I don’t know about you all but I’m so ready for fall. The long summers tend to wear you down and really take the zip out of your emotions. As a year-round grower, this is the time I’m about done. Thanks to great employees, this August my husband and I were able to take off on an eleven-day vacation to Canada and Alaska. We were dreading coming back because we were getting word that the temperatures at home were unbearable. Much to our disbelief, upon our return it started raining, and continued about 18 days straight, ruining my already exhausted zinnia crop and making all the grass and weeds grow like crazy. I’m sure I am preaching to the choir because you all know what that’s like.
A fellow grower in our area, Gita van Woerden from Animal Farm, had so much rain in June that her soil washed away, and she needed to bring in new topsoil. Despite all her troubles she is still excited about growing, and looking forward to the National Conference. Another of our lucky members, Gretchen O’Neil, just got back from attending one of Erin Benzakein’s workshops at Floret. She had a very good trip and was elated that she got to attend. Mike Milligan from Prickly Pear is producing some really nice bouquets with his zinnias; he’s having a good year and is already making plans for next year. Melinda Studinka, Meem’s Garden, reports that she has been having good sales to her customers but will probably take the summer off next year from selling, as she states “It’s really hard to grow flowers in this heat.”
Besides the occasional phone call from members, we keep up with most growers through Facebook and Instagram. Social media is also great to inform your customers of what is new in the garden and entice them to buy. I’m not sure how the almost shut down of the oil fields has affected others in our region but here in Texas I have seen the effects in traffic flow at the stores.
This time of year is our new start to the next year. October starts our new season as all our plugs for all our winter and spring crops start rolling in, which means we have to be ready and of course I’m not! Greenhouse beds must be prepped, greenhouse repairs have to be finished. I hold off on recovering the houses that need their plastics redone because a late-season tropical storm or hurricane could really hurt us. Heaters need to be checked and relit in case they are needed. This last winter they never came on because it was so mild. I have heaters only for my winter dahlia crop because they would be needed in case of a hard freeze.
Dahlias are a good fit for my year-round farm. We also are able to produce a very early crop of sweet peas, stock, and ageratum. My favorite Karma dahlias are ‘Naomi’, ‘Prospero’, ‘Maarteen Van Zwan’, and all of the new Fox series. My plugs are shipped to me at the beginning of August, but I put my order in April to insure that I get the varieties I want. I hold them for a week in the plug trays in an open greenhouse under shade to get them accustomed to our climate, which is very different from where they were grown at Bosgraf Greenhouses in Michigan. I transplant them into a four-inch cup with Sunshine Mix and they will grow for the next 3-4 weeks. While they are growing in the cups I get all my beds prepped and ready for my new crop. At the beginning of August I start watering my beds that hold the tubers from last year’s crop with plain water. We have cut those old dahlias out in July and just kept those beds idle because I have found after much trial that dahlias do not grow in Texas heat even if I shade them. Also the bugs are uncontrollable. Many of last year’s dahlias send up shoots and then I start fertilizing those beds with mushroom compost and an all-purpose fertilizer such as Peter’s 10-30-20 and Hasta Gro, which is a liquid fertilizer. I use a Miracle Gro-applicator on the end of a water hose.
At the beginning of each year I amend all the beds, the ones with the old dahlias and the new ones I’m planting, with phosphorous (bone meal), at the rate of 10 pounds for every 100 square feet; nitrogen (kelp), one tablespoon per plant; and potassium (greensand), 10 pounds per 100 square feet. I also add a water-soluble micronutrient fertilizer. We also add mushroom compost to the beds. We have a mushroom growing facility 45 minutes from our farm so it’s readily available. I also water the crop weekly with the Peters fertilizer alternating with the Hasta Gro. I water only on sunny days so the plants can dry off and stay clean from leaf diseases. This may seem like a lot of work but it pays off during the production season, November through June. We produce thousands of stems which we wholesale for $1.00 to 1.50 each.
We transplant dahlias into readied beds in September. We make a solution of Actinovate and Rootshield, and water each transplant before placing in the beds. We use this mixture on all our transplants with much success. We also go through beds of last year’s plants and fill in with new plants where the old ones didn’t come back. I had a conversation with Bob at Bosgraf (our Karma supplier) who says that I should really rip those old tubers out and come back with new ones, because the decrease in production will certainly overcome the cost of that new plant, but I just haven’t found the strength to do just that. As of September 1st, last year’s dahlias are already a foot tall and I will have blooms way earlier than the new ones that I’m planting, thus giving me a supply of dahlias for my October and November weddings.
I also have light strands hung above my dahlias to give them 14-hour days. You can make these yourself or source them from someone like Gloeckner Supply. They are spaced 4 feet apart on the strand, and we use 75 watt bulbs. Dahlias must have 14-hour light days or they won’t bloom. If it’s a very cloudy winter with low light conditions, hold back on the nitrogen fertilizer or dahlias will be too vegetative and not bloom much either.
Growing in the greenhouse can create its own set of issues. One of them is powdery mildew, which we counter by spraying with Strike Plus 50. Having an arsenal of insect sprays is also important, just in case. If you monitor your plants every time you are walking through or picking, you can stop an insect before it becomes a full-blown problem. When we have an insect spotting we treat that area only, not the entire crop, because with constant surveillance you can usually catch it pretty quick once you know what to look for. For example, with red spider mites you will see mottled little leaves that show white on the top side of the leaf. Wait too long, and you will see a large colony resting on the very top of the plant in ball of red. We use a product called Tetrasan to treat for mites.
For aphids we use Botanigard. Aphids get under the leaves so it’s very important to spray under the foliage. For thrips we use Conserve or Botanigard. Thrips always seem to be attracted to darker colors like ‘Naomi’ or ‘Fox Maroon’ first. You have to look really closely to see these guys, or take a dark piece of paper and tap the blooms on the paper and you will see them crawling around. You can also buy blue sticky cards for an early detection tool as they are attracted to blue. Whiteflies are attracted to yellow sticky cards. Mealybugs are also a pest on dahlias. We treat these with a spray of straight rubbing alcohol, or Botanigard. Growing over the winter is also really good because you don’t get many pests as in the warm months; I always seem to get some but we take care of them before they get out of hand.
Greenhouse space is very valuable, so we manage to fill the house with sweet peas, mostly Winter Elegance Series, Mammoth, Spencer series, and ‘Spring Sunshine’. Mixes are fine but I really like to pick my colors because I need a lot of blush colors for my early spring weddings. Sweet peas also seem to benefit from the lights and we are able to produce a really early crop. I like to use their side shoots for greenery in my bouquets.
October is a very busy month on the farm because all the plugs, and ranunculus corms I ordered months ago arrive. Frank Arnosky wrote a great article about anemones in the Winter 2013 issue of the Quarterly. Find it in the Members Only section of the ASCFG web site, under “Back Issues”. Frank provides detailed information on how he treats and cools his corms. The Members Only section has a wealth of information; please log in and take a look if you haven’t already.
This year’s National Conference has had an overwhelming signup and I know it’s going to be a good one! It will be a little rest for me as I get to sit back and absorb all the information from the slate of great speakers. I can’t wait. Hope to see you there but if you can’t tear yourself away from the farm, the presentations will be available after the conference in Members Only.