Middleton photo

I harvested my first dahlias, popped them into my flower bunches, and thought, hmmm, I wish I had more. (More is the story of my life.)

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

But it has only been in the last few years, since I discovered Floret Farm and the fabulous Erin Benzakein, that my awareness of dahlias has really blossomed. I bought Erin’s first book, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden, and then the next, Floret Farm’s A Year in Flowers. I soaked up page after page of gorgeous photos, expert planting tips, thoughtful arranging advice, and detailed variety information. From daffodils to peonies, lilacs to sweet peas, I began to learn how not only annuals, but shrubs, perennials, tubers (dahlias!), bulbs, vines, flowering trees, and grasses could also contribute to gorgeous flower arrangements. 

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

As a farmer, I’d been so unsure of my bouquet-making ability (and so short on time when I went solo), that I rarely sold anything but bunches of one type of flower. Having never worked on a flower farm, I didn’t know the tricks of the trade. Now I wish I had been bolder, less insecure, and more willing to learn.  

Last summer, thanks to Erin’s books and videos, I took a stab at the kind of lush, natural arranging she does. I plundered my small cut-flower garden (which includes a few dahlias I’ve managed to divide, store, and regrow) and foraged branches and stems of various leafy and flowery things lurking in the woods and along the roadsides near my house. I made a flower frog out of chicken wire, don’t you know! My efforts were hilarious. But I didn’t care. Flower arranging is so intentional and meditative (as long as you’re making just one, not 400, at a time) that it’s an ideal distraction for the busy-brained.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

And then Floret Farm’s brand new book, Discovering Dahlias, arrived in the mail last week. At first I put it aside, knowing it would be such a treat to sit and savor it that I didn’t want to spoil the experience with a cursory look. (I’m sort of weird that way; my sister always found the secret hiding place for Christmas presents, but I never wanted to look.) I told myself I’d wait until I got through the busy back-to-back deadline days.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

But one of those can’t-fall-asleep nights came along and I broke the spine. And I was off to the races. I think somewhere between learning there are eight sizes, twenty shapes (or forms), and literally thousands of varieties and seeing the astonishing range of colors, I went from charmed to hooked to officially obsessed. (As if anyone couldn’t guess that was coming.) Even before I started reading, the photographs by Erin’s husband Chris got me at hello. Just stop, I wanted to say, when looking at them. How can there be so much beauty between two covers?

Clearly dahlias are a geeky flower gardener’s dream. The permutations of color, shape, and size are seemingly infinite, as illustrated by the second half of Discovering Dahlias, where Erin and Chris have thoughtfully profiled and photographed 360 of their favorite varieties. 360! And that’s less than half of the 800 varieties they grew on the farm last season.

Photos by Chris Benzakein, Floret

The varieties are grouped by color (just as they are planted in the “rainbow” dahlia field on Floret Farm) – white, yellow, blush/champagne, peach, orange, coral, raspberry, pink, purple, red, and maroon/black. Seeing them segue together this way is a revelation. Those garish hues (including what Erin calls “highlighter” yellow, though she takes care not to dismiss it, only saying it can be difficult to pair with other shades) that I once associated with dahlias recede into this captivating new spectrum of subtly shifting color.

The photos – in the signature style Chris has developed of shooting bunches of flowers in Erin’s arms, often with her looking away from the camera – are illuminating. Showing a bunch, rather than just one blossom, gives a sense of how one dahlia variety can manifest itself in blooms each slightly different from the next. I just wish the pictures were larger!

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

I am currently in the “orange” chapter of the book, and I think I may stay there awhile, though I feel like I’m dissing my pal pink. There’s just something about the ambers and pumpkins and tangerines and butterscotches. In fact, last night, around midnight, I may or may not have placed an order to a dahlia farm for three (more) dahlia tubers in orangey hues (Brown SugarIce Tea, and Maarn). These are in addition to a just a few others I ordered in January. I don’t know, I’m afraid to look in my email and find out.

Tonight I will return again to the comforting world of Discovering Dahlias, knowing there’s more to learn, more to admire, more to feed my pursuit of color and beauty.


Take note! All photos from Discovering Dahlias and of Floret Farm were taken by Chris Benzakein and provided, with permission, by Team Floret. (Thank you Team Floret!). Follow @floretflower or visit floretflowers.comfor more. And here is the link to purchase any one of the three books.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

Pretty flowers need pretty vases. Check out @farmhousepottery and @francespalmer for dahlia-friendly pottery.


“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” — Buddha


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