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Top Four Cut Flower Series: Dahlias

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared a behind-the-scenes look at how we grow some of our most beloved flowers here at Schell Farm Gardens– the ones that turn heads and stop us in our tracks. We wrap up this series with none other than the famous DAHLIA-- last but certainly not least!

Dahlias are absolutely gorgeous. There’s no way around it. Blooming in late summer, they are fashionably late. Kind of like when you throw one last bash at the summer cabin in September . . . #dahlias are like the friends who arrive late, but end up being the life of the party anyway!

There are literally thousands of varieties of dahlias out there– from dinner plate dahlias measuring over 10 inches in diameter, to miniature dahlias which are just 2-4 inches across. They come in several forms, shapes, and colors– everyone is sure to find a variety they adore! And when you do . . . well, I have some GREAT news for you, and then some NOT-SO-BAD news too. As my four-year-old daughter would say, "Mom, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which would you like first?”

Side note: Somehow she’s already picked up on an effective way to deliver bad news. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of me (and my waning patience!) or the amount of trouble she tends to find herself in. Whatever the reason, I usually ask for the bad news first, and I usually get something like this:

“Well, the bad news is that I spilled the whole bag of catfood. The good news is all the cats had a REALLY GREAT breakfast!”

It’s hard not to smile at that.

So now I have some news for YOU– not good news and bad news– but rather some NOT-SO-BAD news and then some GREAT news!

Here’s the NOT-SO-BAD news first: Dahlia roots can't freeze. SO . . . If you want your dahlias to survive over many seasons, you will need to dig them up (lift them) in the fall, and store them for the winter, so that you can replant them in the spring. (Really– it’s NOT THAT BAD!)

And the GREAT news? If you do this, you can increase your dahlia stock dramatically and exponentially in just a few years! You should never have to buy dahlias again.

I can still remember a few years ago when I offered some dahlia tubers for sale in the spring. People who came to the market inquired about the potato-like #tubers, and then were very interested when they saw a picture of the gorgeous #flowers they produced. But as soon as I mentioned that they’d need to “dig them up in the fall,” people would slowly start to back away, smile nervously, and bolt. Seriously!

It may sound like a lot or work, but it really isn’t that bad. I usually wait until we’ve had a few killing frosts, but before the weather turns (usually sometime in October). Then I remove and discard the foliage, and using a shovel or a pitchfork, I gently loosen the soil around where the roots should be. Then I use the shovel to gently lift the clump of tubers out of the ground, being careful not to break any (or many).

Everyone does this next step a little different, but here is my routine: Because we have heavy clay soil, I use a garden hose to spray off my clump of tubers, and then let it dry for a bit in the sun before I sit down at the picnic table with a pair of sharp clippers and begin dividing. In order to have a viable tuber, I check for three things:

  1. An eye (much like an eye on a potato– the part where growth will begin. Without at least one eye, it will not grow!)

  2. An unbroken neck (the part that connects the eye to the tuber)

  3. An undamaged tuber (the part that looks like a potato). If the tuber has been sliced off, or if I accidentally put a hole in it with my pitchfork, I toss it. It will likely rot in storage.

Dividing takes lots of practice and is something that you get better at with time. I have made lots of mistakes dividing dahlias, and have ruined plenty of tubers– it’s just part of the learning process. But the amazing part is that from just ONE tuber that you plant in the spring, you can divide the new clump into SEVERAL tubers for next season. Of course it depends on the size of the clump, how many eyes are present, and how good you are at dividing, but to give you an idea, I easily got 8 new tubers from each plant this season. (Some of them produced up to a dozen!)

Once divided, I make sure the tubers are completely dry, and then I label them by variety, using a Sharpie. I write directly on the tuber. Then I pack them in either peat moss or vermiculite in a plastic tote, and store the totes with the lid slightly askew in a location which will remain cool– but will never freeze– all winter. For us, this is an entry room off of our garage, which usually hangs around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Throughout the winter, I check on them periodically, and if I notice any signs of rot, I discard those tubers.

Come spring, they are ready to go! And if they stored well, you should have MANY more tubers to plant than you had the previous year. (In fact, I usually have more tubers than I have space for!)

And if you just can’t wrap your mind around digging them up-- or if fall gets away from you-- you can still enjoy dahlias. Plant them in the spring, and treat them as an annual. In the winter when it freezes, they will die along with the cosmos and the zinnias. The following spring, simply buy new tubers. They cost about the same as any other plant at the greenhouse. Reach out to me and I’d be happy to get you some tubers. We always have plenty!

Take care!



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