Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
April, 2003
Regional Report

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Kenora Lisa, classified as a formal decorative, is a prolific bloomer in my garden.

Dependable Dahlias

As a gardener I've spent almost as much time cajoling my plants into performing as I've spent weeding, watering, and tidying up. As a novice gardener, I begged and pleaded. As an experienced gardener I set boundaries with clear expectations. As a seasoned gardener, I've adopted a matter-of-fact attitude. No longer do I plead; I insist on peak performance. After all, my reputation is at stake!

Blights are not acceptable in my garden, and failure to thrive puts a plant on probation. If it doesn't shape up, it's considered a defector. The word's gotten around ? puny plants will be culled. This fact of life seems to have put them all on good behavior. You should see how they stand at attention during my daily stroll through the garden! My attitude may sound hard-hearted, but it's actually a defense. Keeping a stressed or sickly plant in the garden can compromise the well-being of its companions by attracting insect and disease problems, which can quickly spread.

Dependable Dahlias
Of all my plants, dahlias are the most reliable performers. In fact, I've never met a dahlia I didn't like. They bloom in a stunning array of colors, from clear to mottled or striped, in a multitude of flower shapes, from ball to peony, orchid to cactus. Some are the size of dinner plates! Dahlias grow from storage organs called tubers. A single tuber planted in spring will develop many new ones, radiating out like the spokes of a wheel or clustered densely around the base of the stem.

Encouraging Production
Dahlias thrive in sunny beds amended with lots of organic matter. I grow the larger bush-type dahlias by digging a 12-inch-deep hole for each tuber and mixing a handful of bonemeal into the hole. Then I lay the tuber in the hole with the bud facing up, drive a 6-foot-tall stake into the hole for future support, backfill with soil, and water well. The bonemeal will provide initial nutrients for the young tubers and plants. Just before the first blossoms open, I side-dress plants with a granular 5-10-10 fertilizer to ensure continual flowering. Plants are spaced 3 feet apart to give each enough room and to encourage air circulation around the plants, which reduces disease problems.

Promoting Larger Flowers
Some gardeners pinch off side buds to direct growth to one flower bud per stem, which results in fewer but larger flowers. If I were growing for show, I might be tempted to pinch off buds, too, but I prefer to leave my plants alone and enjoy the multitude of slightly smaller flowers they produce all summer long.

Ongoing Care
Other than regular, deep watering and occasional deadheading, I've found dahlias to be relatively carefree plants. I like using the flowers for indoor arrangements and have discovered that earwigs like to hide between the flower petals. I once had several crawl out in the middle of a dinner party -- a most inopportune moment! So now, when I cut dahlias to bring indoors, I immerse the entire flower in a bucket of water to dislodge any hitchhiking pests.

Winter Storage
I dig tubers in October and November because they tend to rot if left over winter in our wet soil. I leave 6 inches of stem to serve as a handle, brush off excess soil, and store tubers in plastic mesh bags in my unheated garage.

Making More Plants
Tubers can be divided immediately after digging, but I prefer to store them in one big clump, dividing them in spring after the eyes (new growth points) begin to swell. By waiting until spring, I'm assured of cutting them apart in the right place, without injuring the dormant eyes. It's also easier to know which side faces up. Some of the stored tubers look plump and some look dehydrated. The plump ones will be planted first, in the choicest garden spots, followed by their wrinkled relatives, placed in an out-of-the-way garden plot, just in case they don't survive and need to be replaced midseason.

I can't imagine my garden without dahlias. If you haven't given them a try in your own garden, make this the year you start your love affair with these spectacular and reliable perennials. You'll be glad you did!

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