How to care for dahlias in Southeast gardens

How to care for dahlias in Southeast gardens

Throughout the Southeast, summer heat and sun take their toll on garden flowers, leaving them spent and exhausted. By August, gardeners are in a vulnerable state, searching for something with vitality and color.

Little wonder that they fall under the spell of ravishingly beautiful dahlias. It’s easy to become smitten by dahlias’ vivacious, perky profile, those fresh-faced beauties full of vigor and exquisite coloring.

Dahlias move into the garden spotlight when little else is flowering. After spring planting, dahlias produce their first blooms in May on bushy upright plants rising from 4 to 7 feet. Waves of flowers flourish from summer through fall, ending with the first frost.

Selecting which dahlias to grow can be daunting. There are 30 species and literally thousands of hybrid cultivars. The American Dahlia Society has categorized them by flower size (1 to 10 inches); by color; and by flower shape (round or spiky, multiple petals).

Some dahlias resemble other flowers like the anemone, cactus flower, orchid, peony and water lily. No two are quite alike.

“Inspired by the beauty, strength and grace of Charleston” is the motto of highly rated Tiger Lilly Florist located in the historic South Carolina city. It could also be a description of how their clients feel about dahlias.

“People ask for them because they love them,” says general manager Lisa Jackson. “Dahlias are beautiful, but very seasonal — they’re just not as available as other flowers. Brides want them, especially in the fall. We use them in arrangements and even bouquets — they work well with various color schemes.”

Five months of flowering dahlias may be considered seasonal in the florist profession, but to a casual gardener, it may be the closest thing to heaven. Best of all, the more you cut, the more dahlias bloom — continually, energetically and unconditionally.

Be sure to cut in the early morning or evening, selecting flowers that are two-thirds open. Then condition-cut dahlias by dipping stems into 2 inches of boiling water for a few seconds then place in cold water.

To grow your own dahlias, the requirements are few and easily fulfilled: morning sun, shaded from intense afternoon rays and regular watering with good drainage. You’ll need to tie the main stems of tall dahlias to a stake as they grow, and frequently trim, either to enjoy the flowers indoors or to remove spent flowers after they bloom.

In addition to the tuberous dahlias, there are also dahlias grown from seed to produce 18- to 24-inch tall bedding plants. At highly rated Grass Root Gardens in Waynesville, N.C., co-owner Brian Artley propagates these plants each year for sale.

“They’re pretty easy plants for us to grow and come in mixed colors of oranges and reds,” he says. “Slugs can be a problem in wet weather, which we haven’t had much of. And you can get a few aphids on them, but that’s about it.”

If you can grow tomatoes, you can successfully grow dahlias. So you have nothing to lose — except your heart to these exuberant and dramatic beauties.