It’s finally time to think about what we want to accomplish in our garden this year. Another bed of perennials? A few more vegetables and herbs in the edible garden? How about a new look for the planters on the patio? We’ve got your guide to the most beautiful gardens and hardiest plant sales in the area. Take a look … then head out and enjoy!
Through May 28
Bucks County Designer House & Gardens. Designers show their creativity at Foxwood Manor, 1596 Turkey Trot Rd., Jamison. Benefits Doylestown Hosp. and Village Improvement Assoc. Mon–Wed, 10 to 4; Thurs, 10 to 7; Fri, 10 to 4; Sat, 10 to 6; Sun, noon to 4. $25–$30. 215-345-2191; BucksCountyDesignerHouse.org.
Arasapha Garden Club’s Annual May Market in Historic New Castle. Unique, flowering plants and herbs, shrubs and artisan crafts. Market Square, Second & Delaware Sts., New Castle, DE. Fri, 9 to 5; Sat, 9 to 3. 302-322-7895; Arasapha.org.
Friends of Everhart Park Plant Sale. Plant varieties proven to thrive in the Brandywine Valley. Proceeds go to maintaining and improving the park. 501-599 W. Union St., West Chester. 10 to 2. Facebook.com/FriendsOfEverhartPark.
Wilmington Garden Day. Twelve gardens to tour in Greenville, Wilmington and Chadds Ford areas. Benefits children in need, specifically Friendship House, Inc. and St. Michael’s School & Nursery. 10 to 4. $35–$40. WilmingtonGardenDay.org.
DE Nature Society Native Plant Sale. More than 300 rare varieties of native wildflowers, trees, shrubs, ferns and aquatic plants are for sale. Some from nearby Mt. Cuba Center and many species that attract wildlife. Coverdale Farm, 543 Way Rd., Greenville, DE. Sat, 10 to 4; Sun, 11 to 4. 302-239-2334; DelNature.org/NPS.
Jenkins Arboretum & Gardens Annual Plant Sale. One of the largest sales in the area, sponsored by the Valley Forge Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. 631 Berwyn Baptist Rd., Devon. Sat, 9 to 3; Sun, 11 to 3. 610-647-8870; JenkinsArboretum.org.
Annual Plant Sale at Tyler Arboretum. Hard-to-find trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and herbs—an inspiration for the whole garden. 515 Painter Rd., Media. 9 to 3. 610-566-9134; TylerArboretum.org.
Chestnut Hill Home & Garden Festival. Explore plants, crafts and artwork from over 150 vendors as home and garden design and supplies take the spotlight. Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill. 11 to 5. Raindate May 21. 215-247-6696; ChestnutHillPa.com.
78th Annual Phila. Herb Society of America Herb Sale. Herbs, vegetable seedlings, rare and unusual geraniums and salvias for sale, along with herbs. Historic Yellow Springs, 1685 Art School Rd., Chester Springs. Herbal brunch, $15, res. only. 10 to 1. 610-970-5264; HSAPhiladelphia.org.
Wilmington Flower Market. Benefits nonprofit Delaware children’s agencies. Carnival rides, art, gifts, entertainment, flowers and plants of all kinds are available. Rockford Park, Wilmington. Thurs–Fri, 10 to 8; Sat, 10 to 7. Free. 302-995-5699; WilmingtonFlowerMarket.org.
National Public Gardens Day. Nation-wide effort to raise awareness of our public gardens and their value to our communities. Participants include Nemours Estate, Scott Arboretum, Brandywine Conservancy, Longwood Gardens, Tyler Arboretum, Chanticleer Garden and more. NationalPublicGardensDay.org.
Landis Valley Museum Herb & Garden Faire. Over 80 vendors of heirloom plants, roses, native and hard-to-find plants, annuals, perennials and art for the garden spread over the historic village. 2451 Kissel Hill Rd., Lancaster. 9 to 5. $12. 717-569-0401; LandisValleyHerbFaire.org.
