Are you crazy for this summer favorite? There’s a group for you: the Puget Sound Dahlia Association.
WHAT IS IT about dahlias? Sure, the flowers are showy, but not a one is fragrant, and the foliage is nothing special. But at the height of summer, dahlias rule. Their abundantly petaled glory even outshines the roses.
I’ve never figured out, though, how to grow dahlias in a border, except for the more modest, single-flowered, dark-foliaged types. Dahlias with bravado, and that’s most of them, look their best grown in rows with other dahlias, where they can be individually fussed over and admired.
Which isn’t a problem for Whidbey Island grower John Willson.
“Dahlias, unlike rhodies and azaleas, keep blooming all summer,” says Willson. “They earn their title, the Queen of Cut Flowers, lasting seven to 10 days in a vase.”
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Willson propagates more than 700 dahlias every spring in his 9-by-17 foot greenhouse.
“My Aunt Sigrid always told me that if you have flowers, you’ll have friends, and that stuck with me,” says Willson.
But why dahlias? Aunt Sigrid, after all, grew rhododendrons. “There are 55,000 cultivars of dahlias, so there’s plenty of variety,” says Willson, who credits the expertise of the folks at the Puget Sound Dahlia Association for launching his dahlia obsession.
Willson teams up with fellow dahlia fancier Larry Childs to educate others about their favorite flowers. (Doesn’t it seem that most serious dahlia enthusiasts are men?) When Childs retired from accounting nine years ago he started out with a few dahlia tubers from Ace Hardware. The next year he bought a few more tubers from Willson. Soon enough, Childs was supplying armloads of cut dahlias for weddings.
“Dahlias consume me except for the month of February,” he says happily.
Willson and Childs teach workshops on growing dahlias, run flower stands in the summer, propagate dahlias and judge dahlias at the county fair. Where, by the way, my dark-foliaged dahlias fare poorly in the judging.
“Less than 5 percent of the dahlia kingdom has dark leaves,” says Willson. He does admit they’re popular, which obviously sways him not at all.
Here are Willson’s and Childs’ tips for successful dahlia growing:
• Start with good-quality, healthy tubers.
• It’s all about location. Dahlias require good drainage, full sun and shelter from strong winds.
• Don’t plant tubers or starts until the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees (usually early- to mid-May.) Plant too early and they’ll rot or remain stagnant in the soil.
• Give them “a good baptism” of Alaska fish fertilizer to boost them up out of the soil.
• After the dahlias bud up, feed with a 0-10-10 formula (no nitrogen), then no fertilizer at all after Labor Day so that the tubers don’t rot in storage.
Which brings us to the proverbial question: Is it OK to leave tubers in the ground, or should you dig and store them over the winter?
“It doesn’t really matter in the Pacific Northwest,” Willson says. “You might want to cover them with Visqueen or garbage bags if you leave them in the ground, though.”
Note: Both Willson and Childs dig and store their tubers in cedar shavings during the cold season.
And out of those 55,000 possible kinds of dahlias, which ones do these experts favor?
“Spartacus,” declares Childs without hesitation. “It’s velvety purple and always the first to bloom.”
“ ‘Camano Sitka’ is the world’s most famous dahlia,” chimes in Willson. “The stems are like steel.”
Even with two sunny acres each, you can tell these guys don’t have quite as much room as they’d like to grow dahlias and more dahlias.