Bending the Rules

In the world of gardening there are correct ways of doing things (as outlined in serious text books such as the RHS Encyclopaedia of Gardening) and wrong ways of doing things. These include, for the benefit of a work colleague who shall remain nameless, planting tulips bulbs in March. In between these two extremes lies a vast, often unexplored grey area which terrifies less confident gardeners into doing nothing at all, lest some terrible fate befall them. The fact is that gardening is all about trial and error, not right and wrong. The days when one could run a garden by the book ended with the passing of gentlefolk like my grandfather, who knew all the correct ways to do things and had the time and patience to do them. That kind of rigour and in-depth knowledge is now the domain of the botanical gardens and institutions that maintain such ‘correct’ practices in order that they can write text books to inform us humble gardeners how to do things properly.

This is not to besmirch those who strive for and attain horticultural qualifications (that would a bit rich coming from someone with a degree in Landscape Management), far from it. To bend or break the rules one needs to understand the rules first; to know that one might get away with tulips planted in December or even early January if the weather is cold, but not in March; to appreciate why trampling on waterlogged ground in any season is recipe for disaster, or that pruning a yew hedge hard will have a splendid restorative effect, but that the same treatment administered to almost any other conifer would spell certain disaster. Experimentation is one of the great amusements of gardening, but when carried out with no idea of the outcome the results can be unpredicatble at best and off-putting at worst. When I ask people why they don’t garden, the answer is either that they don’t have a garden, or that they have endured so many disappointments with plants that they can’t bring themselves to try again.

Dahlia 'Waltzing Matilda', The Salutation, September 2015

So, for those of you stricken by the desire to ‘do the right thing’ or nothing at all, here’s a salutary tale. Dahlias, those glorious tuberous plants of Mexican origin, are supposed to be lifted and stored in a dry, frost free place over winter, especially if one’s soil is cold, wet or heavy. When grown in pots this is even more important as the tubers may freeze unless they are moved inside after the first frosts. Last autumn, having displaced from their cosy pots and carefully stored three dahlia tubers, I decided that the remainder (about 12) could fend for themselves, outside, exposed to the elements, in their black plastic containers. Dahlias are not expensive to buy, so I was prepared to replace them if necessary. This weekend I checked on the tubers that I’d stored inside. They were a little shrivelled and unattractive but not blighted. Then I started to turn the outcasts out of their rather waterlogged pots. In comparison to the tubers I’d stored inside they were in rude health, plump, hard and astoundingly large. Many had conveniently divided themselves into two sizeable pieces, each capable of producing a strong new plant. One after another they emerged from their unorthadox winter quarters, not a single blemish on them. I have potted up both the ‘indoor’ and the ‘outdoor’ tubers in fresh compost and will be interested to see which grow away the fastest. Bending the rules has cost me nothing, in fact it has saved me a lot of time and effort. Henceforth I will be leaving my tubers in their containers until they need potting up again in spring ….. whilst still keeping half an eye on the weather forecast.

I’d love to hear about your gardening short cuts, cheats and text-book defying feats. Let’s dispel a few myths and inspire each other to bend the rules more often.

Stalwart Dahlia 'David Howard' is a tall, vigorous variety suitable for the middle or back of a border

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46 thoughts on “Bending the Rules

  1. I am so glad your Dahlia experiment worked. I left mine in the ground one year, and they never resurfaced again. It has taken me about five years to work up my courage to try again. They will be delivered in April. I will plant, hopefully enjoy some beautiful flowers, and then I will take them out of the ground in the fall. 🙂 I guess what I’ve done numerous times that is against the rules is divide plants when it is ‘time’ in my book and not necessarily in the plant’s book based upon when they bloom. When I see I need to adjust something, I do it. Our gardening season is short so I just keep working along checking things off my to-do-list. 🙂

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  2. I have left is as late as the first week in January to plant tulips and got away with it……all my dahlias were lifted and stored in the traditional way inside a greenhouse….haven’t checked on them yet to see how they are. Last Summer I moved two roses (they were on a piece of borrowed land and the woman suddenly wanted all my plants gone)……I watered then really well and cut then right back and they recovered and are waking up into new life this Spring

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  3. I’m a bit on the lazy side as a gardener and have only one time gone to the effort to carefully lift and store my dahlias. Those didn’t really all get planted back outside when the time came… I may have been too busy with small children at the time. Since then they have been left in the ground and they have almost all come through the winter just fine. We have soil on the sandy side in most of the garden and live in Zone 8, Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I might not get away with it if we had heavy, clay soil. Every so often, it would be prudent to dig, divide and reset into enriched soil. I’m sure they would provide a better display if babied more.

