Cleaning Garden Tools

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Cleaning your garden tools regularly after use is ideal, but at the least they should be cleaned before putting them away for winter.  Clean tools work more effectively, so are easier to use, and they last longer.

Keeping blades sharp improves cutting, which is easier on you and the plants.  Keeping tools used in soil cleaned keeps their edges sharper too, preventing rust from forming, and removes possible disease-laden soil particles.  Cleaning tools even more often when working on infected plants is essential to prevent disease spread.  If pruning diseased limbs from trees, keep a container of rubbing alcohol, bleach (one part to 9 parts water), or disinfectant (such as Lysol) handy to dip blades in between pruning each plant to avoid spreading disease.

For tools such as shovels, hoes and garden forks that are used in soil, wash them after use with a forceful stream of water from the hose.  For stubborn soils such as clay, use a wire-bristle brush or dull implement if needed.   Then dry tools with a rag.  For blades of saws and pruners that end up with sticky plant sap, such as from evergreens (pines, spruces and the like), use some paint thinner to remove the sap before wiping with a rag.

Even after cleaning, the worn metal can rust, even more so if higher grade steel.  To prevent this, wipe tools or spray with a very light coat of motor oil.  Some dilute this with kerosene, 2 parts oil to one of kerosene.  Others recycle their old oil from mowers for this use. You can wipe the oil on with an old rag or paper towel, spray it on with a hand sprayer, or make a mix of the soil with sand to push tools into after each use.  The latter is easy, quick, and the sand helps provide some abrasion to remove soil in the process.  The oil breaks down rapidly in the soil, and little is used, so you shouldn’t have any negative soil effects.

For hand tools, some use a strong black tea.  Brew up enough in a pan or kettle to cover the tools, then let them, or blades at least, soak for a few hours after the tea is cooled.  Rust should wipe off easily with a rag.  If tools aren’t very dirty or rusty, a balled up handful of wax paper rubbed over surfaces may be sufficient—both cleaning and leaving some protective wax on them.

If tools have gotten severely rusted, you may need to use rough sandpaper, and even perhaps a wire bristle brush.  For the most rusted, you may need to use a drill with wire brush attachment.  For the latter in particular, make sure to wear safety glasses. Then make sure to wipe and coat with oil.

Sharpen tools too, at least at the end of the season. Best is to sharpen them regularly as used during the season.  This is more important if tools have rusted.  For dull large tools such as shovels, axes, and spades, you can use a hand file available from hardware or home stores.  If very dull, you may need a high speed grinding stone or drill attachment.  As with cleaning, make sure to wear eye protection if using a high-speed grinder.

If using a grinder made for this purpose, as some do with lawn mower blades, it is easy to get carried away.  If the metal heats up too much it can lose its “temper”, meaning it won’t hold an edge well again.  If grinding, keep the metal from heating by dipping in cold water.  It should remain cool to the touch.  Improper sharpening of mower blades can make them out of balance, which can harm the mower motor as it turns at high speeds.

For finer tools such as pruners and loppers, an oil stone or honing stone is what many gardeners use.  I spend a bit more for a good quality handfile, such as with cut diamond or carbon surface, to make the job go much better and more quickly.

Whatever sharpener you use, follow any directions so they work properly.  If using a stone, slide the blade along the stone in one direction, doing so repeatedly until sharper.  If using a file, such as “mill file” from a hardware store, get one with a handle so you can maneuver it more easily.  Draw the cutting teeth of the blade along the edge of the tool in one direction.  Keep the file at an angle to the edge of the tool surface you’re sharpening.

So how sharp is enough?  Anything of course helps.  Tools such as shovels and hoes don’t need to be as sharp, and pruners should be more sharp.  You can feel the sharpness with fingers (be careful if sharp knives or pruners), or just look at the “bevel” and angle.  The bevel is the sharpened edge, the angle is between the two edges or bevels.  Duller tools have a shorter edge or bevel, and generally wider angle—perhaps 30 degrees between the sides or bevels.  Sharper tools have a longer bevel, and more narrow angle between each side—perhaps 15 degrees or so.

