Beginner's Guide to Growing Dahlias

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It's hard for me to believe how much dahlias have changed our lives in the last few years...

You can read more about it here, but long story short, my husband came home from work one day and declared that he wanted to start growing dahlias.

My jaw dropped. I think I may have even snorted a little and giggled. You see, while my dear husband is an incredibly capable and intelligent man, up to this point he had ever grown ANYTHING besides grass seed. Ha! 

Somehow I begrudgingly agreed with his crazy plan (well, actually I didn't have a choice. Once he gets his mind set on something... oh boy, nothing will stop him) and we dove in head first. Which is generally how we operate around here, with varying degrees of success. Ha! 

Now, a realistic and wise person would start with growing maybe a dozen dahlias. Not my husband. Go big or go home. We started our first dahlia season with 300 plants! Oh my!!!

We had to learn how to grow them ASAP, so we read everything we could get our hands on... and my husband joined the West Michigan Dahlia Association so he could soak up knowledge from the experts who have been growing for years and years. 

In the past few years, we have gained so much experience and currently we grow about 700 dahlias each season. 


This spring, we are offering a selection of some of our FAVORITE dahlia tubers for sale, so be sure to check them out!

Click HERE for more information.


We get SO MANY questions about dahlias, I thought I'd take a moment to answer some of those questions and help put your mind at ease if you are considering growing them.

Read on!

*There are thousands of types of dahlias, but for simplicity sake, I'll be discussing the larger dahlias grown from tubers (not seeds) specifically for cut flowers (not the small potted types grown for patios, etc.)

 

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Dahlia FAQ's

1. I heard that dahlias are hard to grow. Is that true?

  • Yes. No. Maybe? While I would say they are NOT difficult to grow, they ARE one of the most labor intensive flowers grown for cutting. So, yes, they are "easy to grow" but require some special care. 
  • They require careful planting, staking, pinching (more about that later) and the tubers must be dug up each fall. 
  • If provided with proper growing conditions, they will perform beautifully and provide you with many blooms over the summer!
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2. What is a "tuber"? Is that like a "bulb"?

  • Dahlia tubers are sometimes called a "bulb", but they are technically a tuber, similar to a potato. Similar to a potato, the tuber sends up a shoot that becomes the plant, which produces leaves and flowers. Underground, the tubers multiply each year (again, like a potato). 
  • You only need one tuber with one "eye" to successfully grow a vigorous dahlia plant. Ever left a potato in the pantry too long and noticed "eyes" sprouting? Same thing with a dahlia tuber. 
  • Watch the short video below to get an overview of dahlia tubers.
 

3. Pinching? What does that mean?

  • If you want your plant to produce multiple blooms, you must "pinch" or cut back the plant early on, when it has reached 12-16" tall. Find the center stalk, count down about 1-2 sets of leaves and make a cut with clean clippers, removing the top inch or two of the center stalk. This signals the plant to "branch out" and put it's energy into creating more branches and more blooms. 
  • If you want bigger blooms (but less flowers in total), then do nothing. 
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4. Do I need to stake dahlias?

  • Yes, most varieties will need to be staked, otherwise the wind may flatten and ruin the whole plant. Gently tie the plant to a sturdy wooden or metal stake. A tomato cage would also work!
  • We use netting stretched between posts, hovering about 12-18" from the ground. The plants grow right up into the netting, which keeps them in place. 
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5. Wow! Some dahlia tubers cost over $10... for just one tuber! Why do they cost so much?

  • Remember in Question #1 when I said they are labor intensive? Dahlia tubers are not cold hardy and will not survive over the winter in most climates. They must be dug up. By hand!
  • Dahlia tubers are quite fragile. and break very easily. If they break, they are worthless! As of yet, no one has been able to successfully mechanize the dahlia tuber digging process without suffering major losses. Hand digging is the most gentle method resulting in MUCH less breakage... but it is HARD MANUAL LABOR... hence the high cost of tubers.
  • Once the tuber clumps have been dug up, they must be divided into individual tubers... yet another extremely labor intensive job, that cannot be mechanized. It's all done by hand!
  • Keep reading... Question #6 may ease your mind...
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6. You said in the video that the tubers multiply each year. Does that mean I'll be able to plant even MORE of them next year? 

  • YES! If you dig up the tubers in the fall, properly store them and divide them, you can easily triple or quadruple your stock in 1 year. Once you factor that into the price of buying a tuber, they don't seem so expensive anymore! 
  • See the photo below? I planted ONE tuber in the spring... now I have more than I can count! Yes, all of those grew from one tuber. 
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7. So... do I HAVE to dig up the tubers every fall? What do I do with them?

  • No, you don't HAVE to... but then you will have to by new tubers each spring, which gets expensive!
  • Tubers are best stored in a cool, dark location - not too warm (they will rot) and not too cold (freezing will ruin them). A root cellar is perfect. 
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8. Ummm... how do I divide them? That sounds hard.

  • I'll admit it takes practice and you will make a lot of mistakes at first, but it gets easier with time.
  • Want to see how to do it? Watch this short video!
 

Ok, feeling a little more confident now? Read on for instructions on how to grow these beauties! 

Also, be sure to check out our selection of tubers. 


How to Grow Dahlias

1. Choose a location with at least 6 hours of direct sun (the more sun, the better!) and well drained, fertile soil. Compost and all-purpose fertilizer worked into the soil before planting will help. 

2. Plant AFTER the threat of frost has passed (about May 15, here in West Michigan).

3. Dig a hole about 4-6" deep and wide enough to accommodate the tuber. Place tuber in the hole with the "eyes" at the top and back-fill the hole gently, covering the tuber completely with about 1 inch of soil.

4. DO NOT WATER after planting, unless the soil is super dry. You want the soil to be just slightly damp. Too much water can cause the tuber to rot. REPEAT: DO NOT WATER. It's also wise to check the weather and avoid planting right before a huge rain storm. 

5. Once the plants have sprouted, you may being watering but take care to not soak them. When plants reach about 8", begin fertilizing with all purpose liquid fertilizer about twice a month.

6. Pinch the plants when they reach about 12-16", to signal the plant to produce more branches (and more blooms).

7. Plants begin to bloom in late July and produce heavily until the first killing frost of the season. 

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Questions? Comments? Just let us know.

Happy planting!