Dahlia Dreaming

two dahlia flowers blooming

Dahlias blaze into colour just as other flowers are going over.
Image source: Shutterstock

After weeks of hot summer days, the grass is brown and withered, the summer raspberries have shrivelled into dessicated husks and the roses have gone over, but my dahlias are only just beginning. We’ve had the first brazenly crimson flower on ‘Con Amore’.

I’ve just started reading the sumptuous monograph ‘Dahlias’ by Naomi Slade, published earlier this month, and now I’m impatient to convert my dahlia dreaming into reality. I came to dahlias quite late in the day after picking up a few tubers of the charismatic Dahlia ‘Firepot’ at the school fete and I’ve been hooked ever since. They’re such a versatile flower – working equally well in mixed borders, containers or as bedding plants. Last year I also grew dahlias in the vegetable patch, and used the blooms for cut flowers.

Cut flowers

bloomed cafe au lait dahlia

‘Café au lait’ is a favourite for cut flower arrangements.
Image source: Nic Wilson

My favourites include the sophisticated duo ‘Henriette’ and ‘Café au Lait’. ‘Henriette’ is a semi-cactus washed with apricot tones and ‘Café au Lait’, a double decorative with a soft pink blush which Naomi Slade describes as ‘rich as a cream liqueur on ice’.

Their elegant flowers last well in arrangements – either as an off-white display or mixed with the deep burgundy shades of ‘Thomas A. Edison’ and ‘Downham Royal’. These darker dahlias also create fiery contrasts with the neon punctuation of ‘New Baby’ and burnished orange of ‘David Howard’. Growing flowers in these three tonal ranges allows me to create harmony and contrast in different rooms as the mood takes me.

Borders

group of bishop of llandaff dahlias flowers

‘Bishop of Llandaff’ brings a striking scarlet accent to your borders.
Image source: Thompson & Morgan

Dahlias bring extra colour to late summer borders and their foliage is a valuable addition even before the flowers, especially with the rich chocolate purples and greens of the Bishop Series. If I could only grow one dahlia, it would be ‘Bishop of Canterbury’ – it has the same dark foliage as the more popular ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, but with luscious magenta-pink flowers.

For a more elegant border dahlia, ‘Twynings After Eight’ retains the dark chocolate foliage alongside single white flowers with a saturated yellow central boss.

Containers and bedding

dahlia scura flower

The smaller dahlia ‘Scura’ is ideal for containers.
Image source: Nic Wilson

Smaller dahlias are well suited to container growing and bedding displays. For punchy colour try ‘Scura’, one of the Mini Bishop Group, which has deep orange petals with apricot undertones, or ‘Happy Single Date’ with its cheerful tangerine flowers flushed with red at the centre.

Fire and Ice’ creates its own contrast with vibrant red and white striped flowers on sturdy plants and you can’t beat the semi-double flowers of ‘Sunny Reggae’ in all shades from buttery apricot through to vivid red to liven up any area of the garden.

Dahlia care

two happy single date dahlias

Dahlia ‘Happy single date’ is easily accessible to bees in a wildlife-friendly garden.
Image source: Nic Wilson

Whether you’re planting dahlia tubers in containers from late winter/early spring or in the ground after the last frosts, they need little attention apart from feeding and comprehensive defense against the gastropodic arts. I begin all my tubers in containers – this year’s spring rain (hard to remember now) attracted the slugs and snails who wreaked havoc on the emerging shoots. My normal barriers of copper tape and wool pellets proved futile and I had to resort to placing all the dahlias on the patio table with copper tape circling each leg.

The plants need liquid feeding throughout the growing season – a high nitrogen feed initially, followed by a high potassium feed when they start flowering. Once autumn frosts begin in earnest, lift the tubers, cut back the stems and dry upside down before storing in sand or compost in a frost-free place. In milder areas, tubers can be left in the ground and well mulched with compost, manure or straw.  Most years this works for me, with occasional losses in particularly wet, cold winters.

Anticipation

thomas a edison dahlia

‘Thomas Edison’ is a beautiful addition to cut flower displays.
Image source: Nic Wilson

In the next few weeks I’ll be waiting impatiently for ‘Karma Choc’ and ‘Daisy Duke’ to flower, both new for me this year. And I’m already planning my dahlia selection for 2019. How can I resist just a few tubers of ‘Sierra Glow’ – described by Naomi Slade as the “most gorgeous bronze, brushed with coppery pink and with hints of dusty rose”? I suspect, with tens of thousands of cultivars available, I’ll be indulging in dahlia dreaming for many years to come.

