In the spring I referred to peonies as the “Queen of Flowers”. Perhaps I should have said the Queen of “Early Summer Flowers”. Because now as summer begins to wane, (it’s not over yet!) there is another queen: the Dahlia.
Dahlias are strikingly beautiful flowers which come in a huge variety—thousands of cultivars— of colors and sizes. They are native to Mexico but have been known and loved in Europe since the early 1800s. Garden dahlia flowers range in size from 2-3 inches across to as large as 12 inches across. The plants themselves can be from just 12 inches high, great for low borders or even containers, to as tall as 48 inches. Colors range from white to pink, yellow, red, purple and everything in between. (But not blue, green, or black, as far as I know). The flowers come in many forms : “cactus”, “pompom”, “anemone”, “single”, and more. This link has nice clear pictures of the different flower forms:
I received a gift last fall for the Botanical Gardens from Linda J. — a big muddy pile of unlabeled dahlia tubers. After rinsing and letting them dry, I wrapped them in newspaper, packed them into a waxed box, put the box in the cellar, and forgot all about them. In the spring during a cellar clean- up day, one of The Boys found the box and brought it up. It was a little late — the tubers were sprouting, a few had shriveled up, but nothing was rotten. I decided to plant everything that looked even remotely viable. We staked them all, not knowing if they were dwarf or tall, large- or small-flowered. (Staking can be critical: Large dahlia flowers are heavy, and the stems are hollow and brittle.)
So, it’s September, and here they come! We have a large (6-7 inch) pink and 2 large white, a medium sized pink, and lots of buds. I’m hoping for all kinds of colors! None of the Dahlias are over 36 inches or so, which means that next year they go in a more visible spot. Right now they’re in the garden just west of the greenhouse, tucked between the hedge and the ‘Heatwave’ Agastache.
Dahlias can be grown as annuals, but I treat them as tender perennials. When a hard frost kills back all the foliage, the tubers will be dug up, LABELED, and packed away for next year. In the spring they can be divided and each section of tuber with an “eye” will produce a new plant. In a good year there will be 3-5 new tubers on each plant — plenty to share!
Like the other Queen of Flowers, the Peony, Dahlias are not hard to grow. They prefer full sun and well drained soil. I planted them like potatoes, putting the tubers in the bottom of the hole, covering with only an inch or two of soil, and gradually backfilling the hole as the stem grew until it was filled in. A low nitrogen (vegetable garden ) fertilizer and a little bonemeal is enough. They don’t need heavy watering and tolerate heat and dry weather, although watering once a week when they begin blooming is helpful. Dahlias make great cut flowers as well as being a bright spot in the garden through September. Here’s hoping we have a whole rainbow of colors to enjoy this month.