Many tools now have plastic handles, but if you have one with wood, treat it as well for longest life.  Rub wooden handles with a rag, slightly moistened with linseed oil or other wood protection oil product.

Once tools are cleaned and sharpened, store them properly in a closet, garage, or shed out of the weather.  Keeping them off the floor helps prevent any moisture and rust, and dulling.  I like to hang mine by the handles.  If straight handles, I hang upside down with ten-penny nails used to hold the tool itself.  When buying new tools consider stainless steel ones, if available, that are easier to keep clean.

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New England Asters

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Asters are a hardy, easy-to-grow and colorful group of fall-blooming perennials. New England asters are tall perennials that not only are hardy and low maintenance, but also provide vibrant displays of reds, pinks, purples and white in the fall. At a time when most other perennials have finished blooming, asters provide needed flowers for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. They combine well with ornamental grasses, rudbeckia, and coneflowers.

Although this species of aster is termed “New England”, it is native to most areas of the eastern U.S., except some southern states. It is hardy in U.S.D.A zones 4 (minimum temperatures in the -20’s in winter) to 8. You can find it planted and growing well even in many western states. Plants generally grow 4 to 6 feet tall, but can be lower, and 3 to 4 feet wide.

In the wild, New England aster is typically found in areas with moist soils, although many have escaped from gardens and naturalized in fields and along roads. It will tolerate clay soils, and some drought once established. Growing in moist soils makes this plant a good candidate for rain gardens, in addition to borders and naturalistic gardens.

New England aster really needs full sun (6 or more hours a day of direct sun) to grow and bloom well. Depending on area, blooms begin in August or September (usual in the north), last for several weeks, and colors vary with the cultivar (cultivated variety). If you want to have even later blooms on some plants or prolong the bloom season, cut some plants back in June by about one-half to one-third. This will make them bushy, shorter, and bloom several weeks later.

There are few serious pests or problems on New England asters. They can get a rust disease, with small rust-colored raised spots on leaves. In some areas, some cultivars may get a white powdery mildew on leaves. Both of these are mostly an aesthetic disease, and plants should grow and bloom yearly in spite of such problems.

Although various common pests may be found on New England asters, as with the diseases, seldom if ever are these a serious problem. Two of the more common, that cause pale leaves with a stippled appearance, are spider mites and lace bugs.

Since New England asters are vigorous growers, some cultivars may need staking. This is particularly the case in rich soils that cause abundant growth, or in part shade. For such plants and conditions, pruning plants back in June as noted for the later blooms will keep them stockier with no need to stake. Especially in areas with longer growing seasons, you may need to cut off spent flower heads after bloom to prevent them from forming seeds that self-sow, if this could be a problem in managed landscapes.

If plants have fewer blooms and open centers after a few years, they may need dividing in the spring. You can either divide the plant in half, or pieces off from the original with a spade; or dig the whole plant, divide it into sections (an old pruning saw or hatchet work well), and replant.

New England aster is in the aster or composite family— Asteraceae— that of sunflowers, daisies, and similar flowers. The asters all used to be grouped together into one “genus” (Aster), but thanks to recent botanical research they’ve been regrouped with names more suited to botanists than gardeners. So, although the New England aster genus is now changed (Symphyotrichum), the species name has remained the same (novae-angliae).

This species of aster was introduced to England in 1710, and over the years cultivars have been bred there and in Europe, and reintroduced here. Since it and the related New York aster bloom in England around the time of St. Michaelmas day (September 29), these may be seen in some references and catalogs as Michaelmas daisies.

In perennial trials at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, 119 asters were evaluated over six years. This evaluation included many other aster species and cultivars beside just those of the New England aster, of which there were 12 cultivars in addition to the native species.

