Summer’s on the way

…. ready or not.

‘Ivory Silk’, the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk, below), is past its peak with white blooms littering the ground beneath like snowflakes, though they quickly spoil and turn a muddy brown. The stone path that winds under the tree, then descends to the lower patio, is treacherous with a slippery covering of damp flowers. On the far side of the patio the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) is also past bloom, a bit early since they often remain in flower into the middle of June.

The weather in May was erratic, jumping from warm to cold and back again, but quite normal for spring in Virginia, and cooler than is usual I suspect. The first week of June has been warm and muggy with daily thunderstorms that are common of our summers. Last evening it did not rain on my garden, but after dark there was thunder and lightning all around and I was surprised when showers didn’t follow.

Though there is adequate soil moisture the small areas of lawn that bridge the large areas of garden have started towards their summer dormancy. With warm temperatures, lush cool season grasses slow their growth, become more stressed without regular irrigation, and summer weeds begin to creep in. There are a number of bare areas in what should be lawn, and each year I consider turning the whole mess into garden before I yield to howls of protest from my wife. She prefers a bit of lawn, I’d rather have more trees and bloomers.

Dahlias (above) bloom superbly through the summer into early fall, and though not winter hardy in Virginia, their tubers are easily lifted when the foliage has faded from frost and stored in a bag of dried leaves or sawdust in an unheated garage.

Several years ago I potted the tubers in March to get an early start, and what a pain! The emerging shoots are spindly, and grow so fast that you are anxious to move them outdoors, then you must hope and pray that a late frost doesn’t turn the plant to mush. It is so much easier to plant the tuber directly into the ground, or into a large pot that is outside from the start in mid May, and even if there is a late frost there’s no growth to worry about. With a few warm days in late May the tuber springs to life, and by early June the dahlia is twenty inches tall with numerous buds and a few blooms.

I prefer the purple leafed dahlias with single flowers, but there are doubles, miniatures, and flowers the size of dinner plates, and you are likely to enjoy whichever type you plant. In general I am fond of plants with oversized  leaves, and in this case colorful foliage, but not large flowers, so I am delighted with ‘Bishop of York’ (above) and a few others (the names of which I have long forgotten). A modest size tuber will grow into a three foot shrub within a few weeks in June, and there are too few spaces in the garden that aren’t overcrowded already, so I am unlikely to add to my small collection.

In my experience dahlias require no care at all, no bugs, no fertilizer, just plant and enjoy, then pop them from the ground in October after the foliage dies. For years I was hesitant to overwinter bulbs and tubers, fearing that they would surely rot, and each year I lose an elephant ear bulb or a banana root that has been cut back and stored in dried leaves, but usually because I didn’t dry the bulb or the leaves adequately. Dahlia tubers are smaller, and easier to store, and there should be no excuse for not giving them a try.

For a modest expense, and a trifling of labor you are rewarded with extraordinary blooms through the heat, one of many reasons to look forward to summer, and in a few days there will be many more blooms to treasure, daylilies, hydrangeas, roses, coneflowers, and so on.

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