Scott Arboretum Selections: The Spring Sale. Hard-to-find but superior plant performers that thrive in area gardens—plants not found at big box stores are found here. Experts will be on hand to answer questions. Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Wister Center, Swarthmore. Fri, Preview Party, 5:30 to 7:30, $25–$40; Sat, noon to 3, free. 610-328-8023; ScottArboretum.org.
Willistown Conservation Trust 3rd Barns & BBQ. Tour five of Willistown area’s beautiful barns and farms, followed by a bountiful barbecue. Tour begins at 3; cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and barbecue follow. Res. req. 610-353-2562; WCTrust.org.
May 13, 21
Tours and Plant Sales at Winterthur Museum & Gardens. May 13, Azaleas and Bluebells Day, guided and self-guided tours through Winterthur’s gardens, plant sale and tea available. May 21, Peonies & Primroses Day, tours and plant sale. Rt. 52, Winterthur. 10 to 3. Included with adm., $5–$20. 800-448-3883; Winterthur.org.
Brandywine River Museum of Art Wildflower, Native Plant & Seed Sale. Hundreds of varieties for sale to benefit Brandywine Conservancy’s native plant gardens. Rt. 1, Chadds Ford. 9:30 to 5. Free. 610-388-2700; BrandywineMuseum.org.
Welkinweir’s Mother’s Day Tea & Azalea Bloom Walk. A springtime tradition celebrating mothers and special women. Organ concert, tours of the historic estate house and azalea gardens at the peak of bloom and an afternoon tea served on the tented terrace overlooking the pond and spring blooms. 1368 Prizer Rd., Pottstown. Res. req. 610-469-7543; Welkinweir.org.
43rd Shipley School Secret Gardens Tour. Explore magnificent properties located in the Gladwyne, Bryn Mawr and Haverford neighborhoods with a luncheon at Merion Cricket Club. Tour and seated lunch, $80; tour only, $45. 8:30 to 4:30. 610-525-4544; ShipleySchool.org/SecretGardens.
A Day In Old New Castle. Beautifully tended gardens and historic homes are on this tour now in its 93rd year. Shuttle from First Baptist Church in New Castle (Rts. 141 & 273) to the Green in Old New Castle. 10 to 5. $5–$20. 302-322-5774; DIONC.ImmanuelEpiscopal.com.
Bayard Taylor Home & Garden Tour. A variety of homes and gardens offering something for every interest. This year’s theme: “It’s All About the View.” Sample food and beverages from local restaurants and merchants. Benefits Kennett Library’s Children’s Programs and Adult Literacy. 10 to 4. $40. 610-444-2702; KennettLibrary.org.
New Hope Historical Society’s 23rd Annual Garden Tour. The Historical Society has partnered with Bucks County realtors to present a “Million Dollar Listing” tour, welcoming visitors inside five of the most beautiful estates in Bucks County. Benefits the Parry Mansion Museum. 10 to 4. $40. 215-862-5652; NewHopeHS.org.
34th Annual Demuth Garden Tour & Party. Exclusive Lancaster residences offer creative urban gardens, distinctive architecture and interior design. Starts with the Demuth Garden Party, June 9, 6 pm, music, hors d’oeuvres and silent art auction at Conestoga House & Gardens, 1608 Marietta Ave., Lancaster. Res. req. Tour, Sat, 10 to 5; Sun, 11 to 5. $18–$20. 717-299-9940; Demuth.org.
Garden Day at White Horse Village Retirement Community. Recognized as an arboretum by Swarthmore College, the Village’s 96 acres of gardens, meadows and woodlands are open to visitors on this self-guided tour. Adjacent to Ridley Creek State Park. Start at the Club House, 535 Gradyville Rd., Newtown Square. 11 to 3. Free. 610-558-5000; WhiteHorseVillage.org.
Scott Arboretum Selections: Fall Sale. Mark your calendars for the fall event held at Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore. Sat, noon to 3; Sun, 11 to 2. 610-328-8025; ScottArboretum.org.
What you do this fall will reap big rewards come spring.
Autumn is a busy yet rewarding time for gardeners. Cooler weather and moist soil are a pleasant relief from summer, and autumn seems less pressured with chores than spring. Yet there’s still much to accomplish this season—but with the added bonus that every job done this fall won’t be on your spring To Do list.
At Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, we wait until November for many of our big tasks because that’s when we close the garden to the public. While autumn leaves are turning bright colors and dropping, we go into full cleanup mode, preparing the garden for spring. Non-hardy plants are moved inside and many tasks need to be done before snow falls.
In your own garden, though, you can start earlier—maybe on a crisp October day.
Use Your Leaves
Autumn cleanup not only makes outdoor spaces more attractive, it also improves the health of gardens and lawns. You’ll reduce the destructive feeding on crowns and roots by opportunistic voles and other rodents that shelter in the leaves. And fallen leaves accumulate and cover lawns, suffocating the grass, leaving ugly brown patches come spring.
Though a rake is indispensable, our favorite tool for tackling leaves is a mulch mower. Any mower will work, but a mulch mower’s design helps it chop leaves where they fall, reducing the arduous chore of hauling tarps heavy with loads of raked or blown leaves.
Chopped leaves can remain in place, adding organic matter and nutrients, helping the soil retain moisture during drought, and resulting in a healthier lawn. Plus, chopped leaves don’t blow around, making you more popular with your neighbors. If even after chopping, the leaves are still too thick, add them as mulch to nearby garden beds.
You can also use mowers to tidy garden beds, after removing weeds and diseased plants and gathering seeds to save for spring planting. The chopped plants and leaves add to the mulch, giving you a tidy landscape that promises a new start to spring.
Plant Bulbs for Spring Color
Invest time this fall in planting spring-blooming bulbs and removing those that can’t overwinter (like gladiolus) before the winter cold. Bulbs will put out roots once they’re in the ground and the season’s low temperatures provide the dormancy needed for spring blooming.
Large bulbs like tulips and daffodils, benefit from deep planting (six inches, at least). Most trowels and bulb diggers don’t go that deep, so you may want to use a thin shovel. Small bulbs can be planted more shallowly, though.
With all bulbs, be extravagant. Instead of five, plant 10 or 20. If you’re considering 100, go for 200. You’ll be happy with the results come spring.
If you’re planting many large bulbs, renting an auger is worth considering. You’ll find bulb planting is a perfect two-person job. One person drills the holes while another follows behind putting the bulbs in the hole, topping with soil.
This technique is especially useful when planting bulbs in lawns or where the soil is hard. With hard soil, you could instead dig up the entire area with a rototiller or hand spade and then plant the bulbs.
We did that one autumn at Chanticleer for a large area of bare soil that had been a lawn. We tilled the soil and planted bulbs, then scattered winter rye seed over the area. In the spring, the tulips and daffodils bloomed above the young grasses for a meadow-like effect—it was magical. Because we selected early-blooming, mid-season and late tulips and daffodils, we had a prolonged period of spring color.
Before Winter Comes
Once annuals and perennials start yellowing, cut them to the ground, leaving evergreen perennials—like hellebores and Christmas ferns—alone until spring when it’s time to remove their damaged leaves.
Fall is also time for harvesting any herbs that won’t overwinter.
Some plants—ornamental grasses come to mind—look good through winter even with tan foliage. Leave them up for winter interest, but cut them down in March.
Lawn renovations—reseeding, fertilizing—are best done while the soil is warm. Late September or early October is ideal both because soils are still warm enough and, most years, are moist from late summer rains.
For the same reasons, it’s a good time to transplant trees and divide perennials.
Autumn pruning can make cleanup easier. Hybrid tea roses, for instance, are difficult to work around. Reduce the length of shoots to make your life easier. Save the major cuts on roses, however, until March and April, when you can see if there’s been winter damage. Check online or with a garden center for the best time to prune other plants in your garden.
We save most of our other pruning jobs for winter, when you can see the structure of deciduous trees and shrubs and make better pruning decisions. It also gives you an excuse to be outside on warmish sunny winter days.
A few other chores before winter: shelter container plants—bring them indoors, plant them in the ground, or take cuttings—review your garden’s successes and failures to plan for next year, clean your garden tools before storing them, and plan for attracting birds to your yard.
