DAHLIAS I HAVE LOVED + A GIVEAWAY

It would be cruel to ask me (or any gardener) to name my favorite flower, but I can say without any hesitancy that I can't imagine a garden of mine ever being without dahlias. They are, to me, the quintessential flower. And there are so many varieties I can't imagine that everyone couldn't find at least one (ha!) that they wouldn't love to grow in their garden.

'Cafe au Lait' dahlias in a variety of colors from my garden last year. 

I've always loved dahlias but growing them in our zone 5b climate along Lake Michigan, which makes a deal with the devil to offer warm, long autumn at the expense of warm springs, is an exercise in patience. Dahlias are, in general, at their best in late summer, but the cold soil in my garden in spring pushed that back even later.

Several years ago I figured out a way to circumvent this problem. I now pot up tubers in gallon-size nursery pots in mid-April so that dahlias have a good amount of growth on them by the time the soil is warm enough to plant them out. You must never plant a dahlia in cold soil; it will sulk at best and rot at worst.

A collection of dahlias cut before frost a couple years ago. The center flower is 'Pablo' and the orange flowers are 'David Howard'.

My taste in dahlias varies from year to year. There are so many categories of dahlias and varieties within each category, that the idea of never delving into the other options is appalling to me.

Best known are the dinnerplate dahlias, so called for their enormous flowers, although to truly get flowers the size of a dinner plate, you'll need to be ruthless about pinching out side shoots, allowing all the nutrients and plant love to go to one single, favored bud per stem. This is how dahlias are grown for show and I'm far too greedy a gardener to follow this practice. I'll take four 6- or 7-inch blooms over one giant one any day. Dinnerplate dahlias must also be staked because their heavy blooms will certainly make the stems topple over. I've admitted my staking mistakes here regularly but this is one of those do-as-I-say not do-as-I-do things. Stake them either with some sort of cage or metal support or with individual supports (i.e. bamboo canes) for each major stem when the buds begin to swell, if not before.

Because of the hassle factor, I don't grow a lot of dinnerplates. I also find that they can be a touch difficult to incorporate into a border so unless you have a specific cutting garden area you have to be a little choosy about siting them. For the last several years, however, 'Cafe au Lait' has been the star of my garden. I think I first became aware of this dahlia when Erin from Floret started using them in her amazing bouquets. The color on it will range from buff or blush to almost candy pink and everything in between.

The seductive center of a 'Cafe au Lait' from my garden.
'Labyrinth' Longfield Gardens photo

I grow 'Cafe au Lait' in the skinny bed that runs between the house and the patio (quite the micro-climate there), but the rest of that garden has become quite colorful as I fill it with mostly annuals grown from seed. So this year I'll be alternating 'Cafe au Lait' at the back of that garden with 'Labyrinth', which is similar in form and style to 'Cafe au Lait' but much brighter. I look at it almost as a more saturate 'Cafe au Lait'.

'David Howard'

'HS Flame' Longfield Garden photo

I am also fond of dark-leaved dahlias although in a book I'm reading the great Christopher Lloyd (the late owner of the famed British garden and home Great Dixter) said he thought they could be "funereal" (on this point, Lloyd and I do not agree). 'David Howard' is an excellent example and of all the dahlias I've grown it produces the most flowers year after year. This year I'll be adding a red-flowered, dark foliage dahlia called 'HS Flame', which also has the single petals that pollinators appreciate and looks just a little less fussy than some dahlias. I'll be devoting a section of the circle garden to this dahlia.

'Roxy'

Last year I also grew a dark-leaved one called 'Roxy' which was a good performer in a pot for me. All three of these last dahlias I've mentioned have the benefit of being lower growing, so in many cases do not require staking, although 'David Howard' always grows taller than it should for me and flops by the end of summer.

'Crichton Honey'

I have an affinity for ball-shaped dahlias as well. There is something so orderly and almost unnatural about the shape of them that I find captivating. By far the best of these that I grew last year was 'Crichton Honey', which again varied in color (on the same flower, no less) from yellow to salmon to orange with a bright green center. I also like the tiny pom dahlias, although I've not had good luck with these and for some reason the slugs in my garden attack these over all others. I think that's a coincidence more than anything, but it's a shame because I think a pom dahlia thrown in a bouquet of more natural-shaped flowers is a lovely thing.

