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Frost and the Dahlias

I awoke with a start, my foot was sticking out from under the duvet and it was cold, very cold. It could only mean one thing…

As flower farmers, we’ve got used to waking at dawn and our first thoughts are always for the weather. All summer long we’ve been rising as early as we can to get our precious flowers harvested and safely into the cool of the big barn at Blackmarsh Farm or to water them before the heat of the day. But as Autumn nears, a deadline begins to loom and it’s one that flower farmers all across the UK fear. The first frost.

It was September 25th and that chilly extremity could not be ingnored. I leapt out of bed and looking from our bathroom window, across our tiny courtyard, there was the unmistakable glisten of frost on it’s slate roof. I dashed downstairs, across the yard, up a ladder and touched the roof, this wasn’t a light frost, this was ice. Minutes later I’d jumped in the van and was heading with some trepidation to the farm. The sun was rising over Crackmore and delicious orange mist was hanging in the Castle valley. All very beautiful and the sight that greeted me as I opened the farm gates was simply enchanting and no less stunning than that I’d said goodnight to a few hours earlier.

Except this was very different. The flowers stood there in the stunning early light in all their gorgeous intense colours, magnified by the glowing sunlight as it crept over the hill. But this morning they were sparkling with a thick rime of frost. Flowers and leaves crystallised with ice. Quite solid and quite perfect. It was utterly magical and intensely sad at the same time. The flowers for just a few moments caught between life and death, their beauty magnified by the ice crystals that as the sun rose would soon herald their untimely demise.

I rushed around the plot, frozen fingers clumsily clutching my phone as I photographed and recorded this ethereal and unearthly moment. Entranced by their beauty and the fleeting light, I lingered as long as I could before returning home to do the school run. It was with a heavy heart that I drove back into town. This was the end of the dahlias and it was much too early. Six weeks too early.

Back home I relayed the news to Helen and in moments the internet was full of similar stories from fellow flower farmers across the country. As members of Flowers From The Farm, we have access to a closed Facebook group, where we can all get together to share tips, tricks, highs and lows. This morning it was full of similar stories, frost, too early, what about all the weddings booked, had anyone’s dahlias survived?

The advice was to dead head hard and quickly too. We have around 400 dahlia plants, on the night before there were several thousand flowers in all their glory, by the end of the day they were all on our compost heap. It was a bit heartbreaking but there wasn’t much we could do about it. I had a few calls to make to florists and customers to cancel or alter orders. Luckily our customers understand that our flowers are grown outside and that they do so at the whim of the weather.

The weather improved over the next few days and the sunshine and warm nights gave us the season extension that we needed. Amazingly the dahlias all picked up and we were able to get back to picking several hundred stems a week within a dozen days but it was a shock that we could have done without!

©Paul Stickland This article was first published in The Sherborne Times November 2018


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