Chesterton Tribune

Dahlias bring color to September gardens

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September is for ..... those darling dahlias.

When other flowers are beginning to look ratty and sad, the dahlias are thriving. Shorter, bedding varieties have been flowering for some time, but now showing are the 4 to 5-foot specimens planted in late May or early June when the soil is well-warmed.

The first of mine to bloom in August was perky ‘Pink Gingham,’ 5-inch blooms of medium pink with each petal tipped in white. Next was ‘Lavender Ruffles,’ a mammoth 9 1¦2-inch tousled beauty that fills a vase. Then came what I thought was ‘Worton Blue Streak,’ the nearest-blue on the dahlia market available, but it was purple. I think ‘Blue Streak,’ which wasn’t even close to blue, ended up in another bed.

At this point I realized I probably mixed up the names of the tubers, which were planted six inches below the ground and a sturdy stake inserted at that time so the tuber isn’t crushed trying to stake it later.

Swan Island stamps the name of the variety on the tuber. When I dig them about two weeks after a killing frost when the stalks are brown, or mid-November if there hasn’t been a hard frost, I can see if the names are still visible.

Last year I did not store my dahlias properly and they molded; this year they will go into a cardboard box filled with crushed leaves, peat or sawdust and be stored in a dry area at about 45 degrees.

Other late-season garden performers are taking center stage. This spring I was happy to find a new eupatorium aromaticum cultivar of the native Joe Pye Weed named ‘Joicus Variegated’.

The green ‘Joicus’ leaves are dappled with white and its big wispy, white flowerheads are said to be fragrant although mine isn’t noticeably so yet. The plant got to 4 1/2 feet this year but became so big I bought a small section of short, old picket fence as a support. ‘Joicus’ is supposed to reach 6 feet eventually.

Earlier in the year one large branch of ‘Joicus’ broke off. With nothing to lose I cut the 30-inch stalk into four sections, made sure the top end faced up and plunged each into the soil near the mother plant. All have rooted, grown and are about to flower. I tried the same thing with a broken larch branch with no luck.

For me it’s always fun to scout plant nurseries and find a real bargain. I came across two this year.

Several spring garden catalogs sold pricey cannas with big, variegated yellow and green striped leaves. White Flower Farm wanted $29 for ‘Striata.’ One day at Remus Farm on U.S. 6 I spied what looked very much like ‘Striata’ in a pot marked $8.50. I snapped it up and it has been the focal point of the new south border.

Tall stalks bearing coral-orange, gladiolus-like flowers have topped the 48-inch clump of leaves for several weeks, and still do. I’ll treat the canna rhizomes much like dahlias and lift them. Both dahlia and canna can be potted up indoors in the spring to get a jump on outdoor planting.

My other bargain of this season was found at Karp’s Greenhouse on Indiana 51 in Hobart. Rummaging around in the very back where struggling plants ended up I found what appeared to be a type of copper beech (fagus sylvatica f. purpurea?) in need of some serious TLC.

Had this nearly 5-foot special tree been in better condition it would have sold for quite a price, but I talked the salesman into $20 on their half-price weekend. The beech is planted in a temporary holding area to see if it makes it. So far, so good. Last year I found a tattered red Japanese maple at season’s end and this year it’s flourished.

For those who want extra organic matter, the new Starbucks in downtown Portage has a box in the store offering huge bags of used coffee grounds for the garden. They’re sloppy, so bring a big container if you’ve got the good car. I read coffee grounds boost nitrogen but in the long term are more valuable helping to increase the overall soil friability.

On another subject, ever since reading 1989’s “Hemerocallis, The Daylily” by R.W. Munson, Jr. I assembled a list of cultivars I wanted to find. At the top of my list was ‘Cameroons.’ Last year I found it at Oakes Daylilies and this year it bloomed. It is a stunning tetraploid 6-inch flower.

The claret wine-purple petals curl under at the edges. The lemon/lime throat flushes into a chalky pink, slightly striped eyezone. This truly is a dandy. I need to make it a point to get out before winter (oh no, I actually uttered the word!) and re-label many daylilies --- if I can.

The labels that came with several purchased last year have become illegible. This is a great reason to relabel new arrivals and to save our past order forms, which often --- but not always --- can help us match a plant’s name to a catalog or Internet picture or description. I’ll print the new labels on a computerized labelmaker; which over time has yielded the best results for me.

Catalogs for spring bulbs are flooding our mailboxes. One source for heirloom flower bulbs is Old House Gardens from Ann Arbor, MI ( The historical and botanical descriptions alone are extremely interesting.

I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing OHG owner and landscape historian Scott Kunst this spring. A companion book to his talk was “Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings” by Rudy J. Favretti and Joy Putman Favretti, which lists authentic period plant selections by era.

Before 1850, said Kunst, pioneer yards were not ornamental as much as functional, although the wealthy did have front parlor gardens. “A house without a fence wasn’t done. It was like going out in curlers,” said Kunst. As far as plant selections, “Roses probably were at the top of the list in the 1800s and bulbs just below that.”

The Madonna lily, hyacinth, tulips, peony, bearded iris and herbs filled these gardens as did lilacs, rose of Sharon and snowball bushes. Petunias were the hottest flower of the mid 1800s; verbena and dahlias also were planted.

The late 1800s afforded more liesure time and Victorian porches were the rage, often decorated with fuchsia, fancy-leaf begonia, wicker furniture and, of course, the porch swing, said Kunst. People loved bleeding heart and ferns, and sub-tropical favorites like castor bean, canna, elephant ear and coleus.

As the century progressed, so did more romantic landscapes typified by curving bed lines, climbing vines and grassy lawns. Closer to 1900 more foundation plantings were used, often of evergreens or bridal wreath spirea. The spirea was planted around our farmhouse when we bought it; I tore the bushes out, replanted one newer cultivar and it died. So much for my landscape restoration.

Common 1900-era annuals were pansy, salvia and geranium. People began mowing their yard rather than cutting it with a scythe. Soon development in the cities led to an age of eclectic landscaping cramming several garden styles in one yard, said Kunst. Anything goes was the byword.

As yard space formerly devoted to wind breaks, feed lots and chore areas shrank, people moved off their porches onto terrace or patio areas. Gazing globes beautified rose and herb gardens.

“Concrete is historic,” said Kunst. “It’s important and says 20th Century.” The new wonder material was used for ponds and rock gardens. Pergolas and trellising gained in popularity. Now more-stylish wrought iron was seen replacing the earlier wooden, cast iron and woven wire fencing.

From about 1870 to 1910 elaborately patterned carpet beds were planted until English-inspired cottage and perennial gardens became popular. Everyone wanted a pergola or a fountain. Eventually texture, height and seasonal bloom became important elements, as they are today.

At one time, said Kunst, “Elephant ears weren’t cool. Now they’re on the cover of garden magazines. That’s garden history. If we look to the past you’ll find great plants we (cast aside) or forgot about.”

This was so true with elephant ear or colocasia. Plant Delights Nursery alone offered 11 varieties in its spring catalog. Also seeing a resurgence is the wilder-than-ever coleus, many now sun-tolerant.

What will landscape historians say about our gardens of the 21st Century? A return to native plantings? Too much lawn? Not enough raised island beds? I guess we’ll have to wait 100 years to find out.


Posted 9/18/2003