    Love your blog but have rarely commented. I really appreciate your commentary and beautiful pictures. 🙂

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    1. Greetings to you Kathy over there in the Pacific Northwest! I can imagine small children are not conducive to gardening and I am sure you are not in the least bit lazy. I am very happy you are enjoying the blog and send a big thank you for taking the time to comment. Please keep coming back and enjoy those dahlias!

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      1. Thank you. 🙂 We’re out of the small children phase and into the grandchildren phase now. Energy is more limited than 30 years ago.

        I’m looking forward to a trip in June … coming over that direction with a garden tour group and we will visit Wales and Cornwall and cross through the Cotswolds to see a couple of gardens while in transit. You live in such a beautiful country. 🙂 The rain doesn’t put our group off much either… we get plenty of that around these parts!

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      2. Yes, famed for its wonderful ancient forests. At least that what comes to mind when I think of the Pacific North West. Sounds like you’ll have an amazing trip. A great time of year to be in all those locations, but naturally I have the softest spot for Cornwall 😀

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      3. Thank you (I’m responding under my Facebook account this time). Our NW group is excited to visit the Cornwall area this summer and I shared your link with the gal who is leading the group. I noticed you featured some beautiful Cornish gardens on your blog. I appreciate you sharing your photos with us. 🙂

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  4. I appreciate the gardening my husband does as I no longer have the physical strength anymore for it, but when I did garden, my way was to experiment, usually by sowing seeds where there was space for them and hoping for the best, and potting up seedlings as soon as they looked strong enough to survive. That said, I remember a few decade ago when I over-optimistically planted what I thought was a fertile banana seed, only to discover that whatever I’d planted wasn’t a seed at all!

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  5. I too have gone down the “leave or lift” dahlia route and so far those left in have come up very well; maybe a week later than replanted ones. I grow the Honka variety, with what seems to be only about 20 other people in the country! As for Cosmos, I’ve given up nuturimg seed trays full of spindly seedlings – self seeded plants from the previous year are amazing! Love reading your blog by the way.

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    1. Hi Mary Ann. I share your frustration with leggy seedlings. For years I’ve had to make do with growing on the windowsill and then not having space to keep plantlets going when they get bigger. I am hoping things will be easier now I have a greenhouse. Self seeded plants always seem to do better – I guess we all do when we can choose our own place to live. Mine would be in the sun 🌞 Delighted to hear you enjoy my blog, thanks for taking the time to say so.

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  6. I’m all for energy and time saving ‘risks’. I never lift my cannas or Dahlias. I usually put a compost mulch over the cannas in case of frost. This year I haven’t even bothered to wrap my Musa. I’m in Broadstairs too and I often see unwrapped Bananas around the town gardens and they are ok. I do think that I wouldn’t get away with this if I lived somewhere else in the country, as we’re lucky to have our own micro-climate on the Isle. P.s. Love your blog – have been reading for over a year now and enjoy the posts and photos – I’m learning a lot!

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  7. It’s a jolly good job plants don’t follow their care labels. If they did I’d be limited to a handful of ubiquitous grasses that are deemed suitable for growing on wet sticky clay in the Welsh Marches. Dozens of “pernickety” ones thrive, which is largely what I write about. Another spot on topic, thank you. Your last post was a fab ad for spring breaks in Broadstairs!

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    1. When it’s nice it’s very nice Kate. I can recommend it. Like other seaside towns we are blessed with good light and big skies.

      I seem able to keep some strange things alive on our revolting London clay, whilst things that ought to appreciate it curl up and die. I just keep on trying.

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  8. You’re right – who has got time to do things “by the book” these days? Besides, bending rules is so much more exciting… Your lines reminded me of Christopher Lloyd’s verdict in The Well-Tempered Garden (check out his subchapter “In the Mood”, under “Pruning”) 🙂

    My own recent surprise was a Schlumbergera (or “Christmas cactus”, on account of its flowering time) so infested with mealy bug that I’d banned it from the house last autumn and basically given it up for good. It has been outside all winter and though not looking great I’ve noticed it is sprouting anew and the mealy bug is all gone. This is sheltered Inner London and we hardly had any frost – still, what with heavy loam soil, lots of wet and still fairly cold temperatures for this succulent…

    Other than that I tend to take cuttings any time of year, whenever I cut something back or accidently brake things off as I can’t bring myself to throwing away good healthy shoots. More often than not they’ll root.