Local garden centers sell plants for autumn planting and are excellent sources of advice about specific plants and tasks. You’ll find autumn bloomers for sale there as well.
For more ideas on jazzing up your garden for fall, visit a nearby public garden. The Philadelphia region is America’s Garden Capital, featuring more than 30 public gardens within 30 miles of Philadelphia. This fall, go to one you haven’t visited yet.
All this work will leave you with a neat and attractive property, one you’ll enjoy as you play touch football on the grass or look out from a window sipping something warm in the comfort of your home.
Chanticleer has been called the most romantic, imaginative and exciting public garden in America. It’s a garden of pleasure and learning, relaxing yet filled with ideas to take home. The garden will close Oct. 30 and reopen March 29, 2017. Visit at 786 Church Rd., Wayne. ChanticleerGarden.org.
Photos: Lisa Roper, Courtesy Chanticleer Gardens
The economic value of native pollinators is estimated at $3 billion per year in the U.S. You can help keep them contributing.
Summer is in full bloom at Stroud Preserve—a bucolic 571-acre property of woodlands, meadows and farm fields just outside West Chester—as Natural Lands Trust Preserve Manager Preston Wilson stands in the middle of a field of wildflowers and grasses that reach past his knees. Holding a clipboard in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, Wilson records the abundance of native bees on flowers he observes in seven-minute intervals.
This can be tricky and time-consuming work—every time he spots a bee, the clock stops so an accurate identification can be made. Also, many other insects—wasps, flies and European honey bees—look and behave like native bees. But Wilson and the handful of volunteers have been carefully trained to identify their quarry by experts at Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates (yes, that includes insects).
This monitoring is part of a larger effort to improve the habitat for pollinators on Natural Lands Trust’s preserves. The Media-based nonprofit owns and manages 42 nature preserves across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, totaling more than 22,000 acres of protected natural areas, much of which is open to visitors. Over time, the organization plans to replant meadows—currently dominated by warm-and cool-season grasses—with wildflowers to support pollinators.
So why go to all this trouble? The answer is simple: pollinators are essential to life as we know it, and their population decline is alarming.
One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees. While the loss of this environmental service would have a dramatic impact on U.S. food consumption, the situation is even more dire globally.
A study released earlier this year suggests that in some parts of the developing world the associated loss of nutrients—especially vitamin A—would affect immunity and dramatically increase the risk of dying from diseases like malaria and measles.
Pollinators worldwide are in serious trouble.
The U.S. Problem
In the last few decades, the number of native bumble bees in the U.S. has dropped by 96 percent and one species, Franklin’s bumble bee, is believed to be extinct.
North American monarch butterfly populations have declined by 90 percent. Last winter marked the lowest monarch count ever recorded, prompting scientists for several environmental groups to push for the butterflies to be classified as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Keepers of European honey bees have been reporting annual hive deaths of about 30 percent for the past 10 years, but in 2013 that number climbed to 50 percent in some areas. The loss was so bad that California’s almond growers were left without enough bees to pollinate the state’s 800,000 almond trees.
Most experts believe this population decline is due to a combination of factors, including habitat loss, climate changes, parasites and pesticides.
What Can You Do?
“There’s no one single solution to bringing back the pollinators—at least not yet,” said Wilson. “But making Natural Lands Trust’s preserves as hospitable as possible is one way we can do our part.”
You can help, too! By taking steps to improve pollinator habitat in your own yard, you’ll join a growing number of citizens working to make a difference.
Pollinators have just a few basic habitat requirements: a flower-rich foraging area, suitable plants or nests for egg laying, and a pesticide-free environment. To make things easier, Natural Lands Trust has developed simple pollinator garden plans available on their website (NatLands.org/PlantingPlans). Fortunately, many pollinator-favored plants—such as purple coneflower, wild bergamot, columbine, and shooting-star—are easy to grow and lovely to look at. Plans are available online for sunny, shady, wet or dry locations.