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2017). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at www.dogwooddays.net

The secret life of plants

cross section of the date palm's primary root

The root structure of the date palm is a thing of beauty.
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

Gardening could be described as bending nature to our will. It’s the selection, planting, shaping, pruning, training, pollinating, pinching, grafting, thinning out and harvesting of plants to suit our requirements. But what happens above the ground is only the tip of the iceberg – half the story. How much more goes on beneath the earth that we never get to see?

partial cross section of an alpine strawberry primary root

The root anatomy of an alpine strawberry.
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

In a recent study, a team at the University of Nottingham were curious to find out. Using cutting-edge imaging techniques (and a pile of seeds from Thompson & Morgan) they investigated a variety of plant roots without having to dig them up. The results are out of this world!

For the first time, these X-ray CT images showcase the diversity and complexity of plant root systems in their undisturbed soil environment. What no-one was expecting, is just how strikingly beautiful these images of everyday plants, vegetables and flowers actually are.

Why study plant roots?

three pictures showing the main stem of a grapevine and the roots of a grapevine and a cross section of the primary root of a grapevine

A study of the grapevine.
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

Producing safe, nutritious food to feed the world’s growing population is a huge challenge for the future. We need to develop new, resilient crops, and do do that, we need better knowledge.

When we properly understand how plants grow, and have identified how specific features (e.g. root depth, thickness, angle or number of lateral roots) can be improved, this knowledge can be applied to allow more efficient food production. Particularly in regions with limited water or nutrient supply.

Finding out what happens beneath the soil could help eliminate hunger and famine around the globe. But in the quest for scientific breakthrough, it’s the beauty and resilience of nature that has been revealed in these never-before seen images – the secret life of plants.

Check out the full directory of images of plant root systems at The Hidden Half website, and follow their Twitter feed at @UoNHiddenHalf to get updates on their work. But for now, just scroll down and enjoy some of the incredible pictures the boffins have shared with us.

 

partial cross section of an alpine strawberry primary root

The root anatomy of an alpine strawberry.
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

 

congo grass roots

Congo grass roots 
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

growth of a date palm root

The growth of a date palm root
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

coloured image highlighting the three main root structures of the freesia alba

Three distinct root structures of a freesia alba
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

cross section of the freesia alba's primary root

The cross section of the primary root of a freesia alba
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham

cross section of a maize crown root

The cross section of a maize crown root
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham 

full diagram of a pea plants roots

A pea plant’s root structure.
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham 

full picture of a norway spruce including roots and stem

A full picture of a Norway Spruce
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham  

spinach root structure with main tap root highlighted

Spinach root structure with its main tap root highlighted
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham 

cross section of a tomato root

Cross section of a tomato root
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham 

cross section of a sugar beets primary root

Cross section of a sugar beet’s primary root
Image source: The Hidden Half project, University of Nottingham 

Planting tips from wildlife gardening experts

Cotoneaster berries feed birds through even the bleakest winters.
Image source: Artush

If you’d love to encourage wildlife to visit your garden but aren’t sure what plants to grow, this is the place for you. We asked some of our favourite wildlife gardening bloggers for their planting tips and here’s what they came up with – what to grow to encourage birds, bees, moths and butterflies to share your outside space.

Moths

Willowherb is loved by moths and butterflies.
Image source: Real Moment

Nocturnal insects love plants whose scent makes them easy to locate in the darkness. Wildlife blogger Dan Rouse says:

Plants like lavender are great for attracting moths, which in turn will attract their predators: bats!

Nic who writes Dogwood Days was just a two-year-old in red wellies when her father introduced her to banks of rosebay willowherb alongside the vegetable beds. She says:

Willowherb brings in moths and butterflies – especially the beautiful elephant hawk moth caterpillars with their extendable snouts.

Another favourite for attracting moths is honeysuckle. Bill at Frodsham Marsh Bird Blog says: “A large potted Honeysuckle is brilliant for attracting many types of moth species on those sultry warm summer evenings, and they in turn provide food for the local bats.

Butterflies

The Brimstone butterfly particularly loves Alder Buckthorn.
Image source: Butterfly Conservation

Attracting butterflies to flutter about your garden is all about planting the right blooming plants whose nectar they’ll sup. Remember – the greater the variety of plants and fungi you grow in your garden, the great the range of butterflies, and other insects you’ll get to see.

Lisa at Edulis Wild Food says encouraging wildlife to thrive is all about “Mimicking nature in her timing and choice of habitat.” In her garden she grows:

Alexanders, sweet cicely, japonica quince, wild raspberry, wild garlic, primroses, sweet violets, horse mushrooms, chicken of the woods, oyster mushrooms and scarlet elf cups.

Emma at Never Mind the Burdocks, meanwhile favours “ground elder, wild mints, and Galium species such as odorata which fill a borders edges perfectly and are easy to maintain.”

