In the Garden:
Big and bold and sometimes boisterous, dahlias make my summer garden sing with splendor.
Dahlias are reliable performers here in the Pacific Northwest, blooming from midsummer right on through autumn. The plants can grow from 1 to 6 feet tall, depending on variety, with golf-ball to dinner-plate sized flowers, in practically every color imaginable. Border types such as 'Rigoletto' or 'Mignon' produce either pom-pom shaped flowers so perfect they almost look artificial; or perky, daisy-like ray flowers in clear, vibrant colors. Larger cactus-type blossoms have long, spoon-shaped petals, and the extra large decorative types feature dinner-plate sized blooms with either rounded or pointed petals. This year my garden includes a white 'Kenora Clyde', the brilliant red 'Spartacus', and a peachy-pink 'Wildwood Marie'.
Dahlias grow from storage organs called tubers, which look like wizened old yams. This appearance belies their full potential, though; within a few weeks of planting each will produce strong, erect stems and dark green leaves. Small border dahlias begin blooming in mid-June. The larger dinner-plate types begin their show in July and if spent flowers are regularly removed, they will bloom non-stop until first frost.
Preparing the Bed
Full sun and warm, well-draining soils with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 ensure best performance. I prepare the planting bed in mid-May by spreading 2 inches of compost over the soil and digging it in well. A handful of bone meal goes into each hole and tubers are placed horizontally with buds facing up, about 4 inches deep and 18 to 24 inches apart. I place a 6-foot cedar stake next to each tuber as it's planted. As stems emerge, they'll be secured to the stake. This extra precaution will help tall, flower-laden plants remain upright through our frequent summer wind and rainstorms.
Other than removing spent blooms and thoroughly soaking the soil once each week, dahlias need little care. Gardeners who grow show quality flowers disbud their plants to promote a single bloom per stalk, but I allow mine to produce an abundance of slightly smaller blooms.
Dahlia tubers will disintegrate if left in the ground over winter. Ours are dug about 2 weeks after frost has killed the tops. This 2-week interval allows the tubers to cure in the ground, and cured tubers are more likely to remain plump during storage. Tubers can be divided immediately after digging, but I prefer to store them in one big clump, dividing in spring after the eyes appear. This way I'm assured of cutting them apart in just the right place, without injuring the dormant eyes.
After digging, I lay the tubers on a rack to dry for a few days, then brush away excess soil before packing them into cardboard boxes lined with several thicknesses of newspaper. Each clump is covered with sand or dry sawdust to prevent shriveling, and stored in boxes in a cool, airy place where temperatures remain above freezing all winter. Next spring when the soil has warmed, I'll divide and replant the tubers, for another summer's worth of spectacular bloom.
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