Gardening on a Whim


The dahlias sleep in the empty silence. T.S. Eliot

I consider myself lucky to have a home with a large garden. It’s a wonderful haven and a welcome respite from the computer. But any outdoor space can be a lot of work, especially since we have no grass in the back yard, which is certified as a National Wildlife Refuge. You’ve got to amend the soil (here it’s mostly clay), put the right plant in the right place at the right time, pinch and/or deadhead to promote more flowering, prune, water, feed, etc. And weed, weed, weed. No herbicides or pesticides allowed.

Yet for all the time it demands, the rewards are plentiful. Nothing matches the joy of sitting with my partner under an arbor smothered with fragrant jasmine blooms. Or savoring a tomato fresh from the vine. Watching hummingbirds as they zoom from bottlebrush to lavender to tithonia and then take a break on an arch or tree limb. Halting mid-step as I catch sight of a lizard engaged in what looks like push-ups—they do it for exercise as well as to scope out the area for predators. Yelling like a banshee when I see a neighborhood cat trotting off with one limp in its jaws.

Like most avid gardeners, I’m constantly looking for new plants. After many, many episodes of “Gardener’s World,” I decided this would be the year to try dahlias, those wild, almost gaudy, flowers up to a foot wide (at that size, they’re called “dinner plates”). They looked like a safe bet. Plant the tubers in a sunny site, watch them grow, pinch a bit for stronger plants, and then gather glorious blooms all summer. What could be easier?

Then I read the instructions that came with my mail order. They need at least 6 hours of sun but can fade and/or wilt under bright light and excessive heat. That sent me back to the drawing pad, as I’d planned to plant them in southern and western parts of my yard. Now I’m looking at the eastern side. Morning sun, afternoon shade.

Trouble is, I’ve dedicated that area to drought-tolerant plants. In hotter climates like Sacramento’s central valley, dahlias, once their first set of true leaves appear, need a deep soaking 3-4 times a week. Yikes!

And apparently snails and slugs feast on them; planting instructions recommend putting out bait as soon as the tubers are in the ground. But my garden is organic, and snail bait is not, even the ones that purport to be safe. (I take a jaded view of such claims, especially when they come from pesticide organizations.) So I’m hoarding natural remedies—eggshells and coffee grounds and Epsom salts—and hoping they’ll work. It’s that or going out several times an evening with a headlamp to pick them off manually.

I haven’t planted them yet. The ground isn’t warm enough (60 degrees minimum). They’re sitting in their shipping box on a shelf in the garage. But spring is coming fast—too fast. I’ll be digging holes soon and hoping for the best.

And reminding myself to do more research the next time Monty Don tempts me to add an exotic plant to my yard.




Image of “Firepot” dahlia

Gardener’s World

How Much Sunlight Do Dahlias Need?

A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Dahlias


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