Flower Spotlight: Dahlias

The days are still long and quite sweltering but the nights are beginning to get a slight chill in the air.  The cosmos and sunflowers have been blooming like crazy the last few weeks and finally another flower in the garden is beginning to blossom: dahlias.  

Dahlias may not have a sweet fragrance like a rose or peony, but what they lack in fragrance, they more than make up with their magnificent beauty.  With so many shapes, sizes, and colors it is easy to find oneself quite the hoarder of these amazing flowers.  They give us a spectacular show at the end of summer and help us to greet fall.   

While out in the garden, my daughters skip and sing behind me.  My oldest daughter, Emma, stays by my side, hopeful of a treasured dahlia bloom.  Whether there are too many nibble marks from an earwig or a stem is simply too short, she is there in great anticipation.  Rejected dahlia blooms quickly are added to their hair to be like a princess, or are used as a sword on the battlefield, or become a cupcake that pairs wonderfully with their afternoon tea.    Even at such young ages, the girls realize the splendor and magic of these wonderful flowers.



Dahlias do not originate from English gardens of European princesses but rather come from Mexico and were believed to be cultivated and used by the Aztecs.  They made their journey over the leaping seas a mere two centuries ago by a botanist to make a new home in Spain.  From there, they have been cultivated and bred in any shape and color you can imagine!  

Don't let their magnificance intimidate you.  They are hardier than they look and their beauty makes them a worthy candidate in your garden!  Dahlias can be grown from seed or from a tuber.  From seed, they most likely won't be true to the mother plant but can make for a fun experiment and surprise at blooming time.  And... what's a tuber?  It looks like a scrawny yam.  Kind of like growing potatoes, growing from a tuber will give you a dahlia true to the mother plant.  Actually, their tubers are edible and at one point it dahlias were commonly grown as food!  I can't personally imagine wasting a future dinner plate dahlia on my dinner plate but dahlias can produce five to ten tubers from a single tuber in one season.  They are prolific, so if you decide to experiment and cook one, please let me know how it goes!  I think I'm going to stick to sweet potatoes or carrots and leave the dahlias to march on in all their glory in the garden and vases.

The tubers don't look like anything super special, but patience will be rewarded!  Dahlias can be grown as a perennial in some areas, but like most things- not in Northern Nevada!  We grow them as an annual.  In the fall or winter we place our order in for the tubers and these guys came into the mail late April- early May.  It was way better than Christmas!  These tubers came while the weather (especially this last year!) was on and off bleak.  As I opened the box the hope of summer sat in there.  

Dahlias can be planted directly in the ground, or you can snag a head start and plant them in a pot to sprout inside.  Bonus!  You can actually take cuttings from the dahlia sprouts and root them, then you get even more dahlia plants!  I dropped the ball and did not take on this experiment, plus I only had one row to designate to them (don't worry- I'm aiming for a whole two rows next year!).  Next year, taking cuttings and making more dahlia babies is definitely on the to-do-list.  To start dahlias indoors, plant them in a decent size container (I used a one gallon).  Have the soil ever-so-slightly moist but don't water again until you see a sprout.  If over watered, they can rot.  Let me warn you- a mushy tuber is not only sad but kind of gross too.

When the weather begins to warm, and the nights stay above freezing, the tubers or the started plants can be planted out into the garden.  These guys like room, give them a minimum eighteen inches space.  Staking or netting them is essential, especially in our area with the crazy Carson Valley winds.  Dahlias are not fans of the cold.  This last year was frigid, we even suffered major freezes in June!  Dahlias can be devastated by frost, therefore, we keep frost cloth and plastic on hand just in case.  Tubers are not a cheap investment, so it's better to play on the safe side.  Looking at how some of the plants got nipped even with protection, we made the right decision!

Dahlias want to grow!  They appreciate some good compost and weekly fertilization and will reward you with bigger and more flowers but they will even grow without the extra love.  This year we gave them a little too much love.  All of a sudden a few of our dahlias were looking almost diseased, and there are a number of viruses that can devastate the plants, render them useless and only fit for the trash can.  Naturally, we panicked!  It fortunately turned out to be simply too much water.  We invested in some good irrigation this year, it was just a little too awesome!  Once we cut back the watering, the dahlias began to perk up and go nuts.  So glad we didn't just assume the worst and tear them out.  Growing will always present concerns and challenges, each day we continue to learn through our mistakes.

If the cold and overwatering didn't take these guys down- the earwigs have sure been trying to get their punches in!  Along with setting some traps (which I go into detail about in "The Nitty Gritty on Battling Earwigs), I made some mesh bags to go over the blooms.  Earwigs have a habit of taking beautiful flowers and making them ugly.  Chew holes are the worst!  We are gaining a better control on the earwig population (finally!) and the bags are not needed as much, which is good.  The bags are not the most attractive and can create for some tedious, time consuming work, but they served their purpose.  They allowed the dahlia to evade the terrible earwig and maintain perfection. 

Dahlias don't have an incredibly long vase life like some other flowers, but fairly solid.  The ball type dahlias have a better vase life and can handle the heat (such as at the farmer's market) than some of the fancy dinner plate dahlias.  Dinner plate dahlias are huge and glorious but with their fragility and size are better suited for design work or to enjoy in the garden.

Dahlias have a hollow stem, therefore harvest and then recut the stems under water.  This keeps increases vase life.  Harvest dahlias when fairly open but not fully, if the petals feel papery the flower is past it's prime.  If harvested when too closed, the dahlia will not open much further.  A good vase life for a dahlia is about five days.  Some varieties will last longer with the right care.

In our area, the winter is too cold for dahlias.  In the fall, the tubers can be dug up and stored for planting the next spring.  If that seems like too much effort, mulching the dahlias heavily may protect them enough to overwinter.  Either way has risks.  Digging up and storing can result in some tuber rot, if not stored correctly or some just rot in general and no fault of our own.  Storing properly will help.  Dip the tubers in a weakened bleach solution and allow to completely dry, store them in saw dust in fifty-degree fahrenheit constant temperature.  Mulching the tubers can still result in freezing of the tubers, which will make them no longer viable.

Dahlias are definitely show stoppers, especially locally grown ones.  

Hope you enjoyed this dose of floral bliss!

- Jessica