Providing myriad food sources is a great way to garden for wildlife, but if there’s a particular butterfly you’d like to see gracing your patch, often you’ll need to provide a specific food source. Dave at Why Watch Wildlife shares this example:

A Brimstone is looking for Alder Buckthorn, so think about planting it. Not only will it benefit the butterfly, but in autumn birds will eat the berries too.

Birds and bees

Forget-me-nots are a vital early source of nectar for bees.
Image source: Ian Grainger

As well as enjoying the host of tasty insects living on your wildflowers, birds need winter foodstuffs to keep them going when the nights draw in and the temperature plummets. To help out our feathered friends, Bill says he planted Cotoneaster. He says it’s quite mature now:

In the winter it retains enough berries to entice the local Blackbirds, wintering Blackcaps and once a small flock of Waxwing to feast on its berries.

Bill says the bees and hoverflies love the alliums he buried last year, and Julie of Garden Without Doors is a great advocate of early wildflowers like: “forget-me-nots, green alkanet and deadnettle”. She says the great advantage of spring flowers is that they’re: “beloved by bees and available to them before other flowers start blooming.”

Worried that by filling your borders with spring wildflowers, you’ll have less blooms to enjoy during the summer months? Don’t be. Julie says:

Your spring wildflowers will die back in time for other flowers to take over.

Do you have any wildlife-friendly planting suggestions to share? If so we’d love to hear from you. Just pop over to our Facebook page and leave us a message.

In the meantime, we’ll leave the last word to Alan at the Scottish Wildlife Garden who, once the butterflies have enjoyed his thistles, finds they “have delicious, tender, juicy hearts that are quite easy to prepare once you have the knack.” As he says, that’s one way to “Have your garden and eat it”.

Inspiring kids to love the garden

By Nic Wilson from Dogwooddays

Discovering the wonder of nature is a lifelong journey.
Image source: Oksana Kuzmina

My own childhood memories of high summer are filled with light, scent and taste: my dad’s mesembryanthemums with their candy-coloured faces following the sun, honeysuckle perfume saturating the evening air and summer raspberries still warm as I popped them in my mouth.

I was lucky enough to spend my childhood summers playing in a third-of-an-acre garden with apple trees, flower borders, a vegetable plot and a wild area where I was often to be found, at the top of the Scots pine, with an apple and a book.

Modern gardens are getting smaller, and more families are living in urban settings, often with only a balcony or window ledge for outside space. So how can we engage today’s youngsters with plants, nature and the outdoors, especially during the long summer holidays?

How to create a natural den

This living willow den will grow into the perfect hideout for small children.
Image source: Peter Turner Photography

The Scots pine canopy of my childhood was a special private place – the kind of secret outdoor space that many children like to create around themselves. But there are no mature trees in our small garden, so I planted a willow den for my kids as a place where they could be alone with nature. Willow dens are created by using whips (young, thin willow rods) that will root when driven into the ground and kits can be purchased from specialist suppliers to train into wigwams, domes and tunnels. As they mature, the foliage cover develops and entirely screens the centre of the den from the outside.

My children loved their den. We have fond memories of eager faces appearing from the entrance playing ‘peepo’ and small hands thrust through the foliage to wave at us from within. Willow likes fairly damp ground and our den finally perished after six years as the soil is a little too dry, but in ideal conditions these dens will last for years.

How to sow the magic of seeds

Tomatoes you’ve grown yourself are the best tasting tomatoes in the world.
Image source: Romrodphoto

There’s nothing like the magic of watching seeds germinate and develop bright blooms for flower pressing or tasty salad leaves. Getting kids involved in growing from seed can be the start of a lifetime’s fascination with gardening and it’s easy to grow plants like marigolds, lettuce leaves or tomatoes in a container or on a windowsill. If you haven’t sown seeds with the kids yet, it’s not too late. French beans, radishes and beetroot seeds can be sown as late as July, or alternatively you can buy tomato, courgette and pepper plants which will bear fruit throughout the summer.

This year we’ve been growing nasturtiums, calendula, cherry tomatoes and peas so the children can make simple salads garnished with edible petals. We also pickle the nasturtium pods as an alternative to capers – a peppery addition to pasta and pizza. As they eat their way through the vegetable bed, the kids are definitely developing more adventurous tastes and learning about where their food comes from.

How to get up close with wildlife

Nature is filled with beauty when you take time to observe.
Image source: altanaka

There’s a whole world in even the tiniest patch of grass or flowerbed: spiders, woodlice, ants and hoverflies are all easy to spot when you stop and observe the garden close up. We’ve had tawny mining bees in our small lawn this summer, exciting visitors that we’ve been watching as a family and the kids have a magnifying pot so they can examine the patterns on a snail shell or the detail of a ladybird’s wing.

A container in a sunny spot filled with lavender, salvia, agastache, dwarf buddleja or herbs like oregano and thyme will encourage pollinators into the garden or onto a balcony. Putting food and water out for the birds adds another dimension to the garden, allowing kids to learn more about local wildlife.