To help with nesting, you can find plans for building simple bee nest blocks from many sources on the Web. Leafcutter and mason bees are two groups of pollinators that naturally nest in beetle tunnels in dead trees. A man-made alternative to a dead tree is a wood block drilled with a series of dead-end holes—easy to make and available to buy.
It’s too early in the data collection to know the impact on local bee populations of creating wildflower-rich meadows, but bee expert Wilson is both patient and confident.
“I just read a study last week about how scientists decoded the ‘waggle dance’ of honey
bees, which communicates to other honey
bees the best places to collect pollen and nectar,” he said. “The study showed bees prefer nature preserves over all other types of habitats even if they have to travel farther to get there. I’d love to see how much they waggle when they find our preserves!”
What Are Pollinators?
Pollinators help in the process of pollination, when plants reproduce as pollen is moved within flowers or carried from flower to flower. Pollinators include birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles and other animals. The wind also aids pollination.
While butterflies are among the showiest pollinators, they pale in comparison to bees in doing the heavy work of pollinating plants. On a single foraging trip, a bee may visit hundreds of flowers, transferring pollen as it goes. In contrast, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and beetles visit flowers to feed on nectar, not to collect pollen. So these insects come into contact less frequently with the flowers’ anthers than bees do and, consequently, are far less effective at pollination.
Photos: the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College
Container Gardening with Tropicals and Annuals
With the long-awaited growing season just around the corner, it’s time to let your imagination bloom with saturated colors, quirky textures and exuberant forms. Ideal for exotic tropicals and annuals, the warm months allow for unbridled horticultural creativity, experimental gardening and, of course, dazzling containers.
For many gardeners, container gardening provides a vignette of horticulture in a bold, liberating way, especially when tropicals and annuals are involved. Whether you’re rolling in the green (and I don’t mean plants) or sticking to a budget, this rapidly growing gardening trend has picked up speed as it accommodates nearly every taste.
And, when it comes to container gardening, your imagination is the only limit!
Choosing Your Container
While it’s true that a single container can be captivating in its own right, as you begin your project consider how it will be part of a larger picture as you select the right size, style and material of the vessel itself.
Is your canvas a front stoop or an acre lot? A mature garden or a blank slate? Identifying the appropriate scale to suit your space will help you plan the composition of your design as well as how much growing medium you’ll need to keep your plants happy and healthy.
Choosing the largest container for your space and budget is best, as larger amounts of growing media help hold moisture in the soil. And it provides a smaller margin of error.
If you’re partial to smaller containers, create groupings in threes to experiment with design elements such as texture, repetition and juxtaposition of unlikely neighboring plants. Regardless of size, it’s better to use peat-free, compost-based, manufactured soils, since they’re more porous than garden soil and provide better drainage.
When it comes to the material of your container, consider alternatives to standard terra cotta or cast stone. In recent years, gardeners have become experimental, using everything from whiskey barrels to watering cans as new homes for their plants. But, if you plan to use your summer containers for winter interest, then consider concrete, metal, lead, plastic or fiberglass composite containers because they weather the elements well.
Fortunately, there are nearly as many variations in container styles as there are plants! Once you’ve decided on the scale and material, next consider the “theme” or “personality” of your composition. If your plants will be wild and exciting, a modest container may work best. Or, if you want to feature muted plant personalities, a showier vessel will carry the weight of the design.
Designing With Plants
Container gardening reflects each gardener’s personal style, so you’ll see a wide array of designs—one size definitely does not fit all containers! Even so, you’ll want to keep in mind two strategies to guide your composition—selecting equal parts foliage and flowers and categorizing your selections into “spillers,” “fillers” and “thrillers”—terminology coined by the late Kathy Pufahl, founder of Beds and Borders, Inc.
Flowers are natural attention-grabbers—it’s exactly the role they were born to play to attract pollinators. So it’s not surprising gardeners use flowering plants for an instant wow-factor. Yet, as charming as they are, flowers are also fleeting, and if the weight of your design relies heavily on these transitory blooms, you’ll be left with a lackluster show once they’re spent.
