“These store-bought flowers are okay. But they are never as beautiful as the ones you give me from your garden,” my next-door neighbor said a few weeks ago, as she arranged a mixed bouquet from the grocery store. It was her get-well gift to me following foot surgery.
I had never thought of my flowers as noteworthy. They are what they are because I am a nonchalant gardener. Between competing interests, age, and arthritis, I don’t have time to pamper them. So, I stick with hardy, reliable, old-fashioned perennials. Among them are two – gladiolus and dahlias — that conjure up fond memories of summers spent at Old Lodge Farm, my Canadian grandparents’ home outside Aylmer East, Quebec. My grandparents grew neither, but George and Alma Fuller did.
My family would often stop by the Fullers’ farm for a visit and a cold drink of water from their pump before continuing our trek down to the Ottawa River’s rocky shore. Behind the cat-populated barn, Mr. Fuller grew vegetables and rows of gladiolus. Every week he loaded his produce and flower stalks onto his Model A truck and drove to Ottawa’s Baywater market. For her part, Mrs. Fuller tended a bed of dahlias in front of the house. The dark brown, weathered wood provided the right backdrop to showcase their brilliance. Because of the Fullers, I fell in love with glads, as George called them, and dahlias.
Despite being a flower that is slightly out of favor, glads have had a place in my garden for years. They’re easy to grow and never disappoint. Loosely arranged in a tall vase, they make a statement. Dahlias, on the other hand, were forgotten until my father planted them in the late 1990s. He and my mother had moved here from Ithaca, New York, following his retirement from Cornell. In the years that followed, he delighted in Asheville’s longer growing season, planted rhododendrons that never would have survived Ithaca’s winters, had a love affair with hostas, and in his late eighties, discovered dahlias. At the time, I was a wife and mother with a career. While I appreciated his octogenarian enthusiasm, I didn’t have the time or the energy to participate in it. Now, I do.
Here’s the thing about dahlias. When the black-eyed Susans look tired, and the crocosmia have gone to seed, and the Shasta daisy petals are tattered, and the gladiolus have bloomed themselves out, dahlias are coming into their own raucous glory. They thrive in cooler temperatures, one reason why Mrs. Fuller’s were so magnificent. But these fat tubers should come with a warning. Beware: they will take over your life.
The temptation to buy starts with spring catalogs showcasing the latest sumptuous color palates. Against my better judgment, I wonder whether I can fit in just a few more. The answer is no. I have more than I can say grace over. This became painfully clear in 2021 when illness and injury prevented me from properly staking them. I lamented my inability to care. A neighbor’s plot was a constant reminder of my neglect. While its well-supported dahlias stood tall and straight, mine sprawled against the fence. Others, out of desperation maybe, supported one another. I came to the sad conclusion that this was the year I would have no fall dahlias to share. How wrong I was. My dahlias produced an abundance of lush, colorful blossoms until the first frost.
So why does my neighbor extol the virtues of my ordinary, old-fashioned flowers? Could it be that perfection is over-rated? To be clear, I have never aspired to produce award-winning flowers. Could it be that after living with the fear and isolation imposed on us by the Covid-19 pandemic, an unexpected homegrown bouquet is a reminder that not everything has changed?
I won’t be gardening until May this year. By that time, I will be walking again. The dahlias will be sprouting, and it will be clear how many survived the winter. Some rearranging will be needed to make room for a raised bed. This will provide an opportunity to divide and share the tubers. Unlike other years, I won’t bemoan my late start. This year, I will take my time, thankful that a gifted surgeon made it possible for me to return to what I love doing. This year, I will fertilize and snip and stake, knowing that perfection isn’t what’s important. This year, I will garden knowing that my dahlias are resilient, and so am I.
Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
To learn more about gladiolus and dahlias, see: