Monday, November 14, 2011

Over-wintering dahlias, the extreme edition

My standard regimen is to treat dahlias like high-style annuals.  At the end of the growing season, I cut down their foliage, fork up the tubers, and toss the whole vegetative mess away.  However, over past few years, I've accidentally left a piece of tuber buried over the winter.  I never realize my oversight until the following spring, when a lush green sprout cuts through the soil about a month earlier than any of the newly planted dahlias.  That headstart pays off big in terms of bloom duration and plant vigor.

This summer, it was a nubbin of Normandy Painted Pearl that made the seasonal leap--a happy achievement since I had been unable to locate that variety among dahlia nurseries.

So this got me to thinking: As satisfying as it may be, why rely on mistakes and carelessness for serendipitous garden success? Why not be intentional?  Yes, this is a Zone 6 New England garden and dahlias may be tender perennials, but they have demonstrated that they can spend a chilly winter safely nestled next to a south-facing foundation wall.

With the goal of volitional gardening in mind (and having been unsuccessful with conventional winter storage), I've undertaken the extreme edition of dahlia over-wintering.  Following our first hard frost (and pre-season bizzard) last month, I allowed the foliage to wilt, brown, and start to harden off.  After two weeks, I cut each plant down.

The lowest part of  the stalks was still succulent.  Just to mark the location of each plant and to ensure proper stake placement next spring, I substituted the orthopedic metal stakes that these heavy plants require for support with a lighter variety.

At this point, I tried to simply recreate my previous haphazard technique by digging down to expose the clump of tubers. With clippers, I cut off each stalk where it ended. Those plump, juicy tubers looked good enough to eat!

The final step was simply back-filling each hole and mulching the row of plants with shredded maple leaves. Hopefully, this covering will be the extra little blanket that keeps the tubers snug during the winter snows.

The dahlia varieties are, from left to right, Pattycake, Arabian Nights, and Normandy Painted Pearl. Except for the minimal effort expended by running over the leaves twice with the lawn mower, I think that this over-wintering approach serves my intention to enjoy being a lazy and lackidasical gardener.  Not that that takes much effort!

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