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Secret of growing great dahlias

As long as the temperature hovers above freezing your dahlias will produce riotous colour but go under the frost line and it's game over and sleep-a-bye time.

It’s past the middle of October.  Most of the garden has settled down to sublime sleep. Colour has dramatically faded.  Days are getting longer.  But over in the  dahlia bed the beat goes on.   The tubers you planted last spring are still producing colour and bloom.

Our dahlias came within a whisker of extinction the other night when the temperature hovered around the freezing mark — but miraculously —  in dawn’s early light — our marvelous blossoms were still there.

Some the size of dinner plates, others as tiny and round as a mandarin orange, these stalwart beauties are popping out one after the other in a cascade of reds, yellows,  whites and odd mixtures thereof.

In fact they have been performing for us since July, and will continue unabated until the first killing frost lays them low and withers them black.  Not only are they tenacious in the garden but they make excellent cut flowers and will float dramatically on your dinner table in any size glass bowl.

Some people have written dahlias off their garden lists because of the annual chore of digging and storing the tubers over the winter.   Digging, drying and storing is not rocket science — but it does take a little attention to detail and they do take up space in your cool, dry basement.

On the other hand the tubers — which at one time in their history sold for a King’s ransom — are now quite reasonable to purchase for anywhere from $5.00 to $12.00 for the very best stock.

Bloomfield's busy Sandra Dowds again won first prize in the large dahlia class at this years Picton Fair. She tells us her secrets.

One of our most successful dahlia gardeners in  the County is the indefatigable Sandra Dowds, whose main street Bloomfield garden in front of her Century Home B&B is a traffic stopper all season.   Again this year she won the prize for the best large dahlia at the Picton Fair — with the lusty and luscious Pennsgift which can grow up to 13” across and is considered to be as big as they come.

Sandra's winning entry was Pennsgift a proven champion reputed to be able to produce a flower 13" across.

What is her secret?  She chooses quality tubers,  plants them in raised beds for good drainage,  in well-mulched soil.  She covers the bed with an additional layer of mulch but keeps the mulch away from the plants themselves.  She feeds the tubers with  tomato fertilizer and carefully prunes away surplus buds so that the plant will devote it’s energy to producing show-ready blooms.

Sandra and I buy most of our tubers from Ferncliff Gardens in Mission BC and have always found their stock to be first class,  arriving in excellent condition, garden-ready with detailed planting instructions.

If you are determined to keep your tubers over, dig them after stocks have been kissed by frost, dry them for a day or two, dust off the extra earth  (and take care not to knock off sprouts on the tubers).  Last winter I stored ours in open-lattice-work laundry baskets lined with newspapers, covered them with peat moss and a layer of newspaper, repeating until the basket was full. The basket is stored in the cool basement.  Recovery last spring was almost 100%.

Dahlias originated in Mexico. Today through modern hybridization they are available in a multitude of sizes, colours and shapes. This little beauty is called "Wheels".

I highly recommend you give dahlias a try next season.
Photos by Donald McClure

Imagine this amazing creation in your late fall garden next season, Name is Ferncliff Fuego.

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About the Author: He can tickle your funny bone or tug at your heart strings. County people may know him as a chronicler of everything that happens (or should happen) in the garden, but his interests stretch across the natural world. His unique sense of observation takes in a wide expanse of living and may even point out some truths about our own condition as managers of the world around us. With Loyalist antecedents in his family tree his roots go deep into the Ontario countryside.

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  1. Dawn says:

    Thanks for the tips Donald! I will try your suggestions for preserving my small but lovely dalias this year! Your photographs are beautiful! Thanks so much again!

  2. Donald says:

    Pleased to hear of your good experience with dahlias Louisa. As more people get acquainted with this wonderful flower we should have some spectacular
    displays around the County. Best regards

  3. Donald says:

    Thanks for the tip Andy. We came within a degree or so last night of losing all
    of our blooms– but once again they seem to have survived. Latest we have had
    them upright in our garden before frost did them in was November 5.

  4. Andy says:

    Another excellent and informative blog. Your photos are stunning and capture the incredible design of these magnificent flowers. Don’t forget that one of the little known secrets of prize winning Dahlias is to cover them with umbrellas a few weeks before they hit full bloom. The diffuse light allows them to have more full, rich colour tones. Keep writing.

    Andy

  5. Louisa says:

    These are beautiful! I never knew much about dahlias until a visit to Nova Scotia, where at a bed and breakfast we stayed at, they had bowls of huge blooms in every room – some as you say, like dinner plates. We toured their garden – row upon row of all colours and sizes of dahlias, and I was so taken with them I bought some to try the following spring. They did wonderfully.

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