One of my favourite garden moments was watching fledgling great tits emerge from the bird box by the shed with my five year old son. He’d watched the adults feeding their young for days and was fascinated by the way the fluffy fledglings kept poking their heads out of the hole before finally flying the nest. When the last great tit left the nesting box, to our amazement, it landed briefly on my shoulder and then headed off over the shed – this kind of experience is a fabulous way to ignite a child’s interest, creating the gardeners and naturalists of the future.

Disclaimer: The author and publisher take no responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Seek advice from a professional before using a plant for culinary or medicinal uses.

 

About the author:

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2017). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at www.dogwooddays.net

Expert tips to make your garden wildlife-friendly

A small garden pond gives this song thrush somewhere to bathe and drink.
Image source: Ondrej Prosicky

By making just a few small changes to the way you garden, you’ll really help native wildlife to thrive. To get you started, here’s some expert advice courtesy of some of the best gardeners and bloggers we’ve found – tips to make your garden more wildlife-friendly.

Planning

Plan hedgehog highways as part of your garden design.
Image source: Colin Robert Varndell

Begin by asking: “what does the wildlife need?” says Brian of Brian’s Birding Blog. To answer the question, think about basics like food, water, shelter, and safety. By planning your garden around the building blocks of survival, your garden will be nature-friendly by design.

That’s a sentiment with which Nic of Dogwood Days wholeheartedly agrees – an attitude she inherited from her father who always says:

The garden is an extension of the wider landscape in terms of its links to nature – the birds, insects and animals.

But too often, we design our gardens with privacy in mind without thinking about how our wild visitors will get about. With a little thought, hedgehog-loving Adam of My Life Outside says that’s easily fixed:

By creating hedgehog highways through our gardens we can join up vast swathes of land and give these fabulous creatures a fighting chance.

So get together with your neighbours and create animal corridors by “lifting a fence panel a few inches, cutting a hole through wire netting or drilling through boundary walls.”

And do remember to provide a water source – an oasis for living creatures. As Brian says, installing a pond “gives the birds another food source and somewhere to bathe and drink,” and as Dave of Why Watch Wildlife adds “A source of fresh, clean water is good for invertebrates [and] amphibians.”

Housing

This nest box is a safe haven for blue tits to raise their young.
Image source: Erni

Now your garden works for wildlife, where will it live? Wildlife expert Dan Rouse is a passionate advocate of “messy zones” which she says can be a simple as “a small piece of old carpet and some bricks behind the shed” – the perfect hidey hole for insects and shy creatures like slow worms. She also says:

Nest spaces or nesting boxes and roosting boxes are fundamental for wildlife to survive.

But it’s not just birds who need high vantage points, it’s bugs and beasties too, as Bill at Frodsham Marsh Bird Blog points out. His garden features a tree whose “winding twisted trunk and small branches hold a selection of brightly painted bean cans which have been filled with a variety of fibre material”.

And don’t forget to make spaces for “lone fliers” to hang out – Bill says a couple of catering size cans fitted with a wooden plug and drilled with holes make ideal accommodation:

Solitary bees can access the interior to live their lives away from predators.

The same goes for dry hogweed stems which, cut to length, can also be used to stuff a tin – but be careful handling the live stuff, Bill says, because the sap can burn your skin. And because more bugs mean more bats fluttering overhead during spring and summer evenings, you’ll need to remember to install a bat box too.

Planting

An apple tree surrounded by wildflowers provides pollen and ground cover.
Image source: DrimaFilm

Look at your garden through the eyes of prospective wildlife visitors. Do you have a tree? If not, maybe consider planting one, or if space is a problem, make existing structures work for birds and insects. Bill (at Frodsham Marsh Bird Blog) whose garden is on the small side says:

The washing line post has Ivy growing up it and now provides thick cover where robin and wren have nested.

Wildlife expert Dan Rouse says using your planting to create layers ensures there’s food for all: “Shrub-like plants like lavender or fuchsia give off a lot of smell and still carry pollen for our pollinators.”

And remember to make sure there’s plenty of ground cover to provide shelter for bugs and food for predators. Dan says:

Smaller plants like ground creeper are great for our insects and small birds to hide in too.

That goes for grass too. Lisa at Edulis Wild Food says to delay mowing until wildflowers growing in it have had chance to bloom: “The bees are grateful for the early food and you realise how diverse your lawn can be if not totally mono-cultured.”

Do you have any wildlife gardening tips you’d like to share? Just head over to our Facebook page and leave us a message – we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this gem of a tip from Miles at Forager who says it’s not just the wildlife that benefits from wild planting:

Eat your weeds! Bittercress, sow thistle, chickweed, nettles, dandelion are all delicious and nutritious.

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