Dahlias are not exactly divas, but they do require work

Erin Schanen

Dahlias, which apparently were popular decades ago before falling out of favor, are enjoying a renaissance, albeit one mired in a fair bit of confusion.

Dahlias have a reputation as being divas, which is somewhat deserved but completely overblown. Think of them not as the plant equivalent of the rock star that demands only a certain color of M&Ms, but as one who just requests a bit of chocolate in any form.

So let’s get the unflattering bit out of the way. Dahlias are needier than a lot of plants. They demand good drainage, warm soil, consistent moisture and, in some cases, sturdy staking. If that scenario sounds familiar, it might be because you grow tomatoes. Turns out that tomatoes and dahlias have a great deal in common.

In fact, tomatoes are a guide for growing dahlias. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s warm enough to plant out tomatoes, it’s fine for dahlias too. This is usually the first week of June in my garden.

New interest in growing dahlias is probably linked to an increasing number of cut flower farmers who specialize in glorious, golden-hour photos of stunning dahlias. Frankly, dahlias are pretty enough that it’s hard to take a bad photo of them, but images of armloads of gorgeous blooms would be enough to tempt any gardener.

Perhaps it’s those photos of row upon row of frilly flowers that made people think that dahlias are so particular they must be grown in a segregated area, where they’ll be treated like queens. I love dahlias, but there’s no plant that I’m willing to give that kind of special treatment.

My favorite way to grow dahlias is like any other plant — in my garden, mixed with perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees. Varieties that go beyond the stereotypical dahlia work well for this treatment, and that starts with height. Anything over 30 inches tall will need light staking. I typically use a short bamboo cane and tie the whole plant in with twine. Shorter varieties can usually get by without any staking or with some support from nearby plants.

Short growing varieties usually have small to medium-size flowers. The flowers the size of plates tend to grow on very tall plants. The advantage of the smaller flowering varieties is not just that they fit into the garden better, they also tend to be more floriferous, offering nonstop flowers until frost so long as you deadhead faithfully. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yes, you need to add frequent deadheading to your list of dahlia chores.

I’m also a fan of varieties with dark foliage because it’s just one more characteristic of a garden-worthy plant. Some of the single flowering varieties, such as the Happy Single series, have nearly black foliage, gorgeous three-inch flowers that are favorites of pollinators, need little to no staking and are never out of flower from the moment they start blooming, typically in late June.

Is a little nurturing too much to ask to be rewarded with performance like that? I say no, and anyone who has ever fussed over their tomatoes for the sole purpose of creating a perfect BLT sandwich would probably agree.



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