Dahlia dreams

Dahlia ‘White Star’

Last year about this time, after reading about them in Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Garden I had made up my mind: I would grow dahlias for the first time. I dug out the BBC Gardeners World  issue from March 2011 that had a long feature on dahlias and where a number of lovely dahlia collections from Sarah Raven were advertised. This got me to www.sarahraven.co.uk were I instantly got hooked on their dahlia colour collections. I settled for a purple collection and a black-and-white collection, 7 tubers in total. Ordering was not easy, as they would not deliver outside the UK (in an email exchange they explained that they are yet a small operation and therefore unable to deliver abroad, never mind). As my wife was visiting a friend in England in March, I had them delivered to said friend and we got those tubers to Finland with little trouble (and reasonable UK postage fee).

Dahlia ‘Sam Hopkins’

I did start the tubers end of March and started taking cuttings as fast as they appeared. Although some cuttings failed, I managed to get about 30 cuttings through, plus the original tubers leaving me with about 40 dahlias! They took their precious time flowering, but from the moment when the first flowers opened in August through to mid-October when I dug up the tubers for winter storage they changed our garden totally.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Royal’

I vividly remember the colour, vigour and smell of the cuttings and leaves and those ever-lasting  flowers. I have soundly forgotten all the stress and worrying about where to squeeze in the plants (window sills full already), hardening them off, keeping them in the sun and well-watered, pinching out shoots for a good branch framework and fighting off snails.

Dahlia ‘Ambition’

Now I have about 30 tubers awaiting to be awoken, and I wonder how many cuttings I do dare take this year… apparently less is more, so they say. Well, we shall see.

Dahlia ‘Thomas Edison’

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Oxford’

Germinating seeds on tissue

Today I started my first set of seeds from the list. I have not got round yet to buy seed compost and last year’s bag is open and frozen in the shed. Therefore I started with germinating seeds on tissue. I have very good experience with this with basil and tomato, sometimes even reaching 100% germination rates. I figure that this works well with light-germinating seed, but could also work with dark-germinating seeds when using a light-less box. Today I prepared basil (red basil, basil genovese and giant leave basil from Naples area), chives, lewisia and rhodochiton atrosanguineum.

For this I fold 1-2 sheets of 4-layered toilet paper tissue to 3 or 4 layers, place them in a non-transparent plastic freezer box (like tupperware boxes or empty margarine boxes), moist the tissue – draining any excess water, and place the seeds on top. I put a lid on the box and place this on the window sill where it gets warm air from the heater (this year I bought a heat mat, so I am using this).

Plastic boxes with seeds on moist tissue on a heat mat for germination

Small seeds of 1 mm or less I place on top of the tissue, larger seeds I sometimes put under a top-layer of tissue, this way they will get more even moisture and do not dry out from above too easily. However, this top layer will make it harder to pick them out when potting on. I put different seeds into the same box – space permitting – using separate tissues if I suspect significantly different germination times, so that I can easily take one batch out of the box while leaving the other. To avoid mixing up what is which, I place different numbers of seeds for each kind and note the number of seeds. This way I can tell them appart. I use painter’s tape bits to stick on the boxes and label, noting plant, number of seeds and sowing day. If requiring complex treatment like moving into and out of fridge, I note the date for the next action and what to do.

Basil I have germinated since two years like this, each time with 100% germination rate and germinated seeds are easy to move on.

Basil seed germination on tissue

Note how the basil seeds have already a hydrate cover, even though I put them into the tissue only 30 minutes before taking the photograph.

I have germinated leek this way, this year I am trying this with chive.

Chive seed germination on tissue

For the lewisia seeds, this is my first shot of trying. I figured as they are light-germinating and people report success germinating also without cold treatment, I will give it a go. If it does not work, I can move them on to the fridge.

Lewisia seed germination on tissue

I figured the same for the  rhodochiton atrosanguineum seed.

hiton Atrosanguineum seed germination on tissue

I have plenty, as I collected them last summer myself. Kind of difficult to know what are seeds when harvesting, as not all flowers have seeds and there are lots of candidate bits of plant. Here is how they look like clean and dry.

