THE GROWING WORLD OF DAHLIAS
A TRANSPORT OF DELIGHT
by DAVE BATES
One of the great lessons of life is that we all make mistakes, and in order to improve we must learn not only from our own mistakes, but hopefully also from those of others. In my relatively short time in the dahlia fraternity, I have made many mistakes at the penultimate hurdle of the show, that of getting the blooms to the venue safely and in good condition. I have watched other more experienced showmen and tried to learn from them, and what follows is a summation of my mistakes and observations of how others avoid them. It has frequently been said that growing and showing is like the Olympics. The standards continue to progress, and in order to reach qualifying standards, new techniques are needed. In the 50s and early 60s, many growers carried their blooms laid dry in florist's boxes, packing the stems below the heads with cardboard and cotton wool to prevent the blooms from rubbing together. The blooms were less densely petalled in the main, and packing of this type was quite feasible. The exhibitor, equipped with his box would then get on a bike, a bus or a train and make his way to the local show. In those days, not very many people had cars, so only the most dedicated ventured very far afield.
The improved quality of varieties with heavier petal lays made this technique less attractive as time went on, and the enhanced competition meant that even slightly damaged blooms were less likely to take top honours. New methods of transport were required to allow the growers to reap the rewards of their labours in growing the blooms. The economy changed and most families had cars, so growers were able to venture farther afield. This meant that the flowers were out of water longer, and suffered for it. A means had to be found to transport the blooms in water! Tieing balloons containing water on the cut end of the stems was seen as the answer, and this has provided the basis for the way we carry flowers today, although the methods are continually being refined and improved. However if you only have a few blooms and no transport, the acquisition of a florist's box will provide a means to get an exhibit to the show, even today.
The majority of showmen today transport blooms upright rather than flat. This puts significant pressure on the stems and consequently they need extra support. This is usually supplied by attaching a green split cane by two twist-its, one under the bloom and one near the bottom of the cane, and sometimes a third is added midway up the cane.
Like every aspect of showing, the transporting of blooms needs to be planned, but there is no one plan that will satisfy everyone. It depends on the types of containers available, the types of flowers, the show schedule, the means of transport and many other things. The two most popular types of container are crates and tubs. A standard milk crate is not tall enough to support blooms carried upright, so it is necessary to build a framework about 18" high attached to the corners of the crate. In addition to the rectangular frame that follows the outline of the crate top, one or two crossbars can be added to provide strengthening to the frame and also allow better filling of the crate with blooms. Milk bottles when filled with water make the crate too heavy to carry easily, so it is worth collecting Fairy Liquid bottles or similar plastic containers, cutting the tops off, and using them to contain enough water for one stem. The number of blooms in a crate depend on the type of flower, and on the actual means of packing. As a general guide, I have found the following about right, giants 3 or 4; large 4 or 5; mediums 8 or 9; smalls 12 to 16; miniatures 16 to 20. The cactus types can interlock better than decs or balls, so it is possible to get the extra bloom in the crate. Crates of this type are not suitable for poms, so more of this later. The blooms should be placed in the water container and the stem fixed to the framework with a twist-it. Paper twist-its are better than plastic, as not only do they not tend to cut less, but they grip better.
Tubs are usually around 5 gallon capacity, plastic being better than metal (they are lighter to carry). If they have a handle, they are easier to carry when empty and if the sides taper very slightly, they can be stacked for easy storage. Usually a series of quarter inch diameter holes are drilled about one and a half inches apart about an inch below the top of the tub. These will be used to secure the bloom stems near the top, while some crumpled wire netting is placed in the bottom of the tub to anchor the bottoms of the stems. The tubs are about a third filled with water to give added stability and the blooms packed so that they do not touch by using the most appropriate hole and attaching the stem with a twist-it. It is often possible to fit a couple of split canes across the tub so that an extra bloom can be fitted in the middle of the tub. In my experience, less blooms can be packed in a tub than in a crate. In order to prevent water from splashing up onto the blooms when travelling, it is usual to put two or three sheets of crumpled newspaper in the tub above the water level. An alternative method of securing blooms in tubs has been seen around the north. An old inner tube is placed around the outside of the tub, one band at the top, and another at the bottom. Thin garden canes approx two and a half feet long are then inserted between the tub and the bands which will hold the canes very firmly. A couple of clothes pegs are then fixed to the canes above the top of the tub, with the opening end facing inwards. The number of canes used is determined by the size of blooms expected to go in the tub, (although as in the other cases, there is no reason not to mix bloom types and sizes in a container). The pegs are used instead of twist-its and the stems can be easily held in the pegs, and quickly removed when necessary.
Having obtained the necessary containers for carrying the blooms, the next step is to prepare the blooms for cutting. Ideally the plants should be well watered before cutting takes place to ensure the maximum amount is present in the stem before cutting. The stems should be cut on a slant so that they will not be flat on the bottom of the container and prevent water being taken up. The split canes can be attached either while the blooms are on the plant, or they can be applied immediately after cutting. Most people prefer the former since they not only have a good guide to the length to cut the stem, but the stem is not out of water as long. Ideally, blooms should be cut early in the morning or late in the evening, but not when the hot sun is on them. They wilt very quickly under these circumstances no matter how hard you try to ensure that they are well watered, as I have found to my cost! If the stems are thick, a technique called bleeding should be used to allow excess air to escape from the stem and ensure the maximum water uptake. Bleeding is done by gently piercing the stem about an inch below the surface of the water with a small sharp knife. It is surprising how many bubbles of air escape when this is done. Having cut the blooms, try to leave them plunged in deep cold water before packing.
