I spent much of my gardening time this week wandering the yard with my new dahlia asking, “How about here? Well, what about here, then? This spot looks good, right? No? You want to go around the yard one more time?”
Usually such plant fussiness over its own placement is not allowed in my Wellesley garden, but this is a special flower. This dahlia is not only a gift but, since I’ve never grown dahlias, a challenge. A neighbor, knowing things were a little off kilter while a family member was laid low, brought over the dahlia to cheer me up. Not that she’s stalking me or anything, but my neighbor can always tell when the daily routine is altered at my house. I’m one of those people who needs evening cheerfulness, the kind achieved by turning on every light in the house. She says when the house is dark for one night it just means I’m out having wild times, and my family can’t be bothered to flick a couple of switches. Two consecutive nights of darkness signals uncertainty. That’s when I receive a what’s up text.
My answer, and the truth, was not an offhand, “not much.” My answer, and the truth was, “All hell has broken loose, and on a scale of 1 to 10 the pain is an 8. We’re dealing with it.”
If you ever want a new dahlia, text dramatically in just that way. You’ll probably get one. I did. (BTW, medical care was sought, and health been restored. But it was touch-and-go for a while there.)
Once I had my new comfort dahlia, I walked it around the yard for several days before it finally asked to be put in among the Autumn Joy sedum. Once settled, the dahlia looked like it had always been there. I brought out a pot of compost tea and left the sedum and the dahlia to chat. The new fast friends barely acknowledged me, which is a very good sign. Now I must keep up my end of the friendship bargain by learning how to care for the newcomer. As I said, I’ve never planted dahlias before, and that’s because my neighbors one street over grow such beautiful specimens. All summer long I invent excuses to walk by their house just so I can see their exuberant, colorful, yard-sweet-yard where something’s always popping. As I leave the house, I call out over my shoulder any number of excuses for my mid-workday absence. Gotta mail a letter. Gotta drop stuff in the library drop box. Need to make sure the new ice cream shop is putting out a consistent product (they are, but it’s still a good idea to keep on top of the situation). I always feel refreshed after passing by my neighbor’s garden. And after my ice cream.
One day I caught one of my neighbors outside and asked how they raised their flowers to such prominence. Mr. Dahlia first made sure to tell me that he’s not the gifted gardener, she is. He has said the same on other occasions, but certain formalities must be observed before discussing gardening techniques. It’s terrible form to take even inadvertent credit for art. Also, Mr. Dahlia is a Southern gentleman and formalities mean something to him. Once, when Mr. Swellesley had some of the neighborhood men over to watch a football game, Mr. Dahlia stood when I entered the room. All the other men looked around at each other then (finally) stood up as well. I may have heard a few grumblings that it was “just Deb.” But in that moment I knew I wasn’t “just Deb.” I was a lady, thank you very much. I made sure I didn’t enter the room for the rest of the evening so as not to test the “lady” theory.
Although herself, the true gardener, was not available at the moment I was passing by, Mr. Dahlia was willing to say a few words. Here’s what he told me. Even though he doesn’t know anything about anything, it seems to him that dahlia tubers must be dug up before the first frost, which is usually in early October, as far as he remembers. He also suggests that from his observations of the process, the tubers must be placed in a paper bag with some peat moss or sawdust, and stored in the basement for the winter. He’s almost certain, but not entirely so, that the tubers should then be planted out in mid-May, at the earliest. But beware of a wet forecast and probably delay the planting process if a week of rain is expected, which is nothing more than common gardening sense, of course. Any fool would know that tubers will rot if exposed to excessive and cold spring rain. Other than that, he really knows nothing.
After absorbing this advice I returned to my own garden, where the dahlia and the sedum were getting along just fine. Then, oh miracle, I spied movement in the wheelbarrow. The friendliest praying mantis, shiny and new, was starting out his own gardening life. He made eye contact, then hopped on my arm and crawled up to my shoulder, where he settled in. Pirates can have their loud, squawking parrots. As a gardener, having a praying mantis choose me as its companion has been the most exciting wildlife experience of summer. The praying mantis hung on as I brought him inside to meet the family. Everyone was charmed.
The internet tells me that this chance meeting is very auspicious, indeed, and that the praying mantis will bestow good luck upon me and my garden and, by extension, the new dahlia. Apparently my prehistoric-looking insect friend will hang around my Wellesley garden as long as there are plenty of tasty insects to eat. No problem there. I’m reminded of why I resist spraying insect killer when the Japanese beetles chew holes in the hibiscus blooms and the aphids attack the Stargazer lilies and the mosquitoes beleaguer me at the wood’s edge. Hah, the joke is on these foul pests. Soon I won’t have to put up with their destructive influences. My attack praying mantis is coming to get them and will protect the new dahlia, and everything else. I can only spend an hour a day in my Wellesley garden, but my praying mantis, loyal and true, will be on the job 24/7. I’m sure of it.