Rhodochiton Atrosanguineum seed

What to grow from seeds this year?

There is this time every year in January when christmas has been left behind, work has started, the initial fitness and dieting frenzy has settled to a steady routine and outside is merciless winter with lots of snow and harsh wind. For the past three years this has been the time when my mind started to work out what to grow, when and where. There is nothing better to beat the winter than watching small green shoots raising in the kitchen window, just the thought of it gets me through.

That is also the moment to take my seed box out and sort through. Seeds I collected last year, seeds that I never managed to grow into proper plants, and also reliable vegetable seeds that will perform.

My seedbox

Today I sorted through the lot and found a couple of ideas that I had planned last summer when buying or collecting seeds. How nice of me to leave this little reminder to myself as a surprise in the middle of winter…

Well, this is what I got, I sorted into two stacks, indoor sowing from February and indoor sowing from March:

Sowing from February:

  • Lobelia ‘Red Cascade’ and ‘Crystal Palace’
  • Rhodochiton atrosanguineum (collected last summer)
  • Basil for kitchen use, red, and two green varieties (some of the seeds bought on a holiday in Italy)
  • Pea ‘Serge’ for kitchen use (the shoots, like in fancy restaurants)

Sowing in March or April:

  • Callistephus chinensis (2 different varieties that I got very cheap last autumn)
  • Tomato ‘Garden Pearl’, trailing cocktail tomato, did not work out last year as my tomatoes last year failed.
  • Tomato ‘Beijbino’ F1, cherry tomato
  • Helianthus Chocolate, annual ornamental grass, tried last year but it did not germinate
  • Cosmos ‘Antiquity’, last year I started in late April which was too late as it flowered only in autumn.
  • Petunia, 4 packs of hybride that I got on sales last autumn and some self-collected seeds from last year.
  • Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails’, still got some self-seeded of those annual feather grass in the garden, but I want some for pots this year.

One pack I could not sort as I have only my home-made seed pack saying “lewisia 19.8.2012” but no instructions on when to sow.

Surprise seed pack

In a forum discussion people report success with and without cold treatment of the seeds, so this looks like the perfect seed to start messing about with from January onwards. Cold treatment seems quite logical to me as this is a plant naturally occurring in the Rocky Mountains where it sees harsh winters. Anyways, I like the flowers and the leaves of the plant very much and could do with more of them in the rock garden. And if the indoor seeds fail, I remember that I sprinkled some seeds about when I collected those seeds last August.

Lewisia seeds

Here is a picture of this plant:

Lewisia x longipetala ‘Little Plum’

Yet again I notice how poor documentation is available on plant propagation. My big RHS encyclopedia of plants and flowers does have pictures and descriptions of lewisia, but no instructions on propagation, the RHS encyclopedia of gardening has categorised lewisia with alpin plants and mentions leave cuttings, seed propagation and division propagation methods for the entire category. But there are no hints to the particulars of lewisia, never mind the hybrid that I have. Even the best lists of propagation and germination techniques per plant that I have seen are only scratching the surface. Despite the internet, there is no certainty yet for gardeners. Google usually yields some hints, but by far not always. Anyways, I’ll experiment several ways and will find out.

Designing the garden – step 4: Plan the details

Once and while the material was selected and suppliers were found, I planned the technical details of the larger projects. For this I had to learn about the less obvious functional and technical aspects that need to be considered to create a garden that will stand the test of time.

For the terrace, I had to figure out how to build a solid foundation and framework so that the structure will not dip or sink, swing, or move. I planned to remove earth and shift gravel to have a drainage that leads water away from the houses foundations to prevent water damage. I had to decide on the kind and quality of screws and the size and quality of the wood for the framework. For my special feature, the tree in the terrace, I planned how to stabilize the decking around the hole, and planned the size and depth of the hole that would be filled with earth so that a tree actually can grow there. I also planned how to cover rainwater drainpipe sewers so that things look tidy but I can open and clean the sewer sieve. I also invested in some tools for the work, and buying good tools needs planning. I also figured the quantities of decking board, screws and framework timber I would need. I drew a detailed plan of the whole piece.

