Dahlia days

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE -

OF all the sum­mer- flow­er­ing plants, dahlias are among the most amaz­ing. They started to bloom a week or so ago and will con­tinue to do so deep into au­tumn.

In frost- free dis­tricts many will con­tinue flow­er­ing into June.

The flow­ers are so flam­boy­ant and colour­ful they put most other plants to shame.

This is one rea­son they are of­ten planted sep­a­rately in a bed on their own.

The start of the grow­ing sea­son last year was un­usu­ally wet, so much so that the soil in many gar­dens re­mained sat­u­rated for weeks.

Many dahlia tu­bers that were left in the ground over win­ter clearly suc­cumbed to th­ese ap­palling con­di­tions.

I lost a few lovely va­ri­eties, mainly be­cause of my fail­ure to lift and store the tu­bers over win­ter.

How­ever, those that were di­vided and re­planted have done par­tic­u­larly well. Plants grown from sin­gle tu­bers al­most al­ways flower more pro­lif­i­cally than those from un­di­vided clumps. Ours did well be­cause the ground was first en­riched with a mix­ture of com­post, sheep ma­nure, blood and bone fer­tilis­ers and even a gen­er­ous sprin­kling of poul­try ma­nure pel­lets.

This com­bi­na­tion sup­plies all the nu­tri­ents needed by dahlias. There is no doubt about the value of con­tin­u­ous dead- head­ing.

It is this sim­ple, easy and very sat­is­fy­ing task that keeps the plants bloom­ing fu­ri­ously for months.

Once the re­ally hot weather ar­rived, wa­ter­ing ours be­came a pri­or­ity. Th­ese eas­ily grown plants love the com­bi­na­tion of high- ni­tro­gen fer­tilis­ers and plenty of wa­ter, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing long, dry pe­ri­ods.

Dahlia plants are top- heavy, mainly be­cause of the size and weight of the blooms. The stems are also very frag­ile and blus­tery winds can cause se­vere dam­age, of­ten snap­ping plants at ground level.

Stakes are not very pretty but, un­for­tu­nately, es­sen­tial for sup­port­ing dahlias. I don’t like those hard, thin, black bam­boo supports sold at most gar­den cen­tres be­cause they can be quite a men­ace. Any­one work­ing and con­stantly bend­ing among dahlias and other plants needs to be con­stantly on guard against se­ri­ous eye in­jury.

If they must be used, al­ways be care­ful to wrap bands of clear yel­low elec­tri­cian’s tape around and over those deadly tips so they can be clearly seen.

Another de­pend­able sum­mer- flow­er­ing group of plants is the hy­drangeas. Most peo­ple in Tas­ma­nia go for the com­mon mop- tops be­cause they do so well here. They are also easy to look af­ter and, if grow­ing strongly, make mar­vel­lous dome- shaped, ground­cov­er­ing weed- sup­pres­sors.

How­ever, there are sev­eral other hy­drangea species and cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties also worth a place. For at least 20 years we’ve been grow­ing an oak- leaf hy­drangea, partly be­cause of the fas­ci­nat­ing, pearly white, flat­tish flow­er­heads, but also be­cause of the glo­ri­ous au­tumn colours pro­duced just be­fore leaf fall.

Ours be­came too big over the years, fin­ish­ing up so mas­sively con­gested it vir­tu­ally stopped flow­er­ing. Even the leaves, nor­mally quite large and lush, be­came small and in­signif­i­cant.

So last win­ter I got stuck into it with a prun­ing saw, cut­ting the en­tire plant right down to ground level. I thought I had killed it and was fully pre­pared to grub out the rot­ting stumps later.

How­ever, new shoots emerged and sprouted with ex­tra­or­di­nary vigour. Al­ready it is 1.5m high and wide and even com­ing into flower. Best of all, the leaves are enor­mous and in­di­cate great joys ahead as win­ter ap­proaches. Other hy­drangea va­ri­eties, es­pe­cially

H. pan­ic­u­lata, were also cut back in win­ter to vir­tual stumps, but this is a per­fectly nor­mal treat­ment. Th­ese too are now in as­ton­ish­ing dis­play, es­pe­cially the re­mark­able gran­di­flora known as “Pee Gee”.

The creamy- white flow­er­heads are so enor­mous they dragged the slen­der but flex­i­ble branches right down to the ground. So I’ve been forced to lift them to tie them in great big, loose bun­dles. They still look bril­liant.

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