    My bet is your outdoor-dahlias will be flowering earlier this year as the shrivelled indoor ones have some catching up to do!

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    1. I think your prediction will prove correct Stephanie. Your account of the Christmas cactus reminded me that grandma, who was perpetually fed up with her ‘dratted’ specimen that resided in a brass coal scuttle. It would be threatened with the compost heap every spring, stuck outdoors somewhere and would invariably grow bigger and more floriferous still. I have no idea what happened to it. It’s probably still going strong in a friend or relative’s house! I shall refer to The Well-Tempered Garden and read that section, if I can find it among the stacks of books waiting for a place on my shelves!

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      1. Curious, isn’t it, that threatening compost heap/ bin/ abandonment often produces amazing results. Plants can’t hear it (if you announced the threat aloud in the first place) and still… And often it is more than just ‘one last hurrah’. — Sounds as if you need your new library rather urgently!

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  9. Sometimes one just has to go with the flow and do the best one can. Here in my Devon clay soil a bright pink ‘outdoor’ dahlia survived in the really cold winters 5 and 6 years ago, -12 at nights and frozen solid for over two weeks. Since then others have been fine left out and flowered their socks off. The greenhouse protected ones usually do better but I have had losses with them some years.

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    1. Your dahlias have clearly acclimatised to the marvellous Devon climate Tina! My dad in Bath leaves his in the ground and his soil is equally heavy and cold. I think you’re just as likely to lose lifted tubers to rot and dehydration as you are to lose a few in the cold and wet outside. Love the sound of your pink ‘outdoor’ beauty.

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  10. This year I have left my Dahlias in pots too, they are under a porch so were kept relatively dry from the never ending rain we get in the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest. I am looking very forward to see how they will perform this summer, buds are already emerging. Last year they were not so impressive in their first year, but neither is anything I try to grow here, as all my gardening is in containers. Lovely blog!

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  11. Well, I tried. I lifted a dahlia and intended to leave it overnight upside down in an outhouse to dry out, before storing it in compost. Fast forward to March and guess what? It’s still in the outhouse, upside down, no compost. I’m not expecting a lot..

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  12. Nature doesn’t always follow the rules we set forth. That is part of why I garden; constant surprise and wonderment are part of the experience of gardening by the seat of my pants. I rarely follow recipes, and often end up with mixed results.

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  13. I am surprised to hear, Dahlia pulps should be stored frost free. Mine are left in the earth as it is ever since I first planted them three years ago and have come up duly every year. Ignorance is bliss (sometimes at least).

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  14. I know that wisterias are notoriously slow to make it into flower and, in retrospect, I could have bought a better variety. A couple of years ago, exasperated at regularly getting at most a dozen blooms out of my 10 year old ‘Black Knight’ despite my best pruning efforts, I thought I would kick-start it with a feed of liquid tomato fertiliser in March or April. I got 200 flowers that year. Did the same last year and got close to 300. So is it the flower-promoting power of tomato feed, or just its age? Hard to tell, but this year and next I won’t give it a spring feed, so we’ll see how it does.

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    1. Could have been six of one and half a dozen of the other Nigel, but my money would be on the tomato food doing the trick. I swear by it for shy flowerers. It will be fascinating to see what happens this year as you say, but hopefully your wisteria has got into its stride now. Must be a picture in full bloom.

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  15. Yes rule book rip it up! The late great Christopher Llloyd did and look at Great Dixter! Regarding dahlias, and old chap in our lane used to bring me potted up plants of Bishop of Llandaff every spring and I would ask him when I could plant them. He used to say would you like to stand out there in wet ground No then neither would the plants! I also used to ask him whether things I had planted would survive and his answer was always 50 50 and if they don’t you have an opportunity for a new plant!

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  16. Live in Formby between Liverpool and Southport. In a border facing nearly full south – East/south have several Dahlias among perennials. Very light sandy soil – last 10 years have left all Dahlias in over winter. All increased hugely and give fantastic show.

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  17. Re Dahlias – we leave all ours in the ground every winter and most come up again. The simple flowered varieties in simple colours seem to do better and the fancy multi doubles in gaudy colours vanish. Bishop of Llandaff is a survivor.
    We have a bed of survivors from the 2010 winter. One exception to the general rule is a white job with the most enormous pompom white flowers which prospers. Soil is shallow clay over limestane brash

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    1. Sounds like you have good drainage then Ian? It is fascinating to hear about your ‘survivors’. Acknowledging which plants will grow well for you and working with those makes gardening a lot easier. Bishop of Llandaff is a super dahlia to have back every summer and the white one sounds great too 😀

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