I love to walk the perimeter of my landscape and visit with all the
blooms and woodies. There is so much anticipation and joy when each
cultivar begins to emerge, I leave the garden intact, cutting
nothing, so I can visit and revisit the beauty that occurs early,
mid and late season. There is one exception, the dahlia, a flower
that begs to be brought inside so that it can be admired 24/7. The
dahlia is the queen of fall.
When a flower is this spectacular, you know that it is a
high-maintenance diva. Do what she demands and you will be
richly rewarded with blooms from July through October. When the
early and midseason perennials have withered, browned and
bloomed out, the dahlia comes alive and brings intense color and
nonstop flowers that end the season on a high note.
This is a flower that must be shared with friends and family.
vase filled with dahlias is pure joy. If you wish to bring them
inside, cut them early morning and immediately place the stems
in a bucket of hot water to prolong the life of the flower. Cut
buds will never open, so take fully mature blooms. Strip all the
foliage left on the stem and recut it to fit your vase. Change
the water daily. The dinner plate-size dahlias do not hold up as
well as the smaller varieties, and the ones with open flat
faces, the anemone type, tend to lose their petals quickly.
Dahlias are not a hardy perennial in our zone, so your choice is
to compost or overwinter them and plant them again next spring.
This recycling process is not difficult, but you must be
patient. Tubers dug too early will never harden and hold up in
When a hard frost blackens the foliage, the time has come to
begin the process. The extreme cold ripens the tuber and makes
it ready for harvest. Dahlia experts say that if we don't get a
killing frost by Thanksgiving, dig them up then.
Cut off all the foliage above ground to about 4 inches, then
carefully dig out the underground mass. The dahlia that was
planted in the spring has grown exponentially, so place your
spade at least 6 to 8 inches away from the plant. Hose off all
the soil and place the dahlias in a shaded, protected place to
this point, you can divide the tubers, which look like little
yams growing out and around the stem. Discard any that are soft
and broken. It is best to discard the “mother” tuber, which was
the original plant. It is easy to identify because it is coarser
and darker than the others. It has used its energy to create all
that surrounds it. Only save the tubers that have eyes. These
are the whitish/pink dots on the tuber that are located where it
is attached to the stem. They look like small pimples. These
eyes are where next year’s stem will arise. Tubers without eyes
will never be viable.
I store my tubers in cardboard boxes that are lined with several
layers of newspaper. Fill a bucket with peat moss and mix it
with very warm water. Continue to wet and stir the peat moss
until it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Place this
mixture on top of the papers, then add the dahlias. Cover them
with more peat moss. You can continue to layer in this fashion
by adding additional tubers and then peat moss. At this point
your dahlia torte will be ready to put in hibernation. Store the
box in a cool, dry place. A root cellar with a temperature of
50-60 degrees is perfect. If it is too cold, the tubers will
freeze, and if it is too warm, they will shrivel. Label the
variety in the box.
After winter has passed and the daylight hours begin to grow
longer, you can unpack the tubers. Discard any that are
shriveled or soft. I like to jump start my dahlias by potting
them in a soilless mix. This can be purchased at any hardware
store or nursery. I do this by the end of March or the beginning
of April. Move them to a warm, well-lit location and water them
sparingly. I feel that placing these established plants in the
garden will make for a longer season of growth. However, if you
choose to plant the tuber directly into the garden, do this only
after the ground temperature has warmed to 60 degrees. The old
rule was to plant after Mother’s Day, but rules are not
commandments. Plant the tubers or small dahlia plants only when
there is no longer a danger of frost. This extreme cold is a
sure killer and a sad end to all your efforts.
Dahlias require two things: abundant sunlight and soil with good
drainage. If positioned in partial shade, they will grow tall,
unwieldy and fail to flower well. They are reaching for light.
Do not water newly planted tubers; excessive water can lead to
rot. Wait until the plants emerge then water sparingly. Planting
time is the time to put in stakes. I have yet to plant a variety
that does not need staking. As the plant matures, tie it loosely
to the stake and continue to add ties as the plant grows. I use
vinyl ribbon. When the dahlia reaches the height of 18-20
inches, cut the center shoot above the third set of leaves. This
creates a plant that is shorter, sturdier and more compact.
Dahlias come in an endless array of colors, shapes and sizes.
Browsing the catalogs is nothing short of walking into the candy
store and leaving with a sugar high. Be warned: The larger
varieties, the ones on steroids, demand attention and good
staking. They are heavy-stemmed and prone to topple. The
shorter, bushier ones can be every bit as beautiful and far less
demanding. Enjoy the drama that the Queen of Fall brings to the