Dazzled by Dahlias

My friend and gardening client, Gayle Preiser, was a flamboyant woman who loved  drama in clothes, in home decor, and in her garden. She enjoyed cooking, and arranging flowers for her table when she gave a dinner party.

We’d planted a host of hydrangeas and a lavish number of lilies in her cutting garden, but Gayle wanted more variety. “We could try dahlias,” I told her, “but they won’t winter over in your garden and neither you nor I want to dig them and store them in the fall.”

Gayle studied the photos I brought her of dinner plate dahlias, the blossoms as large as 10″ across. “I want these!” she declared. I warned her that she might not get any bloom until August. “The hydrangeas and lilies will be finished by then,” she said. “Get me some dahlias!”

So I did. I ordered ten and had them shipped in April, so we could pot up the tubers to sprout them. When we planted Gayle’s summer flower beds and pots, we’d plant the started dahlias then too.

The tubers ordered from Old House Gardens and Brent & Becky’s Bulbs were varied in size and shape. We nestled them into soil-less potting mix in one gallon containers. After a few weeks on a sunny potting table, making sure they weren’t too wet or too dry, and didn’t freeze, the tubers sprouted.

By mid-May, they were sturdy enough to plant in Gayle’s garden though they didn’t look like much. We pounded a tall, stout bamboo stake into the ground next to each plant, which made Gayle laugh, because the dahlias were only a few inches tall.

But, once they’d rooted in the soil, plants started to shoot up. We tied them to the stakes every few weeks, so the plants could support the large blossoms without breaking. In August, bloom began and what blooms they were! Multiple buds yielded massive, heavily petalled flowers in jewel-like tones. Gayle cut impressive bouquets for her table and started e-mailing cut dahlia dispatches to all her friends. She was dazzled by her dahlias, and so was I!

That fall, we decided to take a chance and put a heavy mulch over the plants, after frost had killed the tops. The following April, once the weather settled, we removed the mulch. Six of the ten dahlias had survived the winter. Those six survivors made large, full plants over the course of the summer. Some of them started to bloom as early as June.

I had ordered ten dahlias for Gayle, just in case none survived the winter. We filled in her dahlia planting with four of them. The other six went into my garden. By August, Gayle and I were trading pictures of our cut flowers. She’d started me down the road of dahlia addiction and I have yet to recover.

Each spring I order a few more tubers to replace the weak plants that didn’t overwinter.

I’ve discovered some favorites. ‘Tsuki Yori No Shisha’ (Messenger From the Moon in English) looks like a shaggy white dog. ‘Dixie’s Winedot’ is a creamy yellow with red dots and dashes splashed across  the petals. ‘Mrs. Eileen’ sports a classic dahlia form, its blossoms a soft, glowing orange.

Last year I was not enthralled with my new Dahlia ‘Popular Guest’, because the flowers were a dull lavender. I was going to dig it out, but decided to give it one more year. It’s already in bloom and its cactus flowers are a vibrant pink, a perfect pairing with my new yellow-green Randy Selby vase. Glad I allowed ‘Popular Guest’ to live up to its name.

The older the plants are, the more floriferous, so if they winter over for a few years, you are assured of early flowers and numerous buds on a tall, fat plant. All that is required is a well-drained spot in full to part sun, a stout stake, and a heavy fall mulch of shredded bark.

My friend Gayle passed away unexpectedly early this year. I miss her. From time to time, I open her dahlia pictures on my phone and think of her, remembering the laughs we shared over some big, bright flowers on a perfect blue sky day in her garden.

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