SOME OF US plant a row or two of annuals for cutting, but Frances Palmer has taken the phrase “cutting garden” to the most delightful extreme. From the first spring bulbs to the final asters of fall, ceramic artist Frances Palmer’s Connecticut garden is a nonstop harvest. No flower gets more of the prime real estate in her beds than dahlias, and she grows hundreds of dahlia plants each year.
Frances Palmer is a well-known ceramist and gardener, author of the 2020 book “Life in the Studio” (affiliate link) and creator of a popular Instagram account, too. She shared her dahlia how-to growing advice—plus some of her favorite varieties, and her go-to sources.
Plus: Enter for a chance to win her book, “Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity,” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the May 8, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
dahlias with frances palmer
Margaret Roach: Hi, Frances. You came in from the garden to talk?
Frances Palmer: I did. Although truthfully, it’s kind of pouring rain outside, but yes, it’s a good day for ducks.
Margaret: We just worked on a “New York Times” story together about your incredible garden. But when we collaborated on the recent Times story, you told me something that I didn’t really put together in my head before that. You told me that it was your ceramics, and specifically the need to photograph the pieces you made, that brought you to the garden in the first place. Tell us a little bit about your background. How’d you become a gardener?
Frances: Well, first of all, thank you so much for inviting me to speak. This is great. Well, my mother had a small garden. She had peonies and tomatoes, nothing too elaborate, in Morristown, New Jersey, where I grew up. I had wanted to have a garden when we first moved out to Connecticut, but we were in this ’40s glass house that was cantilevered into the hillside and very shady. When we moved to this property almost 30 years ago and we had lots of sun and land, I had been studying books, and had kept coming across these dahlias. I just couldn’t believe there was a flower on the planet that looked like this [laughter].
Coincidentally, my husband is from San Francisco, so we went out there every summer when the kids were small, and the Dahlia Society in San Francisco maintains this extraordinary dahlia garden in the middle of the San Francisco park. The people there were very dedicated. The day that I went there just for the first time so many years ago was the day that they were having the dahlia exhibition in the exhibition hall not that far away.
I just remember leaving the kids and everybody in the car. I’m like, “I’m sorry, I have to go.” I just was blown away. Everybody there kindly shared all their resources, Swan Island Dahlias, Ferncliff that you mentioned in the article. I’ve been ordering from them ever since.
The nice thing about growing a dahlia is they’re not really that fussy. It was pretty easy to have success right off the bat. That was thrilling.
Margaret: You were already doing ceramics and you’re making these ceramics and you’re selling them, but you realized you wanted to keep a record of them, I think you told me. You started to want to take pictures. And these incredible flowers, sculptural and vivid and whatever, kind of became the props to do that?
Frances: They did. By the time we moved over to this property, I had already been making pottery. And from the very inception of my work, I documented, everything because as I explained, it’s functional, so I wanted people using it, and therefore it would leave the studio. I would go to the 28th Street Flower Market and get flowers and bring it home.
Margaret: In New York City. Right, right.
Frances: But as you know, there’s nothing even… Of course, the whole thing has changed so radically since 30 years ago. When you went and bought flowers, they were commercially grown flowers. Now, so many people are flower farmers, and they’re selling their flowers to people, but they have an authenticity that I couldn’t find when I first started wanting to grow. I just found that a flower that you grew, and its lifespan and the way it behaved, was so different from something that you would buy in a wholesale flower place. No disrespect intended.
Margaret: No, no, no. And you’re right, it has that whole world of flowers, the local aspect of it, has changed that. But 30 years ago, definitely not. It was more more limited selection and more formal roses and tulips and whatever.
Frances: And then I would be reading all these English garden books, as well as your book, but I would order from Thompson & Morgan, because you could get the seeds shipped over from the UK and you just couldn’t find those varieties here.
Margaret: Right, right. After talking to you recently [laughter], I confess that I binged a little on some dahlia tubers. You got me going. You just mentioned Swan Island Dahlias, I think Ferncliff Gardens.
Frances: Yes. Yes.
Margaret: Just so that we don’t forget to shout on a couple, because there’s still time really almost everywhere in the country to get started.
Frances: In fact just got this wonderful message on my Instagram from Bear Creek Farm [in Bangall, NY] You can go to them. It’s amazing what is available for people to select. But again, that’s one of the things what we talked about is that you shouldn’t get too hung up on a particular dahlia and drive yourself insane.
Margaret: I want to talk about that in a second. Old House Gardens was one place you sent me. It’s funny because, of course, I’ve known them forever, but I didn’t think, “Oh, that’s a dahlia source,” but they have all these antique varieties and you learn the history.