For the paving, I needed to figure out the surface-size of paving materials I would need, the volume of stone-ash and gravel needed. I also translated the length of edging into amount of stones needed.

For the fence I needed to measure the site and plan the number and height of sections to be built (design and material was supplied by the housing cooperative) and have my neighbour agree.

I needed to measure out the to-be lawn and calculate the amount of roll-out lawn required.

For the path and the bedding I had to measure the height differences of the site and plan how to distribute this over the length of the path.

I also had to check that the planned “lazy steps” from decking to paving to lawn and for the front terrace would be following the stair-formula, and therefore would be safe.

As schedule, we planned that I would build first the back terrace, then the front terrace, the fence I would build together with the neighbour at a set date for as long as it took. I would, using the earth from the terrace area, start the levelling of the lawn area and then landscape the path and surrounding flower beds. At this time I would also dig out the foundations for the path and paved area. After that I would get the gravel foundation and stone-ash bedding for all paved areas, and then I would lay the slate and complete edging. The lawn we would get once the back-garden paving was completed. Planting up the beddings would come after that. We did not schedule all the projects in detail, as we did not know how long each would take, but principally reserved all summer for the work.

After designing, planning and buying the materials, it was time to build the garden.

Designing the garden – step 3: you can get it if you really want it

With the garden design completed, all that was left was to implement the design…

It is one thing to see something that you like in a magazine, book or the internet, and another thing to find a place where you can get it (never mind the price). This is probably were the professional garden designers beat us amateurs, because they will only design with materials that they know they can source, and they probably know how to plan to a budget. This is were for us reality kicked in and we found out the hard way what is the done thing in Finland. Quite frequently in books, but also in magazines we found details highlighted that you cannot get from a Finnish retailer. But I also learned that you can get it, if you really want it, and it doesn’t even have to be expensive.

For the decking, I quickly ruled out conifer wood, as I did not want chemically treated material, I had been shown poor longevity of thermo-treated conifer decking by the neighbour of my in-laws and I did not fancy Siberian larch (larix sibirica) that does not need treatment. I also had bad experience with knotholes and splinters in deckings made from conifer wood. This is no easy decision, as Finland is a large producer of conifer decking wood with several companies specialised on thermo-treatment exporting worldwide. In effect this means, that all people I know happily buy Finnish conifer decking wood and look no further. Decking made from imported wood – not the done thing. I also ruled out the plastic-wood mix boards and fully synthetic boards on offer, as I do not like their unnatural look and feel. In the internet I came across thermo-treated hardwood decking board and started to trace down manufacturers. I ended up buying thermo-ash from www.brenstol.ee directly from the factory in Estonia – they delivered to my door (very certainly not the commonly done thing).

Thermo-ash decking after being laid, untreated. 

For the paving, we got slates from Orivesi in Finland, this is actually standard stuff here. For edging we got black granite originating from China and for some ornamental paving we got also white dotted granite from Finland. There are plenty of retailers for standard pavings such as slate and granite cobbles here, we bought from Kivikopla. However, I noticed that the mainstream here must be man-made concrete paving stones, as the usual retailer caters a far larger selection of those than natural stone products. There is one exception, www.nyx.fi, which back in 2009/10 did have an unbelievable selection of stock in stone and rock of all kind imaginable. Unfortunately, they were forced to close shop in Espoo for what I understand was a local political plot, and they continue only as a tiny outlet much further out from were I live. I have not visited them since close-down sales.

We did not need to order additional earth, as we would reuse the earth from the paved areas and terrace area, I calculated at the time 4-5 cubic meters.

