19 January 2011

Fabulous but forgotten

This post is part of a group blogging project on great old fashioned plants... see links to the other amazing contributions at the bottom of the page.

When I was in Buffalo last summer, we visited a public trial gardens. They had planted out all sorts of the newest, latest, greatest, and most exciting new varieties of annuals and perennials. And then there was a row of Dahlias. Big, impossibly lovely dahlias.
As people leaned in for photos we chatted with the director of the gardens, and he said the dahlias weren't actually part of the trial. He'd just had some extra space, so he stopped at the local big box store, grabbed some random dahlia tubers and put them in to fill the spot.
And they were totally stealing the show – and not just with us, he said everyone who visited commented on them.
Let me repeat that: all the newest, most exciting, hot-off-the-press varieties couldn't hold a candle to a handful of random, no-name dahlias.
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 Sometimes really great, slightly old-fashioned plants get lost in the flurry of everything that is exciting and new. New is great – I love new plants (and like making new plants) but I think it is time we took another look at dahlias.
photo credit
Quickly, let me run down why dahlias are so freaking awesome.
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You can get them just about anyway you want them: Tall plants, short plants, tiny flowers obnoxiously huge flowers, doubles, singles, simple, frilly, reds, yellows, pinks, mauve, purplish, basically any color at all except blue. They bloom all summer, have not serious pest problems, and some even have lovely dark purple-red foliage. They look great in the garden, and they are spectacular as cut flowers.
Perhaps my favorite thing about them is: Winter doesn't matter. Winter is a total non-issue. With so many of my plants, I go to great lengths, tucking them into sheltered nooks, building raised beds to give them perfect drainage, I cover them, fret if there isn't enough snow. With Dahlias, I wait until frost, then grab a garden fork, pop them out of the ground, let them dry a day or two, wrap them in dry newspaper, shove them in a bag, and dump them in the basement. It is practically effortless, and no matter what Old Man Winter throws as me, I know they're fine. And even if that tiny bit of work seems like too much, they're cheap enough you can just let them freeze and treat them like annuals.

See other posts on great old-fashioned plants:
From the fabulous Frances
the excellent Ryan Miller (whose idea this was!)
And the remarkable Matt Mattus


allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Treating Dahlias like annuals is the easier route to follow. Unfortunately, each bulb is expensive. Do you know something about purchasing dahlias at reasonable prices that I have overlooked?

Anonymous said...

Hi Joseph, what a great story! I was there with you in Buffalo but didn't realize those Dahlias were not part of the new introductions! The tubers are seen at the big box stores every spring. This year, they are coming home with me!

Thanks so much for inviting me in this group blog effort!

Unknown said...

"let me run down why dahlias are so freaking awesome" lines like this is why people love your blog Joseph!

Although I love all the specialty nurseries we have here in Oregon, I have some much treasured plants that I pick up at grocery stores and hardware stores. I thought my Gladiolus acidanthera from my local farmer's market was kinda special, but just last week I saw a bag of 30 bulbs for $8 at Home Depot and happily snatched them up.

I'm so happy with the way our group post turned out, everybody had a very different take. I hope lots of other folks join in!

Joseph said...

The extremely cool varieties from specialty nurseries can be a bit pricey, but generic bags of mixed (but still delightful)varieties that show up at the grocery store are pretty inexpensive (at least that's what I remember?) and a great way to get hooked on these plants.

Thanks for the compliment Ryan, and thanks for a great idea!

Liz said...

Now I feel out of the loop that I have so little Dahlia knowledge. I think I will plant them next year.

Alison said...

I'm so pleased that you did a post on Dahlias, they are one of my all-time favorite flowers/plants! I grow them every year from seed, rather than digging them. They don't always look like the parent plant, but that's ok, because they are almost always stunning no matter what. The seeds are even cheaper than a bag of bulbs from the big box store.

I love old-fashioned plants (well, except for roses), so I'm off to check out the other posts.

Unknown said...


I was really hoping one of us would cover roses in one of these posts. I hate all the ones in my yard, but I've seen some species roses out there that look great and are trouble free. Rosa sinensis and Rosa mutabilis come to mind.

Joseph said...

I love growing them from seed too! It is so much fun to see all the variation that you can get. Doing that makes you a plant breeder you know... creating new varieties of dahlias just for your garden.

Nic said...

I love dahlias, though I generally do not have much luck overwintering them, probably because my family's basement is too warm in winter. My aunt in Germany has a very cool, old-fashioned cellar where she overwinters hers and she has a huge collection of dozens of varieties that takes up a whole border running along the length of her property.

Tom said...

I love Dahlias. They give you so much bang for your buck. When I was at my internship at Longwood Gardens we hosted the national dahlia society's annual meeting so I got to see thousands of the most amazing Dahlias around. I've been hooked ever since!

scottweberpdx said...

Nice post! I'm still looking for a Dahlia for my garden, there's something about them I just find unsettling...but I can't put my finger on it. Perhaps it's that so many are the size of dinner plates in colors so fierce it's like my eyes are getting scratched out :-) I know there are some subtler colors in singles out there...I just need to get off my butt and find them. I really like the foliage on the varieties with dark foliage, but not their flowers. Although, I sort of have the same feelings towards Hibiscus with dark foliage (well, ok, with Hibiscus in general). Do you have any recommendations?

Commonweeder said...

I love dahlias, but I have just given myself permission to treat them like annuals. I can't take care of them properly over the winter. I didn't realize those dahlias weren't part of the trial either.

Anonymous said...

The Grumpy Gardener has replied to your comment:
What say you?

Pond Pumps said...

Yes it is very true that nowadays people have forgotten the beauty and importance of nature. Gardening is really beautiful hobby to maintain and follow as it gives content to heart and peace to the mind. Those pictures are really beautiful.

Kylee Baumle said...

That's it. I'm growing dahlias again this year. I've grown them several times and tried saving them, but they molded on me. I didn't have any last year. Still, they're cheap enough, what a great annual! Yep, gonna get me some dahlias this year!

Layanee said...

I am thinking of embracing the dahlia this summer. Thinking of it....

Dahlia Tubers said...

You're right! Dahlias are freaking awesome. Despite the fragile-looking beauties of dahlias, it's funny that they can be stored inside the basement just wrapped with newspapers.