Although none of the New England asters were among the few excellent rated asters in the Chicago trials, two popular pink cultivars rated good, with four stars. ‘Harrington’s Pink’ has rosy-pink flowers mid-season from early September to mid October. It, and other cultivars mentioned, unless noted otherwise, had excellent flowering. In these trials, ‘Harrington’s Pink’ reached about 5 feet high and about 4 feet wide. It had fair resistance to powdery mildew and excellent resistance to rust, as did the following unless noted otherwise.

The other top cultivar of New England aster was ‘Honeysong Pink’, with deep pink flowers the same time as ‘Harrington’s Pink’. It was about the same height, but under 4 feet wide. Another popular pink cultivar, ‘Alma Potschke’ with it’s cherry-pink flowers, rated fair with three starts. In Chicago it has a long bloom period, from early August to late October. Only reaching about 3 feet high, it spread about 5 feet wide.

For a white cultivar, you might consider the popular ‘Wedding Lace’. Rating fair, it had a long bloom period similar to ‘Alma Potschke’, and excellent rust resistance but poor powdery mildew resistance. It reached a bit over 5 feet high, and a little under 5 feet wide.

There were 3 purple cultivars in the Chicago trials that rated fair. The native species grew a bit over 5 feet high, and 5 feet wide, blooming late—from late September to mid-November. ‘Mrs. S.T. Wright’ had only good, not excellent, flowering and poor powdery mildew resistance. It bloomed over a long period similar to ‘Alma Potschke’, only reaching about 4 feet high and wide. ‘Treasure’ had a similar bloom period to the latter, but reached about 5 feet high and about 3 feet wide. It, too, had poor powdery mildew resistance.

One of the more recent introductions has been ‘Purple Dome’, from the Mt. Cuba Center and gardens in Delaware. It is a popular, violet-purple, low cultivar only growing to about 16 inches high and about 2 feet wide. This makes it a good choice for fronts of borders, along walks, massed, or even containers. It bloomed over two months in Chicago, from early September to early November. ‘Vibrant Dome’ is a bright pink sport of this compact cultivar, not in these trials but popular and available.

‘Purple Dome’ is a good example of how resistance to diseases can vary by site. Often considered to have excellent resistance to powdery mildew, in the Chicago trials this cultivar was only rated as fair.

A popular purple-blue cultivar that rated fair was ‘Barr’s Blue’. It has mid-season flowering, reaching a little under 5 feet high with wider spread. ‘Hella Lacey’ is a popular cultivar with light violet-blue flowers, but it rated poor in the Chicago trials. There it bloomed late, had poor flowering, and very poor powdery mildew resistance. September Ruby or ‘Septemberrubin’ is purple-red, and was the only red cultivar in these trials. With only fair blooming mid-season, and reaching about 4 feet high and wide, it too had very poor powdery mildew resistance.

More on the many other asters, including the similar but generally lower New York asters, as well as other perennial evaluations can be found in the reports from Richard Hawke and his Chicago Botanic Garden trials (www.chicagobotanic.org/research/plant_evaluation).

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Perennials for Late Season Color

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
Resist the temptation to cut all those perennials back in fall just to look tidy and be ready for spring.  Of course you’ll want to cut back any that are unsightly, flopped over (“lodged”), diseased, or lack vigor from summer stresses.  But leave some perennials for their attractive fall foliage colors and seedheads.  Those with seeds provide food for birds in preparation for winter. A few may even provide some late flower color.
           
For fall interest, lower plants will suffice.  But for winter with its usual snow cover, you’ll want to consider leaving some taller perennials.  Many ornamental grasses are a great late-season choice for either their foliage color or texture, or both.  Some provide seeds to birds, too.
           
Some choices for blue foliage include a few of these ornamental grasses.  ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue makes a nice bluish mound, under a foot high.  Similar in color and habit, only much larger, mounding 2 feet high and wide, is the blue oat grass (Helictotrichon).  More upright and open in habit, its bluish summer leaves turning quite tan in late fall, is little bluestem (Schizachyrium) and its cultivars (cultivated varieties).  Another good low choice, other than grasses but still with narrow leaves, is the pinks or dianthus.
           
