Versatile dahlias can add color, texture to late-summer gardens

08/09/2014 7:00 AM

08/09/2014 6:12 PM

Kansas City gardens are awash in showy, vibrant blooms from late summer until the first frost of fall. You can get that look at your house with dahlias.

Dahlias are tuberous, herbaceous plants that are related to garden favorites like zinnias, sunflowers and daisies. With the same needs as cannas and elephant ears, they can add color and texture to your late-summer garden.

Hundreds of dahlias will grow in the Kansas City area, and they are available in red, orange, yellow, white and purple.

Local nurseries sell dahlias as tubers or started in pots, ready for you to plug into the garden. Many reputable websites and local sources offer tubers directly, ready for spring planting.

The American Dahlia Society has 20 classifications for these amazing flowers. Using these forms, you can choose different plant heights and colors. This is a great jumping-off point to pick the bloom that best fits your personal garden style or favorite color.

Dinner plate dahlias are a taller, decorative variety that can be planted behind medium-size perennials like Russian sage or echinacea. Distinctive forms like the collarettes have a sweet look and might do best mixed in a cottage-style border. There is no limit to the creativity dahlias can inspire.

Greater Kansas City Dahlia Society president Norma Mason of Valley Falls, Kan., was immediately drawn to the smaller varieties. This year her newest variety is Irish Glow.

“When I first started growing dahlias my favorite ones were the poms, which have a tiny little bloom.” For Mason, smaller was better because “you got so many blooms off of one bush.”

Most gardeners get hooked on dahlias with a handful of tubers given to them by a friend or loved one. Bernard Lohkamp of Grandview started off in 1998 with plants that his brother sent him. When those died, a neighbor told him to dig some up from his yard and give dahlias another try.

Lohkamp found success on the second attempt and his brother encouraged him to contact the Greater Kansas City Dahlia Society. “I attended their meetings and was hooked.” Now he is the judging chairman for the group’s shows as well as the organizer of the Dahlia Society Spring Tuber sale, where the public is invited to pick dahlia tubers to try at home.

A sense of community often arises when friends and fellow gardeners share favorite varieties and swap garden advice. Lohkamp recommends attending one of the three dahlia shows in late summer and picking out two or three varieties to try in your own garden next year.

Then in the spring, Lohkamp says, “start out small, with 4 or 5 plants, and then as you get to understanding the dahlias a little bit more and get more knowledge of them, then you can expand the varieties that you grow.”

Larry Boucher of Peculiar has been a member of the Kansas City Dahlia Society for 14 years. He grows dahlias on the east side of his house where they get much-needed full sun for a few hours and are shaded in the afternoon. He also recommends a little fall preparation for next year’s tubers.

“I would start with some manure and compost and stir that all in, let that settle over the winter, and it will be ready in the spring,” Boucher says. This allows for a slow release of naturally occurring and locally sourced nutrients to slowly seep into your garden. Natural fertilizers improve the soil structure as well as the health of your plants.

If you do the bed prep ahead of time, picking up a few tubers and planting them in the spring is an easy, five-minute job. Most people also hammer a plant stake in the ground to mark where the plants will come up so you won’t step on younger plants. It gives you something to tie them to later on, much like a tomato plant.

Also, much like the tomato, you can fertilize dahlias with all-purpose fertilizers throughout the summer at an average rate. If you talk with other growers, they might tell you their secret fertilizer recipes that make their dahlias a cut above the rest.

Winter storage

Similar to elephant ears and canna, dahlias must be dug up and stored in winter. Dahlia growers each have advice on how best to accomplish this, but there are a few constants. After a few good frosts in the late fall, dig the tubers and remove the top of the plant. Rinse them, dry overnight and then store the tubers in a plastic bag that allows a little air flow.

Boucher and fellow Dahlia Society member Bob Stevens think that great dahlia knowledge can be gained by getting connected with other gardeners and growing these lovely flowers yourself.

Stevens suggests that you “buddy up” with a fellow gardener who has some dahlia experience. “I’ve got a lot of people started. I’ve given away about 250 tubers this spring. Last spring I gave away about the same. It’s addicting. Growing dahlias is addicting,” he says.

A favorite of Monet

Dahlias are native to Mexico, Central America and Colombia and were important to the Aztecs as food and medicine. Even the plant’s hollow stems were used as tubes and straws.

The flowers have been a passion for gardeners since early European explorers first visited the Western hemisphere. Dahlias were so captivating that they were some of the first plants that those explorers shared with the gardens of Europe.

Dahlias were the favorite flower of Napoleon’s first wife, Princess Josephine. Claude Monet was also taken by their beauty and had dahlias planted around his gardens at Giverny, France. Their artistic influence can be seen in many of his paintings.

You can take creative inspiration from Monet or try your own winning combinations using dahlias. Smaller varieties can be enjoyed in a pot on a porch, but most forms prefer to be mingled with the other plants in the garden.

Change the mood

Dahlias come in different textures and colors, so there is no limit to their use in the perennial garden. You can use hot-colored cactus dahlias to crank up the drama of sweeping variegated grasses and spiky yuccas.

Dahlias also can be used to soften the mood by choosing collarette or orchid varieties with softer petal shapes and colors. White dahlias create a romantic feeling with roses and soft, purple catmint.

Dahlias even make a great cut flower that can be enjoyed indoors for as long as a week. Their saturated colors make them the focal point of a mixed flower arrangement. A single dahlia stem makes a bold statement in a rustic vase on the dinner table.

Local dahlia enthusiasts have lots of time to enjoy the season. The local dahlia society has shows coming at the Missouri State Fair, Powell Gardens and Loose Park to show off dahlias of all shapes, colors and sizes. Attending is a great way to spend some time appreciating excellence in horticulture, and you might even get bitten by the dahlia bug.

Local favorites

Plant dahlias next spring to enliven a fall garden. The following varieties are popular among members of the Greater Kansas City Dahlia Society.

Spartacus: This showy dahlia is definitely one that needs staking. It is also popular with gardeners, boasting blooms more than 9 inches across. The petals are reddish-black and velvety.

Kelvin Floodlight: This popular dinner plate dahlia is yellow, almost fluorescent, and will be the star of any garden.

Collarettes: This dahlia is sold in colorful mixes of quaint, cute pincushion flowers. Most of their faces look like there are two or three flowers stacked on top of one another. They are attractive in pots and garden borders.

Rebecca Lynn: These dahlias have a symmetric, deep rose flower. Since the bush only gets 3 feet tall, they can be grown toward the front of the flower bed. Rebecca Lynn also makes a good flower for arrangements.

Worton Blue Streak: This attractive purple plant is one of the semi-cactus forms of dahlias, where the petals are more pointed than round. Worton Blue Streak also makes a fantastic cut flower.

Harvey Koop: This variety is a little harder to find but is unusual looking, so the effort to get it is worth it. Since it is related to Spartacus, Harvey Koop also has very large flowers. The petals look like droplets of red paint were splattered in a bucket of yellow. This is definitely the flower for a wild, lively garden display.

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