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Don't Feat the Tuber

Local gardeners say you must overcome your fear of difficult flowers

The act of gardening can elicit many emotions. The feeling of warm soil through fingers may be as beneficial to a mind’s well-being as meditation. The sight and smell of a favorite flower will sometimes make a person literally stop and smell the roses.

But wait. Why did my palms suddenly start to sweat and my breath shorten to labored, shallow gasps? I hate to admit it, but I am one of the many amateur gardeners who fear that petal-soft but sometimes thorny, fickle flora—the rose. No matter how many times and types I’ve tried to grow, the end result is always the same: a dead, dried stalk that shrivels to a stub sending up tiny tendrils of hope before being put out of its misery and buried by the surrounding ground cover.

And apparently there are many more who share this fear. When I surveyed customers and friends to see what plant they feared to grow, roses were top of the list. But obviously not everyone has this phobia; there are entire gardens devoted entirely to roses. Elizabeth Licata, an avid Buffalo gardener (and author of gardening adventures at and is sympathetic to the roseaphobians, but insists that it is a misconception that they need extra care and chemicals. “I have stopped using anything except a cup of organic fertilizer at the beginning of the season and have mixed my rose bushes with perennials,” Licata says. “I really don’t even prune them, except the dead stuff. They do great, especially the old-fashioned ones. Roses are such a great tradition in the garden.”

The sweet-looking plant lupine has reportedly been cultivated for at least 2,000 years, so it must be easy to grow, right? So why was it another species that had several gardeners turning counterclockwise three times and throwing a pinch of salt over their left shoulder? One local gardener, Phoebe McKay, walked a wide-berth around a beautiful lupine plant saying over her shoulder, “I have never had luck with this, even though it is supposed to be a prolific self-seeder.” Another gardener, Joanne Janicki, agrees, “I’ll never figure out why I can’t grow lupine. I finally gave up,” she says. “I guess Mother Nature is just smarter than I am.”

Upcoming Gardening Workshops & Events

June 19

Urban Roots Birthday Celebration. Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street.

June 20

Daylilies (Pam Hoffman), Dahlias (Deb Cohen). 10am. Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street.

June 26

Strawberry Moon Celebration. Strawberry Harvesting & jam-making workshop. 8pm. Movie after dark (estimated 9:15 PM). (Check for details on upcoming garden workshops and pickle-eating contest, and e-mail for more information on volunteering.). Buffalo ReUse Garden, 320 Northampton Street.

June 27

Companion Planting & Organic Gardening (Deb Cohen). 2pm. Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street.

July 9

Backyard Chickens (Monique Watts), Native Plants (Beaufort Wilbern), Green Roofs (Dave Lanfear). 2pm. Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street.

July 10

Container Gardening (Dave Clark). 11am; Permaculture (Dave Majeweski). 1pm; Green Roofs (Dave Lanfear). 3pm. Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street.

July 11

Garden Art (Doug Sargen & Sarah Fonzi). Noon-2pm. Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island Street.

July 25 & 26

Buffalo Garden Walk. Visit for information. 10am-4pm.

Urban Roots Community Garden Center Cooperative boasts more than 600 member owners and is still growing. Share your gardening thoughts, stories, and questions at

Speaking of phobias, there are people who truly do have a fear of flowers and have been diagnosed with a condition called anthophobia. But most of us don’t have a doctor’s note to explain why we turn tail and run when someone suggests that we plant canna lilies and dahlias that must be dug up at the end of each season to avoid being lost to the cryogenic freezing temperatures of our region. Dahlias in particular can be daunting. But according to growers, it’s only scary your first time.

For successful dahlia cultivation, heed this advice: Good soil is the secret. After the ground has thawed and all chance of frost has passed, prepare a soil that has a balanced supply of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Make sure that it has good drainage and maintains moisture without being overly wet. Our area tends to have heavy clay, so adding peat moss and a bit of sand will help. Next plant the tuber horizontally with the crown or eye side up. Add the stakes at this time, because the roots for dahlias are shallow and can be damaged if you are digging around them once they begin to take root. Mulch with a bit of straw in June, then lightly fertilize monthly until August. To get the maximum amount of blooms, pinch back new growth after the stem is about a foot high, for the largest blooms, pinch off all of the side buds at the end of each branch. And remove dead buds to keep the blooms coming throughout the season.

Before frost, cut dahlias back to four to six inches to promote the production of new eyes. A week or two after cutting, once the tuber has grown these new eyes or sprouts, carefully dig around it and remove the clump without damaging the new growth. Wash as much soil gently off and then let dry a bit. Divide the clump and remove the tubers and gently shake off the remaining soil. Discard any damaged tubers or ones that do not have the new eye because these will not produce a new plant. Pack tubers in saw dust or vermiculite and store in a cardboard or wooden box and place in a dry place that will maintain a 40-50 degree temperature. Check the tubers periodically throughout the winter and moisten the packing material if they stems begin to shrivel.

Some gardeners divide tubers before storing for the winter, others say that there is better chance for survival through storage by leaving the clumps and dividing them in the spring before planting. Find what works for you and stick with that process. If you still have reservations, find a dahlia grower and ask them to guide your through your first season. Urban Roots will also host a workshop on Dahlia Know How on June 20 at 10am.

Whether it is the fear of failure, or of introducing an invasive monster plant that will take over the garden or just being reminded that we are all, plant and human alike mortal beings and must be provided with certain conditions and care to survive, perhaps the best advice is not to sweat the small stuff. It is exciting to just throw cautions and seeds to the wind and let nature take its course. And perhaps, in return for our bravery, we will have the satisfaction and enjoyment of a beautiful giant-sized dahlia or the sweet gentle scent of a fabulous rose to make it a little less fearful the next time we decide to step out of our comfort zone and into the not-so-scary garden.

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