|‘Cafe au Lait’ dahlias in a variety of colors from my garden last year.|
I’ve always loved dahlias but growing them in our zone 5b climate along Lake Michigan, which makes a deal with the devil to offer warm, long autumn at the expense of warm springs, is an exercise in patience. Dahlias are, in general, at their best in late summer, but the cold soil in my garden in spring pushed that back even later.
Several years ago I figured out a way to circumvent this problem. I now pot up tubers in gallon-size nursery pots in mid-April so that dahlias have a good amount of growth on them by the time the soil is warm enough to plant them out. You must never plant a dahlia in cold soil; it will sulk at best and rot at worst.
|A collection of dahlias cut before frost a couple years ago. The center flower is ‘Pablo’ and the orange flowers are ‘David Howard’.|
My taste in dahlias varies from year to year. There are so many categories of dahlias and varieties within each category, that the idea of never delving into the other options is appalling to me.
Best known are the dinnerplate dahlias, so called for their enormous flowers, although to truly get flowers the size of a dinner plate, you’ll need to be ruthless about pinching out side shoots, allowing all the nutrients and plant love to go to one single, favored bud per stem. This is how dahlias are grown for show and I’m far too greedy a gardener to follow this practice. I’ll take four 6- or 7-inch blooms over one giant one any day. Dinnerplate dahlias must also be staked because their heavy blooms will certainly make the stems topple over. I’ve admitted my staking mistakes here regularly but this is one of those do-as-I-say not do-as-I-do things. Stake them either with some sort of cage or metal support or with individual supports (i.e. bamboo canes) for each major stem when the buds begin to swell, if not before.
Because of the hassle factor, I don’t grow a lot of dinnerplates. I also find that they can be a touch difficult to incorporate into a border so unless you have a specific cutting garden area you have to be a little choosy about siting them. For the last several years, however, ‘Cafe au Lait’ has been the star of my garden. I think I first became aware of this dahlia when Erin from Floret started using them in her amazing bouquets. The color on it will range from buff or blush to almost candy pink and everything in between.
|The seductive center of a ‘Cafe au Lait’ from my garden.|
|‘Labyrinth’ Longfield Gardens photo|
I grow ‘Cafe au Lait’ in the skinny bed that runs between the house and the patio (quite the micro-climate there), but the rest of that garden has become quite colorful as I fill it with mostly annuals grown from seed. So this year I’ll be alternating ‘Cafe au Lait’ at the back of that garden with ‘Labyrinth’, which is similar in form and style to ‘Cafe au Lait’ but much brighter. I look at it almost as a more saturate ‘Cafe au Lait’.
|‘HS Flame’ Longfield Garden photo|
I am also fond of dark-leaved dahlias although in a book I’m reading the great Christopher Lloyd (the late owner of the famed British garden and home Great Dixter) said he thought they could be “funereal” (on this point, Lloyd and I do not agree). ‘David Howard’ is an excellent example and of all the dahlias I’ve grown it produces the most flowers year after year. This year I’ll be adding a red-flowered, dark foliage dahlia called ‘HS Flame’, which also has the single petals that pollinators appreciate and looks just a little less fussy than some dahlias. I’ll be devoting a section of the circle garden to this dahlia.
Last year I also grew a dark-leaved one called ‘Roxy’ which was a good performer in a pot for me. All three of these last dahlias I’ve mentioned have the benefit of being lower growing, so in many cases do not require staking, although ‘David Howard’ always grows taller than it should for me and flops by the end of summer.
I have an affinity for ball-shaped dahlias as well. There is something so orderly and almost unnatural about the shape of them that I find captivating. By far the best of these that I grew last year was ‘Crichton Honey’, which again varied in color (on the same flower, no less) from yellow to salmon to orange with a bright green center. I also like the tiny pom dahlias, although I’ve not had good luck with these and for some reason the slugs in my garden attack these over all others. I think that’s a coincidence more than anything, but it’s a shame because I think a pom dahlia thrown in a bouquet of more natural-shaped flowers is a lovely thing.
Gallery dahlias are fabulous because they are the lowest growing of the dahlias and are perfect for the front of a bed or a container and will never need staking (hallelujah). Sometimes, though, I find them almost too compact, without a lot of room for them to really show off their flowers. Such problems. Their color and form is somewhat limited as well. ‘Art Deco’ is a lovely deep salmon color. A few years ago I got a mixed bag of unknown gallery dahlias and there was one spectacular one that I didn’t know the name of at the time. I now believe it was ‘Pablo’ and it was outstanding.
|‘Serkan’ Longfield Gardens photo|
As I said, I’m far to undisciplined of a gardener to stick to just a few varieties of dahlias and this year I’ll be growing a few new ones. First is ‘Serkan’, a blue-purple waterlily variety that will also go in the circle garden. The waterlily dahlias are so unusual compared to other varieties and there’s something graceful about them. I think the flower shape is a good juxtaposition with a lot of other flower forms that may be growing near it.
|‘Myrtles Folly’ Longfield Gardens photo|
|‘Nuit d’Ete’ Longfield Gardens photo|
If there was ever a flower to go a little wild with, it’s dahlias and that’s what led me to these next two varieties; they are just a little nutty. The first is ‘Myrtles Folly’, a big, almost fuzzy looking flower with split petals and bright colors. And the second is ‘Nuit d’Ete’, which is said to be one of the darkest dahlias and the cactus form is always interesting. I’m thinking I may grow them together, as dark flowers are no use if you don’t have something near them to set them off so they don’t get lost in the background.
Dahlias will keep blooming if you are good about deadheading them. Here’s some information on how to do that.
Now, onto the fun part. I want to prove to you that:
- Dahlias are easy to grow,
- Everyone should grow some, and
- Once you grow them you’ll fall in love with them too.
|Longfield’s Summer Wine mix|
|Longfield’s Sugar Plum mix|
Longfield Gardens has offered to give TWO lucky readers one of their dahlia collections. I picked out two that I thought were fantastic: their Summer Wine mix and a Sugar Plum mix. Right now most of their dahlias are on sale so if you haven’t ordered yet, make sure you do before they are sold out!
Longfield Gardens has offered to give away two dahlia collections to The Impatient Gardener readers and has offered me a few dahlia varieties to try free of charge. All opinions are my own.