For a more upright effect, consider some of the switchgrasses (Panicum) with bluish leaves, such as the tall ‘Cloud Nine’ (6 feet or more tall), a bit shorter ‘Dallas Blues’ or ‘Prairie Sky’, or even shorter (4 to 5 feet tall) ‘Dewey Blue’ or ‘Heavy Metal’.  Seeds of switchgrasses are attractive to small birds. Results of my trials in Vermont on both little bluestem and switchgrasses, as part of a larger national trial program, are online (perrysperennials.info).
            
Don’t overlook the blue and purple flowers of the late-blooming New England aster.  If you prune these back by a third to half in June, they’ll be more branched, dense, and will bloom even later into the fall.
           
Contrasting nicely with bluish colors are plants with burgundy to purple leaves.  Once again there are some 3 to 5-foot high switchgrasses to chose from, the best including Ruby Ribbons and ‘Hanse Herms’.  Several others have some red leaves mixed among the green.  In trials of little bluestem grass cultivars in Vermont, a new one from Minnesota— Blue Heaven— has very attractive dark red fall color on plants just over 2 feet high. 
           
There are several 4 to 5-foot high cultivars of dark purple-leaved bugbanes (Actaea, formerly Cimicifuga) such as ‘Hillside Black Beauty’, ‘Brunette’, and ‘Black Negligee’.  ‘Firecracker’ hairy loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) is a clumping, non-spreading species, 3 to 4-feet high with dark reddish leaves, as is the ‘Chocolate’ cultivar of white snakeroot (Eupatorium).  The latter is best in warmer regions (USDA zone 5b, average minimum of -10 to -15 degrees F in winter).
           
Lower at under 2 feet high are some dark-leaved perennial geraniums, such as ‘Espresso’, ‘Midnight Reiter’, and ‘Elizabeth Ann’.  Similar in height but more upright and less mounded is ‘Bressingham Purple’ Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium).  Many such purple-leaved perennials will have less color, being more green, when grown in part shade rather than full sun.  One that does hold its reddish-purple leaf color well through fall is the upright relatively new sedum ‘Postman’s Pride’.  ‘Lady in Red’ painted fern (Athyrium) has bright red stems in mid-fall. ‘Bonfire’ cushion spurge (Euphorbia) has bright red fall leaf color, but needs a warmer climate (USDA zone 5b) or reliable snow cover to survive.
           
For even lower red to purple-leaved perennials, about a foot high, are the many dark-leaved coralbells (Heuchera). These include some of the top-rated in our Vermont trials (see the above  research website) including ‘Blackout’, ‘Dark Secret’, and ‘Frosted Violet’.
           
While not perennial, the kale and cabbages are worth mentioning as they provide some of the best blue to dark red and purple leaves into late fall—often until Thanksgiving or after.  Some are lower, a foot high, while others such as scarlet kale and crane bicolor kale reach two feet—the former with dark red fringed leaves, the latter columnar with pink to white coloring at the top.
           
There is a flower to mention too in this reddish color spectrum. ‘Sheffield Pink’ is a hardy chrysanthemum cultivar, blooming salmon pink in mid to late fall and one of the last plants to bloom.  While it often survives in colder areas, the season may be too short for it to actually bloom.
           
For golden to yellow leaves, perennials are mainly the lower ones under a foot high.  For taller gold leaves, you may need to use shrubs such as golden-leaved evergreens or conifers. You can get nice golden color from bluestars (Amsonia), growing two feet or more high and resembling a shrub.  Or try Osmunda ferns for their upright golden long leaves, contrasting nicely with their brown “seed” stalks.
          
