At A Glance: Cafe Au Lait Dahlia

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In early June, I published an essay about the garden to come in the front yard of Detroit Garden Works called “Color Scheming”.  A dahlia named cafe au lait I had read about on Gardenista had gotten my attention. It did not take long for me to decide to organize and design the entire garden around that coffee infused with cream colored dahlia.  My grower managed to obtain and grow on 30 of them for me.

cafe au lait Dahlia (33)The dahlias got planted in the big garden beds in front of the shop, along with a white dinnerplate dahlia, white and lime nicotiana, and lots of purple and bicolor angelonia.  The window boxes were planted with lots of different flowers that I imagined would feature the color and form of that extraordinary dahlia. cafe au lait dahlia (16)The first cafe au lait bloomed today.  The color is everything I had imagined-smoky, creamy, a beige based utterly pale pink .  I cut that stem, and set it in lots of different places in the window boxes – just to see how and if the colors I had chosen for those boxes would compliment a dahlia that I had never seen before.  The following ridiculously large number of pictures is a sign of how pleased I was.

cafe au lait dahlia (17)The coffee and white dahlias are just coming on now-there are buds showing all over the big in ground planting. As I have said before, any response to color is a highly individual and emotional response.  I am delighted with what I am seeing. The excitement over the coming of the dahlias is one of many reasons why I enjoy gardening.  Some days, everything going on in the garden is all good.

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cafe au lait dahlia (18)Today was a very good day to be a gardener.

Big Stalky Stems

My friend and great gardener RB brought these to me this afternoon; I could not resist photographing them.   I knew right away what they were, but I could not believe their extraordinary size.  They are hollow stalks; this picture I took of the interior wall.

 This picture of the bottom was taken from the top.

I could barely get my hand around one.

They were prominently segmented.

He cut these pieces a full 18″ off the ground-with his pruning loppers.  No pair of pruners would have been adequate to the job.

I have never seen dahlia stalks grow to this size-neither had RB.  He said this was his best year ever growing dahlias-and he has been growing them 20 years.  He puts his tubers in the ground in a sheltered spot in late June. All he grows in this plot of land is dahlias-mostly the very tall plants with dinnerplate size flowers.  In August they are good; in September they are spectacular.  Not having had a really hard frost even yet, he had flowers all of October.  And plants every bit of 8 feet tall.  I cannot imagine what a job it will be digging the tubers this year.  He cuts the stems very tall, and leaves them for a week or so before digging.  The flowers on these giant dahlias were similarly overscaled.  These stalks speak to his skill as a gardener, and how a plant can more than thrive given a favorable season and great culture.  Very impressive, RB!

When They Are Good

Oct5a 027The cultivation of dahlias brings to mind the famed Longfellow little girl verse.  “When she was good/She was very very good/But when she was bad she was horrid”.  Even if you give them everything you’ve got in the way of rich soil, good sun, staking, fertilization, good air circulation and your utmost devotion, it may not be enough.  You still need the blessing of the patron saint of all sulky, troublesome prima donna garden flowers-whomever she may be.  Not that one could ask for that blessing; it must be bestowed.  I do have one client for whom they perform on demand.  He says its the soil-I say what he manages with them is magic. 

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There are lots of reasons not to grow them.  Their stems are weak and floppy, and snap off without any provocation; a wind is likely to send them, along with the building of stakes you have erected around them, crashing to the ground.  Bugs love them even more than you do.  Earwigs set up housekeeping deep in the petals.  They can become infested with, and succumb to spider mites in what seems like the blink of an eye.  The plants are as awkward and ungainly as a teen-aged tea rose. Some shorter more stocky varieties are shy bloomers-figures. They hate cold weather, and cold weather goes with our gardening territory.

Oct5a 035Some sport blooms so large the word vulgar comes to mind. Some “dinnerplate dahlias”  have stems so weak the plant perpetually looks like someone spent the last hour giving them a thorough dressing down.  Fungus spreads like crazy from the bottom up; I have grown plenty of dahlia stalks with a few anemic and forlorn flowers on top.  When I grow them in pots, I face them down with something that has the decency to grow vigorously, and hide those ungainly dahlia legs. 

Aug 29b 018So why do I grow them?  In a good year, they are magnificent.  Loaded with flowers,  they remind me of the 19th century flower paintings of Rachel Ruysch; they are supremely grand.  The range of colors and forms is astonishing.  This dahlia is a “formal decorative” type.  Park Princess has petals shaped like quills; this form is known as a “cactus dahlia”.   

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If you have a love of color, dahlias deliver.  From pure white to the most audacious orange to carmine, all of the warm colors are represented. The bicolor varieties  evolve in appearance over the summer. When temperatures start to cool off in the fall, the contrast in colors seems to intensify. No doubt they are the big brass band of the flower world. 

Sept 18 044I am looking at these dahlias now as they have been at their peak this first week of October.  There is something to recommend about how they last into the fall.  They do hate cold weather; the best grown dahlias are those that have spent May and June in a greenhouse.  They transition from that museum like setting to the Michigan outdoors poorly.  It can take weeks before they loose that insulted look, and take hold.

Oct5a 024I think a too early planting can set them back such that they never recover.  They thrive in that rarefied hothouse atmosphere where wind, bugs, cold soil, and various pathogens are simply not permitted.  Dahlias are not great garden plants; they are an event you may wish to attend.

Oct5a 028Some of these party girls dress in a way that’s just plain fun to look at.  When they are at their overblown best, they make me smile.

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Now is the perfect time to decide if and which you will grow next year. They have put on the most glorious show this season I have ever seen, and I would not mind being treated to that again sometime soon.

A Celebration

I am hard pressed to remember the last time it was my pleasure to live through such a benign August, but I have no plans to look this gift horse in the mouth.  Tomorrow is Buck’s birthday; this terrace will my contribution to the celebration.  They have to be the best they have ever been-although Buck says I tell him this every year.

aug-22-056I like the fireworks going-on feeling of my terrace pots this year.  Most of that has to do with how they have grown.  I picked the colors and plants yes, but nature has proved unusually cooperative.  We have had cool temperatures all summer, and now, regular rain. The usual bugs and disease must be at someone else’s house.

aug-22-0601The Mital terra cotta gargoyle pots on their pedestals have never looked so rowdy and profuse.  I grow nicotiana mutabilis every year for exactly the reason you see here. The showy oregano in this pot gave up and died, but I hardly notice.  Besides, this pair of pots started out mismatched-I like that they will end up mismatched.

Variegated licorice has thick felty leaves and stiff stems, but it will dance through a pot in a lively way. It is a welcome contrast to the mounds of begonias and purple oxalis.  Plant habit can be as important a part of design as color and shape.

aug-22-071These two licorice plants have made a flared skirt of themselves.  The shape is especially attractive with the garland pattern on the pot.  Did I plan this part-absolutely not.  Anyone who gardens gets to enjoy the unexpected.

aug-22-081The New Guinea impatiens this year are unbelievably gaudy-what fun.  Even my million bells, which usually sulk as I have very alkaline water, are cooperating.   My dahlias do not have mites or mildew.  The cool weather has slowed the flower production on the cannas, but the foliage alone is well worth having.


Thriving and saucy-this is how I would describe my pots.  As Buck  has to cook his own birthday dinner, I am glad these pots look how they do.  It is a whomping lot of work to look after all this every day, but every day I am glad to get home and see what’s doing.  I like being ready for a party, every day.


This Fourth of July feeling suits me just fine.