To bolster the longevity and interest of your design, choose half your plants for either exciting foliage—think bromeliads or elephant ears (Colocasia sp.)—or quirky forms, like corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’). That way flowering plants can run the other half of the show.
As you select your plants, visualize their roles as potential spillers, fillers or thrillers. Spillers provide a base that gracefully cascades from the container, giving the composition a more vertical form. Sweet potato vine’s (Ipomoea batatas) vigorous growth and intense color make it a favorite among spillers.
Fillers weave throughout, for a happy medium that unifies the composition. Coleus, Swedish ivy (Plectranthus sp.) and begonias are excellent fillers with varieties of color and texture.
Thrillers, of course, are the stars of the show. Often dominating containers with intense form, color or size, thrillers demand attention and are typically the crown jewel of an eye-catching display. Cannas are often used as thrillers for their dramatic vertical form, saturated blooms and bold foliage. Bananas (Musa sp. and Ensete sp.) instantly add an exotic twist and ornamental flax (Phormium sp.) offers a kaleidoscope of colored stripes to suit any container design.
When it comes to container gardening with tropicals and annuals, don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of plant combinations and design strategies. Like any art form, design guidelines can be tweaked, stretched or abandoned altogether to make way for something completely new and completely you! Your imagination is the only limit!
To find tropicals and annuals, visit the Unusual Tropicals and Annuals Sale at Scott Arboretum, Sat., May 16. Offering over 200 exotic selections not found in your average garden center, the Arboretum will have plant experts to answer your questions. For details, visit ScottArboretum.org/TropicalSale. Set on 300 acres of the Swarthmore College campus, the Arboretum is open to the public every day from dawn to dusk and displays thousands of ornamental plant species.
They make nature hum.
Dahlias have something over most other flowers: they are happy bloomers that fill the garden with a riot of unusual colors not easily replicated. Dahlias’ shades and intensity change with the season, growing more and more intense as fall approaches.
Dahlias of the Past
I think it was the discovery of those rare old Burne-Jones colors that first attracted me to heirloom dahlias. Frankly, I’d been growing tired of market dahlias—especially the ones sold in pots—they resembled plastic even from three feet. Today’s trendiest varieties are garish and unimaginative, a look so gracelessly cookie-cutter perfect. Surely we can do better than this!
The problem was, to grow dahlias like the varieties appearing in old seed catalogs, I realized I’d have to breed them from scratch—not a simple plan.
Most gardeners are not aware that the extraordinary dahlias of the past are mostly extinct. Only a handful of varieties dating from before 1900 remain, like White Aster (1879) and Union Jack (1882). Many of the famous ones from the golden age of dahlia breeding in the 1920s and 1930s are gone forever.
One of the largest collections of those old dahlias was located in Germany, and unfortunately during World War II that collection was mostly destroyed. Collectors have managed to cobble together a fair representation of some of the classics, like Jersey’s Beauty, the first of the large flowering types that appeared in 1923. Still, many pieces of the story and bloom varieties are missing and the only way to replace them is to go back to breeding look-alikes.
I’ve been doing just that for about eight years, mainly as a hobby to see what I can accomplish. My first success was Roughwood Jenny (2004), a cute little orange-yellow pixie dahlia that came out of an heirloom called, appropriately enough, Little Beeswings. Today this hobby has become a serious passion. I hope to find a way to give my dahlias—I call them “my girls”— much broader exposure because, as landscape accents, the Victorian types present a decorative style that is unique.
While most Victorian dahlia admirers were locked into a mindset that considered pompom dahlias (small, perfectly round, ball-shaped) the only perfect form of the flower, there were many other shapes that don’t look like dahlias at all. Dahlias may resemble large daisies, anemones, cosmos, water lilies, or even sunflowers—to which dahlias are related. And those dahlias are an unexplored area in creative breeding.
Some of my re-creations display the features of the related flowers, like Roughwood Janet (2005) and Roughwood Lisa (2006), tall, long-stemmed prolific bloomers, that make eye-catching backdrops for other sorts of flowers down in front.
