DAHLIAS - by Carol Rustad

           mANY FRIENDS HAVE SAID, “I LIKE DAHLIAS BUT YOU HAVE TO DIG THEM UP EACH FALL!!! That is true.  I guess it all depends on what part of gardening you enjoy.  Some gardeners are really into fertilizing, others love to pick bouquets. Personally, I just love to dig in the dirt.  I get depressed if I am out of room for digging in new plants. So growing dahlias satisfies my dirt fix.  And what a surprise it is to dig up dahlia tubers after the first autumn frost and discover they have grown to four times their size.  Just throw them in a five gallon bucket, cover them with peat moss and keep them in your garage during the winter.  Now that is not so hard, is it?

          The 14,000 varieties of dahlias are derived from 2-3 species of native plants of Mexico and Central America.  They are available in every color except blue and their flower size varies in diameter from 1” to 1’. The leaves are opposite and often compound and range in color from green to grey green to bronze to purple.  They bloom from midsummer to frost. 

          Dahlias come in four sources but most are purchased in single division tubers:

                             *root divisions (bit of mother plant stem)

                     *pot roots (stem cuttings mature in small pots and make tiny clusters of root)

                             *green plants from stem cuttings)

                      *seeds (dwarf beddings – seedlings not accurate to parent) 

          They like deeply cultivated well drained soil with plenty of humus, potash, phosphorus (bonemeal), and wood ashes.  Start with 0-20-20 fertilizer 5# / 100 sq. ft. When the plant is established, lightly and evenly spread 5-10-10 fertilizer. One of the biggest mistakes made with dahlias is over feeding.  Avoid compost, fish fertilizers, and high nitrogen water soluble types. Weak stems and small blooms will develop. Dahlias like lots of sun but must have 3-4 hours per day.  An east exposure with shaded roots midday is ideal.

          Plant after danger of frost in the spring.  Cut clumps into divisions keeping an “eye” on each tuber. (The eye is on the neck of the tuber where it attaches to an old stalk.  If there is a question of location of the “eye” put the tuber in a warm place to stimulate “eye” growth.)  Place the tuber horizontally in a 6” hole.  Some gardeners place the tuber in 7” holes and cover the horizontal tuber with 2” of soil and add more soil as it grows.  Insert support stakes at planting.  I use large tomato cages.  Let four branches develop.  You may pinch the tops when they are 12” for a more low growing plant.  Thinning flower buds increases the flower size.  Our Nebraska wind can be a problem.  Entire branches can be snapped off.  That is one of the reasons an east exposure is better than an unprotected south exposure.  Diligent staking and supporting can overcome most winds.

          Cut dahlias for the house in the early morning and immediately put the stems in 2 inches of hot water (100 degrees) and allow them to sit for four to six hours before arranging them.  Or you can dip the stems into an inch of boiling water for a second, or sear them with a candle flame.  The intense color of dahlia flowers is absolutely awesome and they come in many shapes and sizes.  A wonderful source for dahlias is Swan Dahlias P.O. Box 700 Canby, OR 97013,  1-800-410-6540,  www.dahlias.com  Here is a guide to the various categories of dahlias:

May 13, 2006