If you’re looking for a flower that offers a lot of wiggle room in size, shape and color and that really stands out in mid to late summer, dahlias are a sure bet.
This Mexican native was introduced to Europe in the late 16th century.
In the ensuing centuries, breeders have had ample opportunity to transform it from a six- to 18-foot-tall plant with single red or lilac flowers into dozens and dozens of varieties which are showy – and more compact!
Dahlia flowers can be anywhere from a tiny two-inch ball to a peony shape the size of a dinner plate and their colors can range from purest white to deepest red or purple.
Throw in some bi-colored and variegated flowers and foliage that runs the gamut from green to bronze and a gardener has more than enough to work with.
Dahlias are actually pretty easy to grow. They can be started from seed and treated as annuals, or cuttings can be taken of new shoots. But for the quickest and biggest bang for your buck, plant mature tubers in the spring, after the danger of frost is past.
They look a lot like sweet potatoes, but dangle like big, fat fingers from a central stem.
New buds form around an old stem, so if planting a single tuber, make sure it includes a bud along with part of an old stem. (Remember this when dividing them, too.)
Dig a hole about six inches deep and position the tubers so the eyes are about two inches deep and the clumps are a couple of feet apart, old stems pointing upwards.
The bigger the variety, the greater the spacing needed between plants. This is the time to stake them, too. You don’t want to accidentally skewer a tuber when you suddenly discover the weight of the flowers pulling the entire plant earthward.
Dahlias need neutral to slightly acidic soil with lots of humus, good drainage and plenty of sun.
This is one plant you don’t have to water in when you plant it. Instead, wait until new shoots begin to show, then water and fertilize regularly. Go easy on the nitrogen later in the season or you’ll have a lot of great foliage and few flowers.
Deer may not care for dahlias, but slugs and snails adore them. Be mindful of those little critters, especially when the tender shoots emerge, or they will mow them down nightly.
If you want fewer but bigger flowers, pinch off the outer two of the three buds that form on a stem or remove some of the lateral stems.
Frequently dahlias will winter over just fine for a season or two in our climate, especially if mulched, but if you want to be certain you have great flowers year after year, lift the tubers after the foliage is killed by the first frost, divide and store in a cool and dry place. Check them from time to time during the winter to make sure they’re not moldy, rotten or wizened.
To learn more about delectable dahlias, visit the American Dahlia Society online at dahlia.org.