Frances: Yes. I know. I love that. I love that.
Margaret: I mean, Swan Island has over 400 kinds listed [laughter], Swan Island Dahlias. I think they’re the biggest provider in this country.
Frances: Yes, but they have excellent quality.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was amazing.
Frances: That’s the good news. [Below, ‘Bodacious’ dahlia.]
Margaret: I did a little homework after we talked. I was trying to figure out how many dahlias are there. There’s 400 at Swan Island catalog alone, and I think the American Dahlia Society said there was close to 11,000 registered so far. The international ones, with the Royal Horticultural Society and so forth, if you go over there, there’s even more listed. Historically, there’s been tens of thousands over the years and years and years listed.
Margaret: It’s like a lot.
Frances: I think when I give that class at the NYBG, in that slideshow, it said that by something like 1825, they were over 700 dahlia exhibitions where people could display their… I mean, it was something that once these tubers made their way from Mexico to Spain or England or the Netherlands, the dahlia mania in the 19th century just was crazy.
Then I guess they felt a little bit out of fashion, because when I first started growing them, people would go, “Ew, Dahlias, ew,” and that isn’t the case any longer.
Margaret: Right. You just mentioned the class at the New York Botanical Garden twice a year since 2015. Is it called Dauntless Dahlias? Is that right?
Frances: Yeah, that’s what they named it.
Margaret: Every March and October I think you give that.
Frances: Yeah. Yeah.
Margaret: You have an open garden for many years in your Connecticut garden for the Garden Conservancy Open Days. When is that?
Frances: Yes. This year it’s September 30th. I was looking on the website and it says you can’t sign up, I guess, until June 30th. I think if you want to go, then just mark it on your calendar.
Margaret: I can give the link so that people can at least bookmark that and know where to look. There’s just such an incredible number of possibilities. Again, I was like scribbling notes while we were talking to do the Times story. I was like, “Ooh, I want this one. I want that one.”
Frances: I know.
Margaret: I’m sure your students feel the same way when you’re showing slides in the class and stuff. But what you told me is what you were just saying, don’t get hung up on, “I’ve got to have that one.” It’s more like, how should we shop? What should we look for?
Frances: Again, if there’s a particular color that you are very fond of, like a light pink, a dark pink, anything, that could be your parameter for choosing. Or you could go, “I want something starting very small up to very large.” There are just so many different ways you can go about it. Also, the good news is that if it doesn’t work this year, what do they say? Hope springs eternal. There’s always next year. You try again. I mean, you have to just allow yourself a little bit of time for trial and error and all of that, and not be too hard on yourself.
Margaret: I mean, you said something that really to me the other day that evoked an image, which is that you could just order different ball-shaped dahlias and make a garden of ball-shaped dahlias, because there’s these incredible shapes of cactus ones. You could have this insane cactus thing going on, right?
Frances: Yes. You just did ball dahlias. You could do those little tiny pompons, pom-pons is how you pronounce it. Just do all different colors, buy color. You could have a field day just doing that one particular shape.
Margaret: Shades within a color or different sizes of the same shape, etc.
Frances: Exactly. And also, ball dahlias are typically really good cutting flowers because they usually have nice, strong, long stems without too much effort.
Margaret: I want to talk about effort then. I want to talk about, I want to take some time now to go through the… You stash your tubers. Not that you have a lot of tubers or anything: 25 cardboard boxes I think you confessed to me, that come out of the cellar, the frostproof cellar. So you stash them over the winter, and you’re taking them out. Tell us when are you planting them? How are you planting them? I mean, people are in all different places listening. What are some of the basics if you walk us through the version of how to plant?
Frances: There are the two types that we talked about. If you’ve stored the tubers over the winter and you’re pulling them out, you want to look and make sure that the clump of tubers has… that the tubers are firm. Sometimes a lot of the ones that I’m pulling out now have already started to sprout. You see those little potato bud eyes coming around the stem, that shows that it’s a viable…
I mean, if it’s shriveled or it looks moldy, it’s not going to work. You just have to examine kind of everybody. I try very hard not to have them break apart, because I have so many, I don’t want to have multiples.
But if you want to split them, so that you have… If you have a dahlia that you really love and you go, “Oh, I wish I had more,” sometimes they break apart very simply, or otherwise, you can take a knife and like literally just cut through the center to give yourself more of that same type.
Of course, it is pouring now [at the end of April], which is not a great thing, but I did start planting them already because I just wanted to get things going. It’s a little bit on the early side. I would say for the Northeast, any time in the month of May, depending on how far north you are.