Some of the lower golden to yellow perennials for fall include ‘Angelina’ sedum, the golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia), golden oregano, ‘Aztec Gold’ speedwell (Veronica), ‘Dickson’s Gold’ bellflower (Campanula), ‘Gold Bullion’ bluet (Centaurea), and ‘Illumination’ perennial periwinkle (Vinca).  Golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa) is good in sun or part shade in warmer sites (USDA zone 5b). Some golden perennials, such as the bluet, the golden ‘Sweet Kate’ spiderwort (Tradescantia), or those with gold variegation, often revert to green leaves.  To keep them golden or variegated you’ll need to cut off, or out, any such green shoots.
           
Then there are those with white or silvery leaves, often during the season and lasting through fall until they die back or are covered with snow.  Most are low, under a foot high, such as the lungworts (Pulmonaria) with their silvery to silver-spotted leaves, or the popular compact ‘Silver Mound’ mugwort (Artemisia).  There are a couple of taller silver mugworts too, such as ‘Silver King’, that can spread aggressively by their roots. There are a couple silvery cultivars of Siberian bugloss (Brunnera) such as ‘Jack Frost’ and ‘Looking Glass’.  The white dead nettles (Lamium) are a spreading groundcover, some with quite white or silvery leaves.
           
Marginally hardy in cold areas, better in USDA zone 5, are the toad lilies. These Asian imports have very attractive white flowers, often speckled lilac, in mid fall just over a foot tall.  For taller white flowers in fall are some asters, such as the heath aster (Symphotrichum ericoides), and the false chamomile ‘Snowbank’ (Boltonia asteroides), reaching 3 feet or more high.  
           
One of the best for a shimmering silver effect through fall, from its 6 to 8 foot high flower plumes, is the silver banner grass (Miscanthus sacchariflorus).  Be careful with this one and place in a bed by itself, as it is quite root invasive and will overpower most any other plant.  I keep threatening to try and remove mine, but each fall the plumes redeem themselves for yet another season, particularly with backlighting from the low afternoon sun. 
           
Keep the fall effect of your perennials in mind, both with fall pruning and with choosing plants for an extended season of color.

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Monarch Butterflies Need Our Help

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
Monarchs—those beautiful orange butterflies we’ve seen all around in late summer in past years—are becoming scarce.  This is due in large part to loss of habitat—both where they overwinter in Mexico and summer in the U.S., as well as some recent temperature extremes.  While we can’t do much about the weather, we can help monarchs by restoring their habitats and food they require to survive and reproduce.
          
 Monarch butterflies overwinter in a unique forest habitat in central Mexico.  Ecotourism, illegal logging, and natural disruptions such as fire or disease threaten this small region where all the monarchs overwinter.  Since record keeping began in 1994, their numbers peaked at an estimated one billion in 1996, compared to an estimated 33 million during the winter of 2013-2014.  During this winter, only 1.65 acres were covered with monarchs, compared to 51.8 acres in 1996.
           
After winter, monarchs migrate to the southern U.S. states where they breed.  They have 3 to 5 generations per year, each generation only living 2 to 6 weeks, except the last.  The final generation that migrates up to 2,500 miles back to Mexico can live up to 8 months.  It is the successive generations, after the first, that migrate north and that we typically see there in mid to late summer.
           
Understanding how they feed is a key to how we can help monarchs.  While the adult butterflies are “generalists” and can feed on the nectar of a variety of flowers, the caterpillars (or larvae, that of course latter change into the butterflies after forming a “chrysalis”) are “specialists” feeding only on milkweed. Female butterflies use visual and chemical cues to locate milkweed plants for laying their eggs. They seldom lay eggs on other plants if there are no milkweeds, as the larvae that hatch will die.
           
Much of the “breeding” ground or habitats of the monarch in this country have been lost.   In populated areas, this has been due to development and loss of the important milkweeds, replaced by either paving or manicured landscapes.  Over half the monarchs that end up migrating back to Mexico have done so historically from the central states or “corn belt.”  Milkweeds have been decimated in these areas from the increased use of weed killers on herbicide-tolerant (GMO) soybeans and corn, and the increased production of these for biofuels.  Couple these factors with a changing climate of extremes, including cold and wet springs and summer droughts, and many fewer have bred and returned to Mexico.
           
