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Choosing A Favorite Flower Is Like Picking A Favorite Child

The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. This week, we welcome Madaline Sparks to our gardening column. She is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine and writes a bi-weekly garden column for the Chatham Courier. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.

An armload of peonies ready for a vase.

It is pretty much impossible to ask a garden enthusiast to choose a favorite plant or flower and get one answer. I have favorites in lots of different categories: shade plants, flowering trees, low-maintenance plants, deer-resistant ones, and on and on. If I were forced to identify a favorite flower, I couldn’t possibly choose between two: peony and dahlia.

Peonies absolutely melt me! Even more so because they are so fleeting every season. They emerge in early spring with their red asparagus tip-like spires and, as the weather warms, evolve into dozens of stems covered in hundreds of shiny green leaves topped with fat golf-ball size buds. Ants scramble over them, attracted to the sweet nectar secreted by the bud. (In case you’re wondering, ants do not harm the plants, and the buds do not require the ants to open.) The anticipation of their opening is torturous for me! 

I have more than a dozen different varieties: single, semi-double, double, double bomb. Colors include white, blush, Barbie pink, magenta, fuchsia, red and coral. And, oh my, when they open, I’m in heaven. I generally cut them and bring them inside. I have a collection of vases, big and tall enough to put armloads in every room. Their fragrance delicately perfumes the air and their sheer decadence makes me happy. This practice ensures I get to enjoy them no matter what the weather brings. Downpours tend to turn fully open blossoms into blobs that look like so many wet petticoats. I can’t bear to see them wasted like that, so preemptively cutting them before they can be ruined means I get to enjoy them as long as possible.

My other favorite flower, dahlia, has a slight edge over peonies in that once they start blooming, they keep producing until frost, usually sometime in October. They are so prolific that I can cut as many as I want for bouquets inside and still enjoy their brilliant blossoms in the garden.

Ball dahlias are rounded, loaded with petals and resemble some larger double zinnias.

There are 21 different dahlia flower forms to choose from. I absolutely adore ball and pompom forms because of their tightly quilled petals arranged in a spiral shape. They look like a chambered nautilus, which just amazes me. I also love the Dinner Plates; as the name implies, they produce enormous flowers. Actually, I never met a dahlia I didn’t like but I prefer the longer stemmed varieties for cutting. The colors are killer too; choose from reds, pinks, yellows, whites, lavenders, purples and oranges. Some are striped or splashed with contrasting colors, but I am partial to solid colors in rich, deep shades.

Another big difference between these two plants is that peonies are hardy perennials and dahlias grow from tubers that can’t survive a winter in the ground in our zone. (It’s ridiculous that such incredibly beautiful flowers are produced by such odd little clumps of sweet potato-shaped blobs!) If you want to have the same dahlias year after year, you must dig them after fall frosts blacken and wither their foliage, rinse them thoroughly and store them in a cool dry spot over the winter.

If you already have dahlia tubers in winter storage, it’s still too early to move them outside. Late spring temperatures can fluctuate, leaving some gardeners pondering when to start planting tubers in the garden. Here’s an easy rule — when the garden soil is warm, then you can plant. Soil temperatures should be at least 55 to 60˚F before you plant dahlias in the garden. The soil should also be well draining. If you are adding plants to new locations in the garden, take the time to test for pooling water. If water does not drain or the soil remains soggy for eight hours, the spot may be too wet for tubers. Amend the soil, plant them in a raised bed or pick a new spot. I plant many of my dahlias in pots into ensure good drainage and maintain control over fertilizing during bloom time.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/18/16 at 11:36 AM • Permalink