Margaret: Generally, when you say May, I think tomatoes… Wherever someone’s gardening in the country, it’s sort of like: If it’s O.K. for tomatoes, it’s O.K. for dahlias. Is that the guidance?
Frances: Definitely, but I tend to push it and get the dahlias in earlier than the tomatoes. The tomatoes, you really have to wait. But the dahlias, especially if they’re older tubers, they’re ready to go. They’re a lot more easy to do that way.
Margaret: Your garden, as I said at the beginning, is really a cutting garden, a giant cutting garden, and a number of beds within two big areas. That’s your planting system, is you’re gridding them out almost to get the most space, use the real estate to have the maximum flowers.
What are you doing? How are you supporting them, and when are you putting the supports up and things like that?
Frances: Well, as you wrote in the article, the most important thing about the planting of the dahlia tubers is putting a support system in place the minute you put them in the ground, because their stems are hollow and very brittle. If they’ve lumped on the ground and you want to go and pick them up to put them inside a cage, they’ll just snap. You really have to have that support system, whether it’s bamboo or as I use the tomato cage [above], or anything then, as you plant it ,so that as it gets larger and if you need to put string around the support system to hold it all together. But you really can’t do it afterwards.
Margaret: We put our support in. Now you, because you’re doing this as a cutting garden, you’re using a tomato cage held up by a stake or two for each plant.
Frances: Yes, and I put them right next to each other. The taller dahlias tend to support… They’re so close together, they tend to support each other. And then once all the dahlias are in place, that’s when I go around and I put in the zinnias and the sunflowers and all the other stuff that I want to have going at the same time. I’ve got the bearded iris around the edge of the beds. Everything is kind of strategized so that things don’t interfere with each other.
Margaret: Right. If it were a garden that were being designed not for production like yours is, but for… If it were a mixed border, for instance, and I’m incorporating some dahlias, I might skip the tomato cage and just use the stakes and twine.
Frances: Definitely, because they’re not very pretty [laughter]. They function, but they’re not pretty. If you want the dahlias to be part of a perennial border or something like that, definitely just use the bamboo. And then again, they’ll be hemmed in by other plants. We talked about Wave Hill where they do that so beautifully.
Margaret: Yes, the garden in New York City. Absolutely. So I’m digging a hole for each one. I’m not burying them too deep, am I?
Margaret: How deep would you think? How much soil on top?
Frances: Well, if it’s a new tuber, you only want to go an inch or two down, just below the surface. If you put a new tuber in too deeply, it will most likely rot, especially this time of year when the ground is so wet anyway, and I don’t usually even water the garden. Of course, it changes every year, but most of the time I could get almost to June without watering. Lately, of course, where it’s so much warmer, I would say mid-May I finally give in and turn on the sprinkler.
But in the beginning, a new tuber, you don’t want to put down too deeply. And then of course, an older tuber [below] that’s a big clump, you want to dig the hole enough just so that it sits below the surface.
But that being said, if you hurl something onto the ground and it’s ready to go, it’ll just go.
Margaret: [Laughter.] You’re hurling the tubers. This is Frances’s method. Go outside, hurl the tubers around. That’s good. That sounds perfect. That sounds like how I garden. Some days it comes to that, doesn’t it, Frances?
Frances: It so does.
Margaret: We have our tubers in the ground. We have our supports in place right away, so we have a plan for supporting them, and then they start coming up. They are prolific growers. Do I let it all grow, do its own thing? What do I do?
Frances: There’ll be a center stem that comes out of the ground, and maybe one set of leaves and even perhaps a little bud for a flower. When it does that, you want to pinch out that center bud so that it will encourage the plant to branch. Especially if it’s a new tuber, you’re going to get one of those stems, and you want to pinch it out to encourage it to branch out. Once you’ve done that, it gets it going on the right path.
Margaret: It’s the first stem that comes up. There’s sort of three parts to it and I’m taking the middle piece out.
Frances: Yeah, pinching out the center bud. If you have an old tuber that sprouts many stems at the same time, I tend to just leave it alone because there’s so many. Exactly.
Margaret: O.K., good to know, because I got new ones, obviously, and I haven’t grown them for a long time, so I’m kind of… Yeah, good. All right, anything else besides continuing the support along the way as they grow? Anything else that we do?
Frances: What I started doing a few years ago is spraying the entire garden, all the plant material, leaves and flower, every couple weeks with seaweed or fish emulsion that you put like a quarter-cup in a two-gallon sprayer. You want to do it in the morning because it’s smelly and you might need to shower afterwards. But I’ll get up early in the morning and I’ll just spray the entire garden every couple weeks. Everybody seems to really love that treatment.