'Art Deco'

Gallery dahlias are fabulous because they are the lowest growing of the dahlias and are perfect for the front of a bed or a container and will never need staking (hallelujah). Sometimes, though, I find them almost too compact, without a lot of room for them to really show off their flowers. Such problems. Their color and form is somewhat limited as well. 'Art Deco' is a lovely deep salmon color. A few years ago I got a mixed bag of unknown gallery dahlias and there was one spectacular one that I didn't know the name of at the time. I now believe it was 'Pablo' and it was outstanding.

'Serkan' Longfield Gardens photo

As I said, I'm far to undisciplined of a gardener to stick to just a few varieties of dahlias and this year I'll be growing a few new ones. First is 'Serkan', a blue-purple waterlily variety that will also go in the circle garden. The waterlily dahlias are so unusual compared to other varieties and there's something graceful about them. I think the flower shape is a good juxtaposition with a lot of other flower forms that may be growing near it.

'Myrtles Folly' Longfield Gardens photo

'Nuit d'Ete' Longfield Gardens photo

If there was ever a flower to go a little wild with, it's dahlias and that's what led me to these next two varieties; they are just a little nutty. The first is 'Myrtles Folly', a big, almost fuzzy looking flower with split petals and bright colors. And the second is 'Nuit d'Ete', which is said to be one of the darkest dahlias and the cactus form is always interesting. I'm thinking I may grow them together, as dark flowers are no use if you don't have something near them to set them off so they don't get lost in the background.

Dahlias will keep blooming if you are good about deadheading them. Here's some information on how to do that.

Now, onto the fun part. I want to prove to you that:

  1. Dahlias are easy to grow,
  2. Everyone should grow some, and
  3. Once you grow them you'll fall in love with them too.
Longfield's Summer Wine mix

Longfield's Sugar Plum mix

Longfield Gardens has offered to give TWO lucky readers one of their dahlia collections. I picked out two that I thought were fantastic: their Summer Wine mix and a Sugar Plum mix. Right now most of their dahlias are on sale so if you haven't ordered yet, make sure you do before they are sold out!

Just clicking will get you one entry but you can earn additional entries as well. If you have some sun in your garden or a place you can put a pot in the sun, you can grow these!
Longfield Gardens Dahlia collection giveaway

Longfield Gardens has offered to give away two dahlia collections to The Impatient Gardener readers and has offered me a few dahlia varieties to try free of charge. All opinions are my own. 

HOW TO MAKE AN INDUSTRIAL LIGHT FIXTURE

You know what a bummer it is when you find something you really like only to discover you really don't want to spend that much money on it? That sort of sums up my search for lights in the basement, which, as you may recall, we are trying to do on a tight budget. At one point during my search for lights, which was all over the place as I couldn't decide what kind of "feel" I wanted down there, I found a simple but sharp industrial style light that I kept coming back to. At $130 plus shipping, it would have been in the budget had I only needed one, but it was a no-go when I needed three.


At some point during the process of falling in love with this light, I posted a picture of it on Instagram, to which my friend Eric from Gardenfork replied, "You know you can make that, right?" So I watched Eric's video on making an industrial pendant light and set to work sourcing the parts.

My Instagram post showing the $130 inspiration light that I recreated for $60. 


I had a sneaking suspicion that it probably wasn't that hard to make some light fixtures, but my concern was knowing what parts I needed. And since I would have to order most of them online, I didn't want to end up in a situation where I'd order things I didn't need or fail to order something important. Eric's video helped with that part and then I went to the Gardenfork Facebook discussion group (a group hosted by Eric for discussing DIY projects, gardening stuff, and tons more), posted the list of the parts I was planning to buy and asked someone who had a clue to check my list to make sure I had everything. Eric was nice enough to reply and I had to swap out one item, but from there it was off to the races. In the end, I was able to recreate the inspiration light for less than half the price!

The parts you need to make this light, clockwise from the left: Metal shade, brass shade fitter/clamp, nut, electrical wire, ceiling canopy, porcelain socket, threaded nipple. 

