Dishing on dahlias



This is the only picture I could find of my April-planted dahlia, Elise.

Scanning the New York Times this morning, looking for something to mock (just kidding!), I noticed this advice in the Q&A column.

The conventional wisdom is to plant dahlias on the estimated final frost date in your area—the same time that gardeners usually put out tomato seedlings.

And then writer Stephen Orr cited even more conservative dahlia wisdom from Frances Palmer, who thinks it’s even safer to wait until after the last frost date (whenever that might be), so that smaller tubers do not rot underground. This is all sensible advice that in the past I have always followed, sometimes first starting the tubers inside so that I would have flowers before September.

But last year I consulted another expert, my fellow ranter Michele, who suggested I plant my dahlia tubers deeper underground (6 inches) in APRIL, which, I need hardly say, is well before the last frost date in Buffalo. (Michele got this idea from an Eleanor Perenyi book.) And, you know what? I did it, figuring that with my miserable dahlia history, I had nothing to lose.

Reader, it worked. The little orange dahlia I planted in April was the only one to produce for me last summer, and this year I’m trying again. It was in a south-facing protected bed with a low brick enclosure around it. Last summer, I planted another dahlia tuber, one that I had started inside, after the frost date. Its spindly stalks pouted for 2 months, and then died.

And here’s some advice from another friend and expert, Mary Ann/Idaho Gardener, who pots her dahlias up in black plastic and leaves them in a sunny spot outside until they are advanced enough to plant them where she wants them. Like Palmer, she is concerned about the tubers getting too much moisture underground.

This year I plan to try both Michele’s and Mary Ann’s strategies. I’ll never have great success with dahlias—not enough sun and heavy soil—but they’re so lovely, I must continue. Tomorrow, I’ll be planting dahlias. Zone 5ers, your milage may vary!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Well I’m in balmy zone 7b and we can leave dahlia tubers outside all year – BUT – the voles love them and it doesn’t get cold enough for the varmits to hibernate so there is no hope unless you dig your tubers and store them in the garage over the winter.

  2. Beautiful! I will follow this discussion with much interest. Dahlias make me crazy. And they thrill me. I love them, but so do my deer (there’s another love-hate relationship in my life). And now I learn that the voles love them too. Damn. Hard plant to love. I’m not giving up.

  3. I planted my first dahlia tuber deep and left it in the ground over the winter since I saw no sign of my neighbors digging the huge dahlia that grow every year along the edges of their vegetable gardens. It is on a slope in well drained soil close to the poisonous daffodil bulbs so hopefully the voles didn’t find it and the cold wet winter didn’t kill it. We’ll see.

  4. I’ve been considering dahlia for a few years, but I did not know about the rot factor. Though the temperatures here are ideal, I assume the high moisture (hard rains bring canoes down the street – I’m not joking), would kill them? Shell ginger is blooming, the bougainvillea is more red than green, and a little spindly fern bought at last Fall’s Garden Show has five foot fronds. Those dinner plate size dahlia really appeal; wouldn’t they look great in among those ferns?

  5. Dahlias are so under-rated, it’s ridiculous.

    They are fantastic not just in a flower bed, but also in the vegetable garden. My idea of a super-stylish bouquet is the maroon and white ‘Mystery Day’ plus purple-leaved basil.

  6. I put them in pots in my garage in mid-April, and let them pre-sprout a bit that way (or in my mudroom off the back door). By the way, I had to laugh when I saw Away to Garden in your blogroll, as in “she ran away to garden,” which I did. It’s A Way to Garden (as in my own nutjob method or way to garden) but your version makes me smile. Happens a lot.

  7. One of my happiest gardening days was when I realized that with my mild climate and sandy soil, I can leave dahlias in the ground year-round. I’d been avoiding them until them because I knew I’d never remember to get them dug up and replanted year after year. Now the only problem I have is that I go into brain lock whenever I look at a catalog–there are just too many beautiful ones and I can’t seem to choose!

  8. I have no problem with treating anything like this that has to be overwintered as an annual. I am happy if I get a good blooming season–don’t need to keep them from year to year, or, at least, I am not heartbroken if I fail to.

  9. Well this is very good to know. I knew they over-wintered in some areas, and I am definitely one to push the limits, so when my dahlias arrive next week I think I will go ahead and plant them. If we get a late frost in May, I’ll just cover whatever foliage is exposed. Thanks for the tip!

  10. This is very interesting. We have spotty results leaving the dahlias in the ground here in zone 7a. This year I planted 5 different ones in a very large pot, starting them in the greenhouse. Will move the pot outside May 1, when the weather should remain warm. After the first frost knocks them down this fall, they will go into the garage to dry up and hopefully be ready to go into the greenhouse next spring to start all over again. Like you, if they are just annuals that is fine, but I want some flowers out of them.

  11. This is great news. I got my dahlias to overwinter beautifully in the basement so I have tubers to spare. I’m a little nervous about April, but with your story I plan to put them in the ground on May Day. They are starting to sprout already.

  12. I found some tubers for sale in a local grocery store this year so when hubby wasn’t looking I grabbed all 5 varieties they offered I planted them in terra cotta pots and placed them outside. They have all sprouted magnificently 2 have already bloomed and the other 3 are sporting buds ready to bloom as I can see that they will be large plants I’ve been trying to decide where to plant them in the yard I just have to show off those huge beautiful flowers!

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