Based on these facts on the monarch butterfly habitats and needs, here are ways you can help these beautiful pollinators.  In your community, encourage local towns, property owners, and farmers to delay mowing areas with milkweeds until fall.  This is especially important in late summer when the migratory generation is developing. 
           
Also encourage local, state, and corporate officials from spraying pesticides and herbicides in monarch habitats (particularly those with milkweeds) along roads, railroads, and powerline right-of-ways.  Especially avoid spraying for insects when monarchs are present.
          
These same practices apply in home landscapes.  In addition, you can plant butterfly gardens and plants using native milkweeds and nectar plants.  A key is site selection—it should be in full sun (at least 6 hours or more a day), sheltered from wind, and with well-drained soil.  Swamp milkweed is an exception to most butterfly plants, as it will take poor drainage and water-saturated soils.
                    
For eastern states, milkweeds to consider include the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), common milkweed (A. syriaca), and the swamp milkweed (A. incarnata).  Annual flowers for nectar include Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), lantana, Egyptian star flower (Pentas lanceolata), Texas scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), and zinnia.  Most other annual salvia are attractive to pollinators too, except perhaps the common scarlet sage bedding plant (Salvia splendens)
           
Perennial flowers that should grow for more than one year include fennel (also a host for the black swallowtail),  Joe pye (Eupatorium purpureum), tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), ironweed (Vernonia), sedum,  and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  When choosing flowers, particularly from groups like the coneflowers which have many selections with double or frilled flowers, try to include species rather than cultivars (cultivated varieties).  Species often contain more nectar and may be more attractive to pollinators like the monarch.
           
There are many resources to learn more details on these topics, and to help monarchs as well as pollinators in general.  The Xerces Society (www.xerces.org) works to help all pollinators, and offers a book (Attracting Native Pollinators) as well as a pollinator habitat sign for purchase.  Journey North (www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/), while designed for kids, offers much easy to read information on all aspects of monarchs, and the chance to be involved in “citizen science” with tracking migration.  Perhaps the most extensive resource is Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org).  Begun in 1992, this non-profit organization based at the University of Kansas provides information, products (even milkweeds) and a Monarch Waystation certification program (www.MonarchWatch.org/ws).

 

(author’s notes:  I just saw my first Monarch this first week of August, only the one. I hope it found all my milkweeds.

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Shrub dogwoods with white froth?

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Yet another new pest appeared for me this week, this on my red-twig shrub dogwoods—spittlebugs. If you have or see these, here is some good advice from Donald Lewis, Dept. of Entomology at Iowa State University.

“The dogwood spittlebug is one of several species of this commonly recognized group of sap-feeding insects. Spittlebugs are familiar because of the frothy, wet mass of “spittle” that surrounds the nymphs as they feed on sap from their host plants. The spittle is produced by the immature stage of the insect (the nymph) and is a protection from natural enemies and desiccation.

The most common spittlebugs are the meadow spittlebug which feeds on a wide range of plants (alfalfa, clover, strawberries, and many others) and the pine spittlebugs occasionally seen on pine tree foliage. Feeding by spittlebugs may cause wilting and stunting on some plants, but damage to ornamental plants is limited. The greatest concern is the obnoxious appearance of the spittle. Many people are also distressed by being wetted when they inadvertently come in contact with the viscous mass of bubbles produced from the anus of an insect.

The dogwood spittlebug feeds only on dogwoods, blueberries and buckeye. Eggs spend the winter beneath the bark of twigs and hatch in late spring. The nymphs and their spittle masses are present in June and early July and are located in the junctions between stems or leaves and stems. Adult spittlebugs emerge in late July and feed on the same plants as the nymphs. Females lay eggs in punctures in the stems during the fall.