Trees we bought all from our local nursery. We took our time for selecting the apple tree and the tree for the terrace, the other trees we selected in the nursery. Today, with my increased knowledge, I would select all trees prior to visiting a nursery or garden center, researching the candidates thoroughly, but as far as I can tell, no damage was done. We did take care to select slow-growing trees though, and I hope we wan’t be in deep shade twenty years from now.

The old lawn was not of too great quality and I decided to dig it under and get roll-out lawn for the new patch, as there is a producer just down the road.

I tracked down a local lorry company that would deliver gravel for foundations of the path and paved area by the lorry-load. The stone ash to settle the paving into I would buy from the same place where I bought the slate. As I would be doing some height adjustments to the garden, I would also need some small gravel to fill up the drainage next to the walls of the house to meet the new level of the bedding.

Sheet for separating gravel and stone-ash, root-blocking fabric and permeable weed-blocking sheet I got from a DIY store. Also tools, screws and other small metal bits I found in local DIY stores easily.

To find suppliers of specific materials I can recommend the following approaches:

  • Check the local DIY stores, garden centers and nurseries. Also check the gardening and tools sections of large supermarkets.
  • Check yellow pages to find less-known local suppliers of specific materials
  • Talk to friends and neighbours, they might know about unique sources (someone willing to part with an excess stockpile, retired craftsmen, the small shop down the road that does not advertise).
  • Check the classified sections of local newspapers. A lot of business is seasonal, therefore small companies spend their advertising budget in the season, here in Finland that is spring and summer. Sales advertisements for gardening supplies are usually out from late summer to autumn.
  • Gardening and building magazines have references in articles, are full of advertisements and may have a classified section that cater for niche markets, usually in the end of the magazine. Some books have also references, but they are often out of date.
  • Attend gardening and building fairs and exhibitions. There you can discover and meet suppliers and see samples. Small products are also sold there. Take the program booklet with you, it contains a list of exhibitors that is a great source for suppliers, also for stuff you were not looking for when attending the event. The website of the fair might also contain a list of exhibitors.
  • Find the name of the manufacturer and find the website. Some manufacturers sell directly from their website, others have a list of retailers that sell their products. They always will have contact information, I have more then once emailed or called manufacturers and found a way to buy their products that was not published on their website. Particularly if manufacturers are abroad and focused mainly on local markets, creativity is needed to find someone willing to take the trouble of shipping overseas. I also have had need to be very creative to sort out a way for payments, as some small companies do not take credit card payments.
  • Try to find the product on www.amazon.co.uk. Amazon sells and distributes goods for a network of shops and manufacturers, and ships such goods for free to nordic countries when ordering for £25 or more. However, Amazon also advertises goods from shops that are sold and distributed by the shops themselves. In those circumstances, shipping will not be free. It is possible to filter out products for which shipping is not free. I also noticed that Amazon sells different goods from different countries, also prices are different. That is easily explained: companies try to reach a certain market through Amazon, so they hook up to a certain Amazon country site. Therefore, when looking for example for goods from a German manufacturer, amazon.de might have a better selection and better prices than the UK site, although shipping is not free to Finland. I have also resorted to having goods shipped to relatives in Germany when they are coming over for a visit. The relatives can bring the goods and I save the shipping costs.
  • Use Google search and price comparison sites to find suppliers. This works well for technical items, but I find it rather tedious to find anything this way for manual items.
  • Use Google image search with the product name. Sometimes the images originate from a web shop or manufacturer.
  • Find forums and blogs specialising in the area. People might be able to advise where to buy or how to build things yourself.

Now it was time to plan each project in detail.

Designing the garden – step 2: create the vision

Previously we had listed the functional requirements for the garden. Now we set out to visualise the garden and to come up with a garden design plan.

