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Dahlias Don’t Ask Much | Letter from the Editor

Fine Gardening - Issue 195
Photo: Danielle Sherry

Sometimes I don’t notice things until someone points them out. Then I can’t stop noticing. I used to love Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” until a friend mentioned that it sounds like John ­Fogerty is singing, “There’s a bathroom on the right.” That is the only way I hear it now.

I never noticed that my black-eyed Susans had black spot until I went to a plant breeder who showed me a variety that didn’t get that disease. Now whenever someone mentions Rudbeckia, I don’t say, “Wonderful native!” or “Fabulous fall flowers!” Instead, I mutter “Ugh. Watch out for black spot.”

My love for Hydrangea arborescens has waned since someone pointed out that it flops after a rainstorm and usually never stands back up again. While I have some dwarf cultivars that seem to always stand proud, my larger shrubs remind me to live in the moment because things will not last.

I recently read a book that called dahlias “high maintenance,” but I immediately knew this wasn’t true. I grow dahlias, and I am an often lazy, easily distracted, highly forgetful gardener. My characteristics and high-maintenance plants just do not go together. But my naturally argumentative nature pointed out to me that dahlias need watering, feeding, and staking. They need to be brought in for the winter at the right time, stored properly, and brought back out again at the right time. None of these tasks could be something at which I excel.

So why don’t I think dahlias are high maintenance? For all of their needs, dahlias are pretty forgiving if you aren’t exactly punctual in  meeting their requirements. And none of those requirements is all that  difficult. Watering? Not an issue since I installed drip irrigation (probably while avoiding some other task I wanted to do less—and almost certainly at the behest of my wife). Feeding? If I can’t remember the last time I fed them, I put that on my to-do list. Staking? It only takes a minute (but my wife doesn’t know that, so she can be easily convinced that the task is arduous and requires a nap afterward). The rest of the chores are equally simple, and the plants are forgiving if I am not on top of things.

A truly high-maintenance plant requires constant attention and will immediately sulk and quickly perish if its needs are not met. It is true, however, that I don’t get as many blooms as others who are better providers for their dahlias. And I get three or four years out of a dahlia ­before I miss a step in its care and it doesn’t come back. I just replace  it with a different cultivar. No one notices, and I certainly will not point it out.

– Steve Aitken, editor 

From Fine Gardening #195

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