Before securing the blooms in the container, first measure the load height of the vehicle you are using to carry the blooms. It is very frustrating to crate up all your exhibits only to find they won't fit in the vehicle. I try to keep a cane handy with tape marking the maximum height of the blooms that will fit in the vehicle.The vehicle used makes a great deal of difference. If a van is used, this often has a shiny metal floor on which the containers will slide, so a sheet of expanded polystyrene or foam rubber should be placed on the floor to prevent tubs and crates from sliding. Usually there is no height problem with a van, but estate cars can be more difficult in this respect. A Sierra Estate only has a 30" load height, and this is scarcely adequate for mediums and large, while the average load height seems to be around 32-33", the Astra Estate being the tallest I have found at 35". If you are using a car, the front seat and the rear seat squabs can be removed to give extra space, but care has to be taken to ensure the containers are packed on a level surface. Extra space can be had by fitting a trailer, but the two wheeled type jump around too much and can spoil the blooms. At one of my earliest shows, several showmen appeared sharing a horsebox for carrying their blooms, and another society once hired a coach. The most extreme, however, has been used by the Hayes Society. A Jumbo to carry blooms across the Atlantic to compete in Canada or the USA. In these instances, the blooms were securely packed in purpose built crates rather like giant milk crates, but the blooms were completely enclosed in a box so that they could travel in the hold. The crate was attractively decorated to show where the blooms were from, and what's more they won the International class at these shows.
Poms have a much shorter stem than other types and consequently a different means of carrying is needed. The two most popular containers seem to be one gallon ice cream containers, and small plastic buckets, eg phostrogen size or slightly bigger. These can be filled either with oasis, or coils of foam rubber, or bracken packing to ensure the stems are securely held. The poms should be cut with a stem just over twelve inches long, and a small split cane attached to them by winding a twist-it in a spiral manner to avoid squeezing and weakening the stem. The stem and support cane can then be pushed into the packing material, whilst ensuring that the blooms are held away from each other. A few pom leaves can also be carried in these containers on short stems as these can be used with care to improve the appearance of the exhibit.
The crates should be packed in the vehicle, again preventing blooms from rubbing against each other, and they can be separated by packing materials such as newspaper that will be used when you reach the show. A lesson I have found hard to learn is to only take the blooms you need, don't carry vast numbers of spare blooms which will not be used as they only take valuable space. Inevitably there is never enough space in the vehicle to carry all the blooms you would like and to allow perfect separation. There are certain varieties that do not like travelling, notably the Alvas family. When the blooms are nearly ready for show, taking the vehicle over a bump can cause half the bloom to drop onto the floor. Some other varieties have very soft petals and bruise at the slightest touch, so plenty of space is required for these, eg the Rustig family. Some varieties grow in water, and before packing you should ensure that the blooms will pass easily through the rings, otherwise you will be wasting valuable transport space, and if you are carrying some of those cactus or water lily blooms that go to sleep, make sure they have enough room to wake up!
A further problem in the case of a car or an estate is that of carrying blooms which have drops of rain or a mist on them. If the sun shines through the window, the droplets magnify its heat and burn marks all over the bloom. Regardless of this, if blooms are to be left in a car for part of the day, try to shade them and provide the maximum ventilation to keep them as fresh as possible. Some enterprising growers have constructed large boxes to fit on the roof of their vehicles and are able to carry a few extra crates in them. In the case of vehicles where tubs and crates cannot be fitted, some growers have built racks to fit their vehicles exactly and improve carrying capacity. When the roof is low, these can be made so that the blooms are held at an angle, thus allowing a greater stem length to be carried. Driving with the blooms even securely packed can be a hazardous business, don't drive around with the windows open, you can generate a 70mph gale over your blooms for several miles and destroy any chance you have of getting them on the bench. Plan your route to avoid those very bumpy roads or twisty lanes as far as possible. After spending all year growing blooms, it is important not to lose them on the journey by travelling too fast or jerkily. I have often seen experienced showmen open their vans and vehicles to count the cost of their journey in terms of how many blooms are broken and wasted. Defensive driving is strongly recommended and even then you can't be sure there will not be a problem. Emergency stops with a vehicle full of blooms inevitably leads to disaster. At the very least some blooms are likely to snap off their stems as there is no way they are made to withstand 60mph to zero in less than 10 seconds! Tubs and crates will slide and may well fall over as Don and June Davies found to their cost on the M1 last year on the way to Harrogate, but at least they still had some blooms to show, and they were unhurt. A few years ago, Dave Spencer lost all his blooms on a trip to the West Country when his van overturned as he braked to avoid an animal that had strayed onto the road, but fortunately, Dave himself was OK.
In recent years classes are being developed in shows for dahlia plants growing in a pot, so yet another advance is being made in getting flowers to the show in the peak of condition. Who knows where it will all end?
The golden rules of transporting are: - only take what you need and what you can as it is better to leave one exhibit at home than to ruin three or four by carrying too many blooms; pack and load carefully; try to keep the blooms as fresh as possible; drive carefully; and above all, enjoy yourself, showing is for pleasure and you are on your way to meet your friends in the dahlia world!
The above article was published in 1999.
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