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Getting more from Your Dahlias

Metal wheels scraped along the cobblestones. Slowly, a slippered foot stepped down followed by a big, old tennis shoe. John Douza carefully lowered his walker and shuffled along a perfectly measured strip of lawn that separated his even more carefully placed rows of dahlias. His stooped figure and grey head barely visible among the cacophony of purple, yellow, red, pink, orange and fushia heads that filled his side yard, calling to passersby.

I was just such a person the year before last.

Could those really be flowers as tall as corn stalks? I had never seen a personal garden so rich with color and variety. And height! I was drawn in to meet their caretaker. Warm and welcoming, John shared his knowledge and answered my questions as he slowly pushed that old walker down the rows, examining each flower and adeptly clipping off the side shoots. While many other flowers languish in August, these amazing “tubers” were flying high and bright and beautiful.

John explained to me that dahlias can be dug up after first frost and stored in the garage – or cool, dark place, then replanted the next year. Like Cannas and Alocasia (Elephant's Ear), sub-tropical plants that cannot withstand freezing tempertures, frost stimulates the dahlia bulbs to begin setting eyes for next year (similar to the eyes on potatoes). Upon the arrival of light frost, the mostly tuberous roots start working on their plan for next year's growth. You can hold off on digging until a week or two has passed, unless a hard freeze is expected.

A former president of the local dahlia society, John explained that he digs his plants out each year and stores them, but always orders a few dozen new ones to ensure he has a good crop. Here is a step by step guide to saving and storing tubers:

  • Once you gently dig or (pitch) fork up the bulb and roots, gently shake off the soil. Trim off most of the aboveground vegetation that was killed by the frost, using pruners, but leave a little bit of the foliage in place.

  • Rinse the dirt off your dahlia tubers by swishing them around in a tub of water (or, if you prefer, you can mist them with a garden hose). Be very gentle in this operation because even the slightest puncturing of the skin can introduce pathogens that can cause your dahlia bulbs to rot in storage during the winter.

  • Once clean, inspect the dahlia tubers, and trim away any parts that are rotten. Also remove the so-called "mother" tuber; in the case of first-year plants, this will be the original tuber that you bought and planted. This older tuber is more likely to rot than the new ones, and such rotting could spread to the others. Let the tubers to dry a bit, in hopes that the wounds will callous over.

  • (While it’s not mandatory to apply antifungal powder, dusting with sulfur powder can help prevent the spread of the rotting. Be sure to protect yourself from sulfur dust by wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a face mask and gloves.)

  • Before storing your tubers, it is best to cure or dry them for a couple of weeks. If temperatures will not be dipping below freezing and if no rain is in the forecast (not likely on the East Coast), it is fine to dry them outdoors, where air circulation can promote drying. Indoors or out, choose a location where they will not receive direct sunlight. Hang the tubers upside down so that any residual moisture in the stem can drain off. You can hang them directly or place them in a mesh bag. Once the dahlia tubers are dried, cut off any remaining stem.

  • Storing can be tricky. Most gardeners use a combination of newspaper and peat moss. Line the bottom of a box with newspaper and sphagnum peat moss (Other choices are vermiculite, coarse sand, sawdust or wood shavings). Lightly moisten the peat moss using a spray bottle, you do not want soggy peat moss, which encourages rot.

  • Lay the tubers onto the peat moss in the box and cover them with another layer of peat moss. If you divided the tubers, make sure they are not touching. Store the box in a dark area, such as a basement or cellar, that will remain cool for the winter but will not freeze. The ideal storage temperature is above freezing but below 50 F.

  • Some people wrap their dahlia tubers in the newspaper before storing them in the box filled with peat moss. Others store them in paper bags.

  • Label the dahlia tubers so that you will know what specific cultivars you are working with when next spring rolls around. If you have lots of clumps to store, consider using separate boxes, or make sure to properly label each clump.

  • Periodically check the dahlia tubers during the winter. If they seem overly dry, spritz the peat moss again with the spray bottle. On the other hand, if a dahlia tuber feels mushy when you check it, it has rotted and should be discarded.

I looked forward to seeing John’s garden again this summer, but sadly the stakes and trellises remained bare. It was apparent that there would be no re-bloom. As I passed the property the other day, his widow, Pat confirmed my suspicions. I had seen the dahlia’s final show.

And such it is with the cultivated garden. Who is there to dig? To carefully wash and dry and store?

It is a labor of love – one that John learned from his garden mentor, Mrs. Schmidt whose family ran a successful rubber stamp company and who recognized a budding gardener and offered him a corner of the plot she tended many, many years ago.

John’s gratitude for that beginning became a lifetime of service and gardening. How befitting that in the language of flowers, (for more plant symbolism, click here) - Dahlias represent dignity and stability, as well as meaning my gratitude exceeds your care.

Many times we may never know what our kindness may mean to someone else. I encourage you today to find a way to get more from your "dollas."

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