Starting off with the floor plan of our house, I created a basic plan showing the house with ground floor windows, doors and outer walls, the area covered by the balcony, the boundaries of the garden, the road and major features such as the rock edge to the forrest, an existing fence and the fence that I had loosely agreed with the neighbour. I created this with a simple drawing tool in a reasonably high resolution, so I was able to utilise this further and print as much as I like in reasonable quality. Using the drawing tool, I also added a grid with thick lines indicating meters and thin lines indicating 20cm, allowing for placing and sizing in relative scale. I further added key measures of wall lengths etc.

Basic plan of the garden

The garden has an L-shape with the long side being the north side of the house, the back garden towards the west and the front garden towards the east. In the back, 5 meters from the house, a vertical 80cm rock face rises where the rock foundation of the forrest was exploded away to make place for the building site. From there the rock rises slowly and after an opening as wide as the garden, the forrest begins.

This plan I printed ten times and I took out two pencils and colour pens. Over several evenings my wife and I drew various drafts, discussed ideas, trying various ways for meandering a path with or without an ornamental area, various shapes for decking, shapes and places for lawn and beddings, until certain features became stable and the design started to take shape.

I also took a stab at modelling the garden with available free garden design tools, but found they could not help to visualise the height differences present nor the adjacent forrest. I found that the basic plan coloured in was the best tool to create a visualisation in 2-D, allowing me to visualise the garden in my head.

The books and magazines that we browsed previously were a great source for ideas for this creative process and we kept all that we could at hand throughout, as the photographs of certain details aided in visualising.

Once the design stabilised, I checked against the requirements, and we concentrated on how to achieve most requirements. Some had to give, there was just not enough suitable space for more than one fruit tree and we decided that the sandbox on the playground 50m away would have to do. Nevertheless, most of the requirements were eased into the design without too much difficulty.

Within the space of a week, we had drawn up a design for the garden. I am still amazed when I look at this today, as we have pretty much implemented the garden following this design.

Finished garden design

In the front we envisioned a terrace as entrance area, levelling the sloped walk up to the front door, bridging the hight with two lazy steps. A small flower bed with space for a small ornamental tree would be left in front of the front terrace. The original solution was ill-conceived as entering the house with a pram or pushchair required quite some technique, holding it with one hand, while with the other hand unlocking the door. It would also be easier to get stuff into and out of the shed.

On the side of the house, we would create a snaking path, making a mystery garden entrance with lots of beddings and some strategic trees that would, once high enough, cover the view from the road and the neighbours windows. A fence would separate our garden from the neighbour’s and provide protection from winds and views. The three trees at the fence would also create strong symmetry and create a backdrop for the view from the kitchen and living room. Some kind of water feature half-way would create a point of interest and add to the view from the dinner table. Maybe a heap of stones next to the path would create further interest. The garden at the side would divert curious views from straying into our back garden, the tree at the corner of the house would further block the view. The path would be paved with slate and all edges would be done with dark stone.

The back garden would have a large decking area creating an extension of the 5m x 5m living room of the same size outside. There would be enough space to place a round table seating four or more outside of the balcony-covered area. An ornamental tree would be incorporated into the terrace, giving interest in spring and autumn and shade in summer. The decking would be following the rock-edge towards the forrest, breaking the straightness of the decking boards and creating a transition. An oval-shaped lawn would be all there is, large enough for children to run around, but no football field. The path would be easing onto the lawn, the other corners cut by the oval would be put into use: the corner by the house and terrace would be a rose bed, the other corder towards forrest and terrace would be paved and could be a site for a small barbecue. The paving would reach up to the rose bed and also act as a lazy step, as the lawn would be lower than the terrace and the paved area. The corner towards the forrest and fence, we would squeeze in a raised bed for vegetables. The two trees in the corner were tall fir trees not removed during building work. At the level of the terrace we would plant a shrub or tree to create view protection from the forrest (there is a little-used public footpath) a bit higher up. An apple tree would be placed were path and lawn meet, the only place sunny enough for fruits to ripen. As a backdrop for the lawn, we would have climbers covering the fence. From the terrace and the lawn steps would lead up the rock.

With the vision firmly set, we started to prepare the implementation.