The dahlia (Compositae family) can be grown from seed as an annual or grown from tubers as a perennial. Native to Mexico and Guatemala, dahlias now thrive throughout the USDA zones except for zones 1 and 2, where the growing season is just too short. By late summer, many of the flowers in the garden have been reduced to seedpods or stubble, just the time dahlia flowers burst into nearly all the colours of the rainbow.
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Dahlias can grow in a variety of soils, but do best in soil that is friable and well drained, but loamy enough to retain some moisture. Add organic material to the planting holes, such as aged compost, leaf mould and well rotted manure to increase fertility and moisture retention. If the soil is a compacted clay type, add some builder's sand to increase drainage.
Dahlias from Tubers
Plant tubers outside in the spring when the soil has warmed up. In most parts of America, May and June are prime months for planting dahlia tubers. Make the hole about 5 inches deep and wide enough to place the tuber in a horizontal position, never placing it on end. If the soil is dry at the time of planting, water it well and then fill in the hole with friable, loamy soil.
Dahlias from Seed
Small dahlias can be grown as annuals in one season from seed. Plant the seed a few weeks after the local frost date. Put four or five seeds in 1" holes spaced 1 foot apart, and cover with soil. Keep them watered. When the seed germinates, thin to leave only the most vigorous seedling. The best of these seed-started dahlias can be dug in the fall after blooming, and their tubers saved for the following spring planting.
Snipping and Staking
One main stem will form on the dahlia plant and offer the best quality of flowers. Any additional sprouts from the soil level should be nipped off. Some gardeners also pinch out the top of the plant when it is young, allowing three or four stalks to develop from the main stem. Others prefer to let the dahlia grow and branch naturally. On taller varieties, the main stem should be tied loosely with a soft but strong string attached tightly to a firmly planted garden stake. As the dahlia grows, tying is necessary at about every 18 inches of height to keep it from toppling over.
Mulching and Feeding
Mulching dahlia flowers keeps an even temperature at the root zone by preventing the top of the soil from baking in the hot sun of late summer. Mulch with 3 inches of any decomposed organic material after a deep watering to hold in moisture. Once buds are set, add well-rotted cow manure around the plant for added nutrients, again watering well.
After the first heavy frost, cut the tops off to 2 inches above ground level and loosen the dirt around and under the dahlia plants. Lift the tuber clump gently from the soil without breaking any tubers. Broken tubers should be thrown away. Let the tubers dry in the air for a couple days. Then, leaving in place any dried soil attached to the root, store the dried tubers in boxes layered with dry sand in a cool but frostproof area, sheltered from rain. Begin the planting process again in the spring!
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