Although spittle masses of the dogwood spittlebug are conspicuous and often very numerous, otherwise healthy shrubs are not injured and control is not warranted. If you prefer to limit dogwood spittlebug populations, I suggest hosing the plants with a forceful stream of water from the garden hose. Special insecticide sprays will not be needed.”

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Delightful Dahlias

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

We have the Aztecs to thank for the dahlia, a tender bulb (actually a tuber) planted in late spring for gorgeous blooms in late summer.  A long-lasting cut flower, the dahlia makes a great addition to any garden.

Dahlias range in color from white and yellow to orange, pale pink, lavender, and red.   Bloom size ranges from half an inch to a foot or more across.  Flowers may be in tight balls to very open, from single to double, with petals that are flat, curved, or rolled into tubes.  Based on flower type, the American Dahlia Society (www.dahlia.org) lists 20 classes.

The dahlia, a relative of the daisy, was first cultivated by Aztec botanists in Mexico. In the early 1500s it was discovered by Spanish explorers who brought this tuberous plant back to Europe. Interestingly, they had the same problem with storage of the tubers as do many modern-day gardeners. The genus Dahlia gets its name from an 18th-century Swedish botanist, Andreas Dahl.

The dahlia became a favorite in the gardens of working class Europeans after being distained by the upper class as being too flamboyant for their carefully manicured gardens. However, it gained prominence in the mid-1800s after a devastating blight wiped out the potato crop in France as it was thought to be a good substitute for this starchy vegetable. Unfortunately, it was not, but it soon became popular in gardens both for its flowers and interesting foliage.

Although a perennial plant, in northern climates dahlias don’t survive winter so are treated as annuals. They are planted in the spring as soon as the soil has warmed up and after the last chance of frosts—about when you plant tomatoes outside.   They can be grown one year as annuals, or tubers lifted and stored in the fall after the first hard frost and the foliage is killed.

Dahlias do best in a sunny spot with light, fertile, well-drained soil. If you have heavy clay soil, work in a two- to four-inch layer of well-rotted manure or compost a few weeks before planting. Add fertilizer–about a quarter pound of a balanced fertilizer like 5-10-5 per ten square feet of garden—once a month after plants start growth, or lightly sprinkle fertilizer around plants. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers (those with a higher first number) as they will result in leaves at the expense of flowers.  Use a general garden or tomato fertilizer.

Wait until the danger of frost has past before planting the tubers, unless you planted them in pots in early spring. Plant at least four to six inches deep, laying them horizontally on their sides, with roots down and buds facing upward. Cover with two inches of soil, adding more as shoots appear.

Space smaller varieties two to three feet apart, larger ones three to four feet. Larger plants also will require support as they grow. To avoid damage to the roots later on, drive a stake into the ground now, a few inches from where you plan to plant each tuber. As the plants grow, tie the stalks to the stakes with double strands of garden twine. Pinching back the center shoot once three sets of leaves appear will keep plants more bushy.

Most dahlias will bloom in late summer and early fall. Some of the newer and bedding varieties are relatively short, a foot or so high, and generally bloom repeatedly through the season. Pinch off spent blooms from these to encourage continual flowering. Once frost has blackened the foliage, and after the tubers have hardened in the soil for a week, it’s time to dig them up and store until the following spring.

With a sharp knife, cut the stalks at a height of about a foot. Then carefully dig up the clumps, taking care not to injure or spear the tubers. Trim the stalks to a few inches. Shake off the loose dirt and separate the tubers, allowing them to dry for only a couple days (or they will start to shrivel and dry too much).

Brush off the remaining dirt, then place in a plastic bag in a box, or plastic box (to keep them from drying out) containing peat moss, wood shavings, coarse vermiculite, fairly dry compost, or similar. Cover, label and store in a dry, cool (non freezing) place. The ideal storage temperature is 40 degrees F. Check every few weeks to make sure tubers aren’t shriveling (add a little moisture) or staying too wet which will cause tubers to rot. If too wet, leave uncovered until the storage medium dries out, or replace it with drier material.