Margaret: For a foliar feed.
Frances: A foliar feed, and it keeps the dahlias very happy. I haven’t really had trouble with mold or any of that stuff. If you start that say mid-May, end of May, and just go through until frost.
Margaret: I want to, of course, know more wonderful ones, even though I’m supposed to only shop by either shape or color or not get too attached to anything. But I want to know what kind of examples of some of the ones… I mean in recent years, for instance, that one… What is it? Is it called ‘Cafe au Lait’ [above]? Am I making that up?
Frances: ‘Cafe au Lait,’ yeah.
Margaret: That’s become a trending, hot thing, especially for brides for use in weddings and so forth. It’s like so barely pinkish, peachy.
Frances: I almost feel like that ‘Café au Lait’ crescendo has peaked, and now people are going uh. But the truth is, is it’s a very beautiful dahlia. What I like about it is that as the season goes on, and it gets a little funkier, the colors are… It’s just very beautifully nuanced. Even though it had been in the past few years a bit of a cliche, I still think it’s really a beautiful dahlia to grow.
Margaret: I think nuanced is a very good word for it, because the flowers are not identical.
Frances: They get these wonderful little curlicues when they start to get toward the end of the season. Everybody has personality. For some reason, ‘Cafe au Lait’ doesn’t store well over the winter. It’s just one of those tubers that doesn’t seem to like that. I tend to order that every year just to have some backup.
Whereas, again, going back, if you want to know the great classics, go to the American Dahlia Society and read their list. Even though it’s quite extensive, it’s still great. I always try to plant ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Zorro’ and all of those. ‘Walter Hardisty’ [below], it’s very late dahlia, but once if it arrives, which is probably towards the end of August, early September, it is the most beautiful white.
Margaret: It’s big. It’s big?
Frances: It’s big. Yeah, it’s really big. I mean, again, we wrote down ‘Otto’s Thrill.’ ‘Myrtle’s Brandy,’ that was, again, from that Bear Creek Farm, and I just looked it up while we were talking. It’s in New York State, it’s not in Connecticut, but it’s a great East Coast supplier. I’m just trying to think.
Margaret: There are some that aren’t subtle at all, in the sense that either they’re such giants or that they have two-colored pets and stuff.
Frances: I mean, ‘Bodacious,’ that is a great one.
Margaret: Good name [laughter].
Frances: Yeah, I know. It is bodacious, but what I love about it is that you store it. It’s a good storer. But when it comes out, it’s different somehow. I don’t know what happens when it’s in storage. The ones that I’ve had over the years, you can tell they’re much different from the newer ones.
‘Clyde’s Choice’ is such a great orange. ‘Kelvin Floodlight’ is a wonderful yellow. ‘Thomas Edison’ is a great purple. Let’s see. I’m just trying to think.
Margaret: Well, those are some great ones. We haven’t talked about your ceramics very much, but I mean, anyone who hasn’t seen your Instagram, it’s just so arresting to see how you have connected these two loves of your life.
Frances: Thank you. I don’t know, I love making the work. What’s really so important to me is, for example, if I know some pieces are coming out of the kiln, I go through the garden and think, O.K., what flowers are happening now? How can I can do this? Or if I see some flowers are happening, what is the vase? Do I have the vase? Should I make the vase? I see all the tulips in the garden now and I’m like, you should be making tulipieres [spouted vases; one style above]. I feel really lucky that I have this opportunity to make the work and have the flowers to use with them.
Margaret: Well, it certainly is an arresting combination. Your ceramics are… In the same way that the geometry of dahlias is its whole own world, your ceramics also have both a classic element, and an almost eccentric, unbelievable element as well.
Frances: Well, thank you. What I also think that’s the parallel between the flowers and the clay, is that to a certain extent, both processes have an unpredictability. I can give it my best effort. For example, I’m going to do a wood fire next week. What happens in the kiln, or when you put a plant in the garden and what happens in the garden? There’s a certain part of both of them that’s completely out of my control. I love that aspect.
Margaret: Yes. Well, I’m so glad to talk to you again. You said that the similarity, and of course, the flowers and the clay both come from the earth, don’t they? They both come out of the earth, so that’s pretty nice, too. We’ll have to end there.
Frances: Thank you so much.
Margaret: In the meantime, thank you, Frances, for making time today. Now, go back outside and plant more of your hundreds of dahlias [laughter].
Frances: I know. O.K., I will.
(All photos by Frances Palmer. Used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 8, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).