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Digging up Dahlias

One of the most frequent questions we're asked is, "What do you do at the end of the season?" The most honest answer is, breathe a huge sigh of relief! After supplying thousands and thousands of stems, from the first spring Anemones, Ranunculus and Tulips back in the chilly reaches of March, to the last Dahlias and Chrysanthemums in the equally cold and extremely soggy weeks of October and November, what we'd really like to do is decamp to warmer climes for a bit of rest and recuperation. In reality, there is even more work to do!

The first blackening frosts drew the dahlia season to an abrupt halt in late October. We immediately grasped the opportunity to abruptly dig out those varieties whose tenure with us has drawn to a close. In some cases with considerable delight, there are several that have been annoying me all summer, so hurling them onto the compost heap was an unlikely joy. Not just to see the end of them but to create space for all those varieties that we've seen growing on our fellow flower farmer's Instagram feeds. Fashions change too and we have to try to predict what will work for us and our customers next year. Hot pinks and reds will feature heavily, we have all the subtle corals, soft pinks and oranges that we need for the foreseeable future, the burgundy beds are bulging and we have more than enough of the bride's delight and grower's nightmare, Cafe au Lait.

Last winter we left our 500 dahlias in the ground, covered with a generous mulch of composted household waste. Whilst this provided us with an abundance of blooms in mid June, by the end of the season it was clear that the plants were giving us many less blooms and on shorter stems than the blooms that we were getting off the cuttings we had taken in the early Spring. So this year we'll leave some in for early flowers but we'll dig up our very best varieties to carefully store over Winter, ready to refresh our entire stock with fresh cuttings for next season. This is a trick that we learnt from a grower who specialises in growing for Covent Garden, the quality of his blooms and their extraordinary stem length bears witness to this.

There is of course much else to do. Helen has been digging huge trenches for the 7000 exquisite Tulips that we ordered way back in the summer. There are thousands of Ranunculus and Anemones to sprout and plant, new beds to prepare, shrubs and trees to plant, rather a lot of weeding to do and 24 tons of compost waiting to be distributed on our several hundred flower beds. Perhaps most excitingly is the imminent arrival of our fantastic new polytunnel, the most satisfying result of a very successful season. This will be a total game changer for Black Shed. It will extend our season in both directions, providing shelter for our gorgeous early Spring flowers and allowing us to grow flowers way into November and beyond. It will allow us to grow more tender subjects, expect Mimosa, Tuberose and much more! It'll also streamline our seedling production, winning back our poor house from the deluge of winter seed trays in the process! Murphy the lurcher and Leo the handsome farm cat have also asked for a comfy sofa, very sensible I say, I'm sure we'll be no stranger to it!

All of which brings us to this next most important month in our calender, December, the arrival of a small forest of our amazing bushy Christmas trees and a flurry of wreath making with our abundance of delicious dried flowers. Our silos are full of these echoes of Summer, quite literally stored sunshine and we'll be creating a wealth of decorations to fill the homes of our wonderful customers. And then before we know it, January and the New Year will arrive and we'll be sowing all the seeds that we've been tempted to buy from all those glossy seed catalogs and we'll be off again. What a life!

All images and text © Paul Stickland First published in the Sherborne Times December 2019

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