Time to send dahlias to their winter homes

I didn’t expect to fall in love with dahlias. After all, I like easy, no-muss perennial flowers. And textural shrubs. And native plants. Not a tuber from Mexico. But I have become a fan of dahlias, in all their multivalent colorful variety. They are the later season sugary stars of the garden, with many well-suited for cut-flower arrangements. The range is phenomenal: white, yellow, orange, red, purple, variegated; cactus-flowered, single, dinner plate, peony-flowered, double, ball, pom-pom, water-lily and fimbriated; tall, short, dark-leaved, bright-leaved.

All told, growing dahlias is fairly easy. They don’t tend to attract many pests and are rather disease-free, though Japanese beetles like them sometimes and slugs and snails can put in an appearance on occasion. I plant my dahlia tubers in the spring, after all danger of frost, when the ground is warming up. When I am efficient, in the early spring I start them in pots in the greenhouse to get a head-start on the growing season. And then they are on their own, with regular watering in dry spells and maybe a bit of extra compost or fertilizer when they start blooming. July through October I can plan on colorful dahlias.

Growing dahlias is easy, but tending to the tubers in our climate is where one must pay for a dahlia fixation. The tubers will not overwinter here if they are left in the ground. So out of the ground and into winter storage they must go. Just when I am less than enthusiastic about tending to plants—and rather singleminded of purpose to put all the various gardens to bed for the winter—here are dahlias asking for attention.

Here’s my lazy way of dealing with dahlia tubers. It still takes some time, but I’ve learned to minimize the time involved because in the fall I am busy with so many other tasks. Because I want to remember which color is which, I do use a Sharpie marker to write a description on a strip of flagging tape that I wrap around the base of the stem of each plant. I dig out each plant carefully using a fork to loosen the soil around the base. I dry the clumps of tubers, with the stems cut off to about two inches, for a few days in the sun.

It is rather magical how the single tuber that went into the ground in late May becomes a cluster of five, six, ten, twenty sweet-potato-shaped tubers. Each one of those tubers, when properly cut off from the stem, can become a grand plant the next season. But lately I have not been inclined to take on this task until a day deep in winter when I begin to dream of dahlia explosions again. So once my clumps of tubers are dry, I put them in a fish tray and loosely pack them in pine shavings (something I have on hand for the chicken coop, though peat moss works well for this task also), so they are completely covered. I try to keep the clumps from touching so that if there is any rot on one it will not affect the others. Then I shove the tray under the benches in my greenhouse to wait out the winter. I keep the greenhouse cool, but above freezing. A garage or cellar would work as well. They just need to be kept above freezing.

Cutting the individual tubers apart is a task for another day, a winter’s day.
—Anne Cox

PHOTOS: Anne Cox

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