I've never been a fan of dahlias. I don't know why. Maybe it's because sun is such a rare commodity in our garden, and only my most cherished, most desired blooms get that rare bit of sun real estate. Casa Blanca lilies. One sentimental rose bush, given to me by my mother. Heirloom tomatoes. Lantana for the hummingbirds and butterflies. Dahlias just never made the cut.
But then, last summer, I saw it. The fabulous flower farmer and floral designer Erin of Floret Flowers dedicated a post to
Café au Lait.
With blooms as large as my son's head in colors so ethereal a fairy would pick its petals for a dress, I fell head over heels in love.
And I became obsessed.
First of all, finding Café au Lait dahlias is no easy feat. These swirls of cotton candy-like blooms are the hottest flowers in wedding designs today. Tracking down the tubers required infinite patience, as site after site listed them as "sold out." The more difficult it was to locate the dahlias, the more obsessed I became, determined to grow a bit of that confection in our garden.
Finally, one source saved the day--at a heart-stopping price of $5 a tuber. I'm not one of those gardeners with an unlimited budget and staff to do my bidding, but for once, I took the plunge and forked out $25 for a bit of paradise. (I hoped.)
You'd think I'd have coddled and fussed over the pricey investment. After all, my dreams of a bed full of dreamy dahlias was seriously waylaid by the price, and I had planned to use these beauties throughout the summer for bouquets.
Instead, I found a corner of the front garden bed, which barely receives eight hours of sun, dug a hole about four inches deep, and laid the tubers in horizontally. The soil here is decent, so I didn't need to amend it. (You will want to amend any heavy soil, adding manure or peat moss to help loosen it.) Drainage is key to the success of dahlias, because without adequate draining, the tubers can rot. I did, however, add a layer of perlite to the bottom of the hole, hoping to prevent voles from feasting on my $5 tubers. (I once read that voles don't like to cross sharp objects, like rough gravel. Since then, I always add perlite to the holes when planting any bulbs or tubers, and it's worked beautifully for me.)
I covered the tubers and walked away, hoping for the best.
Guess what? It worked.
Of course, perhaps I should have researched a bit more about the preferred growing conditions of these beauties. I watered during the hot, dry spells of summer, but I didn't water often--we had a fairly wet summer, so I let nature do the work. I'm embarrassed to admit that I never fertilized the plants, although the expert dahlia growers recommend a low nitrogen fertilizer 30 days after planting, and again every four weeks.
Did I check the soil's pH? Ummm...nope. Dahlias prefer a pH of 6.5-7.0, so I suppose I got lucky.
Still, for all of the lack of attention, my dahlias bloomed beautifully. I've been using them all fall for Floral Friday bouquets.
They were worth blowing my flower budget.
In a few weeks, after the blooms have faded and the frost turns my beauties to mush, I'm going to follow the experts' advice and divide these expensive babies so that my field of Café au Lait dahlias becomes a reality...in a few years. In most areas, dahlias need to be dug and stored over winter. If left in the ground in cold climates, the tubers will freeze. Even in our fairly warm climate, I don't want to risk rotted dahlia tubers.
My research recommends digging the tubers two weeks after frost kills the plant, or by mid-November in most of the country. Experts recommend washing the tubers and allowing them to air dry before storing in crates filled with peat moss, sand, or wood shavings. Erin writes about wrapping their tubers, unwashed, in plastic wrap before storing in crates. All of the dahlia experts recommend storing the tubers at a temperature of 40 to 55 degrees.
When the soil warms to 60 degrees in the spring, it's time to plant the tubers. I planted mine much later this summer, which could be why I'm still enjoying gorgeous blooms. Still, it's safe to plant the tubers at about the same time you'd plant your summer vegetable garden. Tomatoes and tubers--something to nourish your body and delight your taste buds, and something to nourish your soul.
Whenever I post a photo of my Café au Lait dahlias online, friends share their dahlia photos--and wow. Who knew there are so many stunning varieties?
I must admit...I think I'm now a dahlia lover.
If only I had a sunny garden...
Do you grow dahlias? What's your favorite variety? If you haven't grown dahlias, I highly recommend giving them a try. You Can Grow That!