A GROWING CONCERN: Add dahlias to the cast for show-stopping blooms

I HAVE JUST completed the task of amending the soil in a couple clients’ yards for flower beds and boy, did they need it!

Yes, most of us own a rocky gravel pit for a yard — but at least we have numerous sources of good, dark, black organic soil and mulch on the Peninsula to heap upon our yards. This is the No. 1 thing to do to improve your plants.

And since my mind is now focused on our planting conditions here at home, lovely dahlias are also invading my thoughts.

Dahlias are the absolute best plant for the conditions here, and no plant will give you greater joy, along with bucket loads of flowers until November.

If there is but one plant (remember you are already committed to flower baskets and window boxes) for your yard, let dahlias be that plant.

I will personally guarantee that dahlias will make you feel as though you are a botanical genius.

So, here is the first reason to plant dahlias: They can be miniature (4- to 6-inch), border (6- to 12-inch), over 25 foot tall, have bronze foliage, be medium height (3- to 4-feet), maroon leaf color, tall (5- to 7-foot) extremely cutleaf, very tall (7- to 9-feet) and every combination in between.

The next reason: Flower type and color range. Dahlias can be 1-inch in diameter. Triple A’s can be over 12-inches in diameter. The flower can be balled, semi-cacti, bi-colored, waterlilly, cacti, peony, single, double, triple and they can be from the brightest, blinding red and yellow, to the softest of pastels, to pure white.

Dahlia flowers can also be multi -colored, fringed, tipped, spooned, starred, eyed — you name it — dahlias come in that flower!

Alright, how do your dahlias grow?

Well, first you need a well-prepared, deep, wide hole of rich black organic topsoil.

Let me say this again, get buckets of superb topsoil.

Late May is the time to plant outdoors here.

In that wonderfully rich hole, place your dahlia tuber so that the eye (crown) is below the soil level of the hole about 2 inches.

I choose to depress the hole several inches below the natural soil level of the bed.

As the dahlia grows, I fill the hole with lush soil up to bed level. This gets the tuber below bed-level several inches and allows some dirt to be around the stems, which sturdy them up.

They must be well-watered at all stages of growth.

It is wise to put fertilizer at the bottom of the hole (future root feed) and again at surface level.

Dahlias will branch naturally, sending up numerous stems.

However, most producers cut away all but three and five, or up to seven, stems. This will increase the size and strength of the bloom and stem.

Did I mention that no plant is better for its cut flowers in both number and stalk quality than dahlias?

All year long, new stems will emerge from the ground and should be removed by pinching.

Also, the plant will produce large bottom leaves and these, too, should be removed — thus allowing air to move more freely under the dahlias.

Slugs love dahlias twice as much as I do and enjoy bringing the whole family along for a buffet.

Air and dry conditions at soil level are your first line of attack.

Did I mention dahlias only get bigger and bigger, more prolific as they grow, and produce more and more flowers until they die from frost in late October or November?

Another award-winning dahlia trick is to pinch out the tip of each of your stems as soon as four pairs of leaves are produced.

Taking out only the very tip of your young stems (no more than three stems) branches the plant and adds a very low level that, in return, will exponentially increase your flower count.

Staking your dahlias is mandatory on plants over 3-feet-tall, and the stakes and cages better be a sturdy stock or that summer wind and rain storm will leave you with a pile of twisted leaves laid out on the ground as a champagne brunch for the slugs.

Disbudding is the next secret.

It is how you can produce long stems and huge flowers for the vase.

As soon as you see side buds, remove them all the way down that particular flowering branch.

Leave only the top, large, center bud.

Disbudding can double the size of the flower and stem.

Disbud all stalks if only cut flowers are your goal.

Small border-type dahlias and miniatures do not get disbudded— the prolific, tightly packed blooms are the desired effect.

Keep dahlias moist throughout the growing season and a mulch around the base is widely recommended for moisture control.

Bone meal applied every 2 months and at planting will do wonders for your plants.

An August re-application of fertilizer will replenish the spent summer supply.

A combination of bone meal and wood ash is a magnificent top-dress around dahlias at planting and again in late summer.

Spread generously around your plants and include nitrogen.

Finally, go out and buy numerous vases and a larger phone chip for pictures, because you are not going to believe the results.

The vases go to your work, neighbors, church and friends. The pictures to me, magazines and most importantly to your family — let them see how you have become a world-famous gardener.

They will love that.

And please, stay well all!


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] (subject line: Andrew May).

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