Here are the parts I ordered (links take you to where I ordered them from but there are lots of places to order these things from):

You can absolutely pick up the wire at at the hardware store but I threw it in the cart as long as I was ordering.

Other parts:
  • Threaded hollow nipple. We reused the ones from the old lights but we could have purchased them for 38 cents. 
  • A nut that fits that nipple (purchased locally)
  • A canopy "kit" if necessary. This includes the metal piece that stretches across the hole in the ceiling where the electrical comes out (maybe this is called a junction box, but the fact that I made these lights with no concept of what these parts are called ought to reassure you that you can do this) and bolts to screw into. Again, we were able to reuse the old parts from the previous fixtures. 
Onto the assembly. This is the part where I should warn you that electricity is dangerous, etc. but you already know that and, frankly, I made it through this alive so you probably will too. (I'm kidding. You will.*)
This is the bottom of the socket where the light bulb screws in. The only thing you need to worry about on this end is loosening the screws to allow the cap of the 

Start by unscrewing the cap from the socket. There are a bunch of screws in there so make sure to only unscrew the ones holding the cap on. 



Then use a wire strippers to take off about 1/4-inch of the plastic covering from the end of the hot (black) and neutral (white) wires and about a half-inch off the ground (green) wire.

Next, you have to attach the hot and neutral wires. Start by twisting the exposed ends of the wire and bending it into a 90-degree angle (just to make it easier to fit in the space. When you look in the socket, there will be a screw on either side of the green screw. Each is backed by a small plate, one in silver, one in brass. Attach light to light and dark to dark, so the black wire goes to the screw on with the brass plate and the white wire goes to the screw with the silver plate (it's hard to see in these photos but when you have the socket in front of you it's obvious). Unscrew the screw a few turns, slip the exposed wire under it and tighten. When you think it's snug, give it a little tug to make sure it's really in there. Do this for both wires.


Next, wrap the green ground wire around the green screw in the same fashion. This screw is larger, so you can make a hook with the wire and sort of wrap it around the screw before tightening.

Thread the nipple into the cap of the socket, tighten the set screw on the cap and feed your wires through it, working the cap down.



This next bit takes a little doing because there are a lot of wires to jam in that tiny socket, but work them down as best you can, then tighten the screws that hold the cap on firmly. 


When it's on it should look like this:


Now take a deep breath because you've done the hard bit. Next you want to feed the wires through the canopy and push the nipple through the hole (there will be no snickering, thank you very much).


Use a nut to secure the canopy tight to the socket.


Then attach the shade holder to the shade. It just slips on and you tighten the screws. Slide the socket in the top and tighten the top clamp screw to secure it. We actually did this after we wired the lights to the ceiling as it was easier to attach everything without the shade on. 


 Then wire it to the existing electrical box like you would any other light. Mount the canopy onto the metal holder on the junction box to secure the light to the ceiling.

And that's it ... a light that, as far as I can tell, is identical to one you can buy, except mine cost $60 and the inspiration light was $130.

Here's the inspiration:

 And here's mine:





* But if you don't, don't blame me.



FRIDAY FINDS

It is a gorgeous day in Wisconsin. The sun is shining, the high temperature may break a record and I have completely mixed feelings about that. Don't get me wrong, I love an easy winter. But I love it during winter. There are consequences though. Last year I had Japanese beetles in my garden for the first time ever, probably caused by a mild winter and spring. Plants can handle a pretty wide range of temperature fluctuations, but extended periods of weather in the 50s in mid-February in what is supposed to be zone 5 can cause problems. And I worry about the broader implications that go beyond my garden.


As part of the basement project, we've been paring down our STUFF. I recently sold a set of dining chairs that I loved very much but needed some work that I've not had the time to get to for years. We have big dinners a couple times a year so we need chairs, but these were huge and unwieldy to store. I'm on the hunt for comfortable folding or stackable chairs at a good price to replace the set we just sold, so if time allows I'm going to head to the Restoration Hardware outlet where everything is an additional 40% off this weekend and see if they have something that might fit the bill. I was thinking about these cafe-type chairs, but only if they can be stacked.