If you have large clumps of tubers, individual ones can be separated off with a knife.  Just make sure to keep a piece of the crown (the thickened stem where the tubers join together), which has the future growing points or eyes.  Then wrap each tuber with plastic wrap.  Easiest, especially if you are already growing tubers in large pots, is to just bring the pots into a non-freezing area for winter, keeping them dry.

More dahlia tips, cultivar (cultivated variety) listings, resources and sources can be found from the American Dahlia Society.   More information, as well as heirloom cultivars, can be found at Old House Gardens (www.oldhousegardens.com).

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An Easter Basket of Flowers

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

The flower that most often comes to mind when we think of Easter is, of course, the Easter lily. But there are other flowers appropriate for this time of year as well, all with rather interesting origins.

In the Alps, the narcissus has been associated with Easter for centuries. In fact, even before Christianity, the narcissus represented springtime in Greek mythology.   It is still widely used as the main Easter flower in many countries.
In England and Russia, pussy willows are used for Easter flowers. In the Middle East, it is wild tulips, while in Mexico, tropical flowers fill the churches during this spring holiday season. The early Germans decorated with red flowers and red fruited plants such as English holly, believing the red color represented the blood of Christ. The field anemone (Anemone coronaria) also was associated with the passion of Christ.

The Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis), is so named as this relative of the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, all looking almost identical, blooms in spring.  The funnel-shaped, flaring flowers are either rose purple or scarlet orange, coming out of flat, segmented leaves.  These, as their kin, are often found in hanging baskets where they’re well adapted, growing naturally on trees in Brazil.  The flowers open during the day, closing at night.  Being a cactus, keep this one on the dry side.

Do you know the Bermuda lily?  You probably do, as this is the true name of the Easter lily, deriving from its origin.  It is a pure white flower, believed to symbolize purity. Coming from one bulb, the flower is said to represent the tomb of Jesus with the blossoms symbolizing his life after death.  It is the most common flowering potted plant of spring.

When buying a lily, select a plant with many unopened buds and leaves all the way down the stem. Poor growing conditions or root disease will cause the loss of leaves from the bottom up, so be sure to pull back the wrapper to check.

Choose a well-proportioned plant, one that’s about two to three times as high as the pot. Check the buds, flowers, and leaves–especially the undersides–for signs of insect pests and disease.

To keep your lily healthy at home, remove the decorative foil or paper covering the pot, or make a hole in the bottom, to allow better drainage. Put your plant where it will get plenty of bright, indirect light and cool temperatures. About 40 to 50 degrees F at night, or as cool as possible, and below 68 degrees F during the day is ideal.

You also will need to keep the soil constantly moist. To prolong the life of the blossoms, remove the yellow, pollen-bearing pods or anthers found in the center of each flower as it opens.

Don’t expect your lily to flower again as it’s already been “forced” once by the grower to bloom in time for Easter. However, you might get your lily to bloom again next fall by planting it outdoors once the soil has warmed up.

If you plan to replant your lily outdoors, remove the flowers as they fade. Put the plant on a sunny windowsill for four to six weeks until the foliage matures. Continue to water.  When the leaves turn brown, cut the stem off at the soil line. Then in late May, plant the bulb four to six inches deep in a sunny, well-drained location. Fertilize twice during the summer. With luck, your lily will bloom this fall. Just don’t count on it surviving a northern winter.

Other appropriate flowers for Easter, and spring in general, are other bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths, and azaleas.  The bulbs can be purchased as cut flowers, or in pots.  If potted, the hyacinths can be planted outside in warmer weather, and may survive to future years.  Most tulips, however, will not come back next spring.  If giving the hyacinth as a gift, make sure the recipient isn’t allergic to the strong odor of the flowers.

Azaleas come in reds, white, and pinks.  They are tender, so wont survive winter outdoors in northern climates.  Still, they are a good value.  Keep them moist (not wet), and cool with plenty of light, and you should get several weeks of blooms indoors.

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