Catalogs of Inspiration
Of course, one needs inspiration to recreate the glorious blooms of history, so paging through old dahlia catalogs and garden books is one way to locate pictures of the extinct flowers. Unfortunately many descriptions focus only on the flower itself, so leaf type (and there are many, from feathery to almost oak-leaf form), habit (the way the plant grows, such as compact or loose), and coloring of the foliage are often altogether lacking.
These characteristics are quite important. For example, my Roughwood Miriam (2006), a deep orange pompom, is especially striking due to the dark, black-green leaves. For this dahlia, foliage frames the flower to better accent it.
One must have an eye for these aesthetics, especially for subtle Victorian color tones, which are richer and more complex than what we see in dahlias today. This biodiversity calls to mind one of my dahlias that not only has violet tubers but also leaf stems that are purple. Striking even without flowers!
Nineteenth-century Philadelphia seeds-men William Henry Maule and Henry H. Dreer were well known locally for their extensive dahlia breeding and long lists of available varieties, many from Europe. Maule introduced a now-extinct dahlia called Nymphaea (resembling a water lily, hence the classical name), which was unique because it also had an extraordinary perfume. Dahlia fact: Most blooms have no scent, at least not to humans. This lack of fragrance is why dahlias were equated by Victorian poets with “heartless beauty” or even vanity.
Both Maule and Dreer maintained dahlia farms in New Jersey and Delaware, and supplied Chester County gardens with a rich array of dahlias. A particular success of mine is to have recreated Maule’s 1894 spectacular red Fire King. (Note: I prefix all my dahlia creations with “Roughwood,” the Victorian name of the property where I live, since I don’t want anyone to imagine that this Fire King is the long-lost genetic original.) The flower is well named because it adds a splash of vibrant fire-engine red to the garden, and since it is low growing, it looks good as a border plant, which was Maule’s original intent.
The trick to recreating these old dahlias is in the seeds. Dahlia seeds do not always grow true because open-pollination of the flowers creates crossing with other dahlias in the garden. And, even when a variety is isolated so it does not cross, that variety may have been perpetuated by cloning (replication of the tubers). Consequently, many ancestors and cousins will show up in the seeds.
How I “find” lost varieties is somewhat like taking the idea of Jurassic Park and applying it to flowers. Out of Kaiser Wilhelm, an 1893 rare German dahlia, I managed to isolate several pompoms of similar size and shape. My own Roughwood Emperor, Roughwood Empress, and Roughwood Sulphurea came out of seed produced by crossing Kaiser Wilhelm with himself.
And then out of Roughwood Empress, which is an extraordinary glowing pink, I recently created Roughwood Lydia, a dahlia that’s one of the richest salmon pinks around, with a flower so full it resembles an old French rose. One of my latest goals is to recreate some of the 1920s classics bred by New York judge Joseph T. Marean, because most of his spectacular, award-winning dahlias are now lost.
So every year I do a little breeding. In early spring I plant the seeds and wait with bated breath as the seedlings grow, then bloom in summer. Only then do I know what I have. Of course there are lots of “dogs” that are pulled up immediately because the flowers are not best of breed. But, when I find a good one, the tuber is carefully packed away for winter storage, a name and number entered into the computerized list for the dahlia collection, and I begin to grow the flower every year.
Even after this selection process, sometimes the dahlia does not have fixed traits, or something may change in a year or two. For that reason, it’s important to grow the flowers for about five years to determine that the good characteristics observed the first year repeat themselves again and again.
Yes, this is a slow process and a good reason dahlia breeders need to live a long time so all these experiments can produce positive results.
Song of the Dahlias
Regardless, there’s something very cheering about breeding dahlias. They seem like such happy children, and the bees and butterflies treat them like candy. A garden full of dahlias is indeed a garden full of moving color. The whole symphony of Nature comes together in one place. Call it Zen of the soil, call it what you will, but old-time dahlias sing a song all their own, and if you listen closely, you may even get into the rhythm of the melody. -CL-
William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author of 15 books on culinary history, is Contributing Editor for Mother Earth News and maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection of over 4,000 heirloom food plants. His book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening is considered a classic on the subject.