Loi's Tudor house is for sale. What a dream this house would be if you wanted a place that was completely finished and ready to just move in and live.

Erin at Floret is running a series on garden planning this week. She approaches it from the flower farm perspective but her method can certainly be scaled back to apply to home gardeners. Her first book is coming out in a couple weeks and I'll be doing a review of it, so stay tuned.

I wouldn't say there's much that's earth-shattering in this list of ways to design a beautiful edible garden, but those oak wine barrels are phenomenal.

The latest Anthropologie catalog was shot at the Gianetti's Patina Farm. It's crazy because I saw the catalog and the setting was vaguely familiar but I didn't recognize their house at all with such different furnishings in it. I gotta say ... I like the "real" way better.

And lastly, I had intended to get this how-to post up this week but ran short on time so next week. But I still have to give you a preview because ....


I. MADE. THIS.

Can you tell I'm just a little proud of myself? Tutorial on the way, I promise. Also, that's the new basement wall and ceiling color in that photo too. Just a tad better than raspberry and baby blue, right? Remember how that looked?


Eek ... it's so bad, especially with the pink floors! All we've really done down there so far is paint and do the lights and it's already about 98% better.

If you're craving the sun, be sure to follow me on Instagram as there is certain to be a beach photo or two popping up there next week. I'm headed south for a quick jolt of Vitamin D and a little break from the daily grind. I'm more than a little excited.  Have a great weekend!

THERE'S A FUNGI IN MY FRIDGE

So this is in my fridge. In case you can't tell what that is, it's a 5.5-pound bag of slightly moldy-looking sawdust. Makes it all clear, right?

That's a bag of mushroom spawn in my fridge, complete with the directions on top of it because if I don't keep them in there I'm sure to lose them.

It's actually a bag of wine cap mushroom (Stropharia) spawn mixed with sawdust that I picked up over the weekend at the Wisconsin Garden Expo. A few weeks ago, on a dark winter weekend, I somewhat randomly decided that I'm going to grow mushrooms this year.

My interest in mushrooms actually started last spring when I was chatting with garden blogger friend Kenny Point from Veggie Gardening Tips as we passed the time waiting for our flights at the airport. Kenny loves to grow things just for the challenge of growing something different (he also got me hooked on growing culinary ginger and turmeric) and told me that I was crazy not to give mushroom growing a try because, he said, some varieties are dead simple to grow.

Later that spring I went to a talk on growing mushrooms, but that one was centered mostly on using inoculated wood plugs to "seed" logs and seemed to require a fair amount of waiting, something we all know I'm no good at (see name of blog), but I kept remembering that there was a variety Kenny told me was very simple to try. I recalled that a few weekends ago and decided I would officially give wine caps a try.

Here's why I picked that variety:

  1. They can be grown in wood chips or straw.
  2. If I plant them in spring I should have mushrooms by August.
  3. The mushrooms are unique looking so even I should be able to identify them and not kill myself.
That last one sounds like a joke, but it's not. We have a pretty wooded lot and there are lots of mushrooms around. Some, I'm sure, are edible, but there are plenty that are absolutely not. I'm no mycologist, so I don't play around with taste testing things that might make me die. But wine caps are beautiful mushrooms with a lovely merlot-colored cap and gray gills that don't even look remotely like anything I've seen growing here. So I should be able to recognize them and be safe eating them.

Field and Forest photo

I bought the spawn—enough to cover a 50-square-foot bed—from Field and Forest Products, a mushroom supplier in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and found the staff to be just full of knowledge and more than happy to share. 

I'm still researching the more specific aspects of creating my wine cap bed, but I know where it's going to go: Behind the three big virburnums at the back of the garden in the back/side garden that help block our neighbor's house. That area gets filtered light in the morning and late in the day and does a great job growing creeping Charlie, which the folks at Field and Forest said is a good indication that the mushrooms will do well there. I'll lay down a three-inch bed of well moistened hardwood chips, spread the sawdust/spawn mixture over them and top it with wet straw. Then all I have to do is keep the bed moist but not wet this summer. 

So this will be my big gardening experiment for the summer. Of course I'll take you along on the journey. And don't worry ... I'll do all the taste testing.