From Mélie’s Garden
This summer I saw the most glorious arrangement of dahlias and when I inquired where they had come from I was told that Christabel Vartanian had grown them. In September she very graciously gave me a tour of her beautiful dahlia garden.
Christabel has grown dahlias for many years on Fishers Island with the assistance of Paul Tombari. The garden is charmingly hidden in a large grove of hemlocks, which gives it shelter from the wind blowing up from Isabella Beach and the dahlias were in spectacular bloom! When Paul retired last year, Christabel sought additional dahlia growing advice from Jim Hennigan. He is the brother of Charlotte, who owns Thames River Greenery in New London and he produces superb dahlias for her to sell in her shop. Jim helped Christabel dig up her dahlias around Columbus Day last year. (You are supposed to dig dahlias up after the first frost, but frost often doesn’t come to Fishers Island until the beginning of November, when many gardeners have already left the Island. So Columbus Day weekend is often when one has to do the job here.) The two of them washed the dirt off the tubers and let them dry for twenty-four hours. Jim then showed how to divide the tubers and find the “eyes” which will produce the stems next year. He advised Christabel to wrap the divided tubers in Saran Wrap and store them in a Styrofoam cooler. The next challenge was to find a place to put the coolers during the winter. The spot cannot be too hot or the tubers will dry up and shrivel or too cold and damp where they will rot. The Vartanians keep the heat in their house at about 50 degrees during the winter, so under the stairs to the basement appeared to be the perfect place to store the coolers of saran wrapped dahlia tubers. (Click any image to see a larger version.)
This spring the tubers were in good condition. Both Paul Tombari and Jim Hennigan recommend planting the tubers in pots in the spring to give them a head start. I put my tubers often in the same pots that I have forced bulbs in after I have removed the spent daffodils or hyacinths. I then place the pots with the planted dahlia tubers in a protected area in my garden near a stonewall. I transfer the dahlias to my garden once the soil warms up in June. Christabel does the same thing and fertilizes her plants with Ozmocote or Fish fertilizer when planting and repeats this fertilization in late August. Her beds are mulched with sweet peat, which breaks down and enriches the soil. She waters the dahlias with a soaker hose on a timer and she tests the soil by putting her finger in to feel if the soil is too damp. If it feels too wet, she turns off the soaker hose for a couple of days because even though dahlias like water, they do not want to get too wet and rot. She then showed me how she pinches the buds off her plants, so there is only one bud left on the stem to mature. This puts all the energy into that remaining bud and one glorious flower is produced.
During my visit, Christabel gave me a wonderful old dahlia pamphlet she found in a bookstore in Kingston, RI. It was printed for the Dahliadel Nurseries in Vineland, NJ in 1936. Looking through the booklet, I found that the advice on growing dahlias has not changed much in eighty-two years. They describe their dahlias as “potash-fed” and claim that they shipped 8,000 in 1935. They recommend adding a bit of sand to the soil to aid in drainage, so Fishers Island soil is fairly ideal. They suggested fireplace ashes for potash and bone meal for nitrogen. The pamphlet said, “a top dressing of fertilizer should be applied around August 15th not closer than 6” to the stalk. Dahlias should always be planted in a place with a good circulation of air to prevent mildew. And need a minimum of four hours of sunlight, but thrive with six to seven. Dahlias should be planted in Southern New England between May 15 and June 15″. They also suggested starting the tubers in pots and transplanting the plants into the garden when the growth is ideally six inches. “They should be planted four to five feet apart, so the stalk will be two inches from the stake. The same varieties should be planted together because if one fails you will not notice it. Pinch the plant back after planting to two or three pairs of leaves to encourage the plant to branch.” They advised pinching out and disbudding to produce larger and stronger flowers just as Christabel had shown me. “Cut flowers in the early evening or early morning – remove leaves and any additional buds and put immediately in water in a cool dark place for a few hours. If flowers wilt, cut off the end of the stem and place it in an inch of almost boiling hot water for 1 to 2 minutes the flower should perk up.” And finally, they said to store dahlia tubers at 40 to 45 degrees “so they don’t dry out”. This is where the Saran Wrap may help in wintering the tubers at slightly higher temperatures in 2018 cellars!