Dahlia dilem­mas

Are you plan­ning to lift your dahlias this win­ter, or take a chance and leave them in the ground? Tam­sin Westhorpe helps you to make the right de­ci­sion

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THANK­FULLY, we have all come to our senses and dahlias are firmly back in fash­ion. Why would a plant that pro­duces a rain­bow of colours from sum­mer to au­tumn ever be out of favour?

What puts many gar­den­ers off th­ese in­cred­i­ble plants is the thought of hav­ing to lift and store them over win­ter. If you aren’t a risk-taker, then lift­ing them is prob­a­bly wise. Your de­ci­sion should also be based on your soil type. If you live in the South of Eng­land and have a well-drained soil, then leav­ing them in the gar­den is fairly low risk.

If, like me, you have a heavy clay or a wa­ter­logged soil, you should con­sider stor­ing them un­der cover.

How to lift your tu­bers

Dahlias shouldn’t be lifted un­til the fo­liage has been black­ened by the frost. Once Jack Frost has hit, cut off the old flower stems to leave about 2in (5cm) of stem at the base. Be­fore lift­ing, make sure you have a sys­tem for la­belling your tu­bers – oth­er­wise, you won’t know what to put where when it comes to re­plant­ing them.

Use a gar­den fork rather than a spade. Care­fully lift the tu­bers and then re­move any ex­cess soil, but don’t be tempted to wash off the soil. At this point, you’d be wise to cut out any rot­ting tu­bers.

The next step is to dry the tu­bers – miss this step and your tu­bers are likely to rot. If you have only a few dahlias, make a wooden frame (like a large pic­ture frame), cover it with chicken wire and nail the wire in place. Sit the frame over the top of an old wheel­bar­row, place the tu­bers up­side down onto the wire, and wheel the bar­row into the sun­shine or sunny porch or any­where that’s dry.

The rea­son for plac­ing the tu­bers up­side down to dry is to al­low any wa­ter to drain out of the hol­low stems. The bar­row makes it easy to move your dahlias into a sunny spot or bring them in be­fore rain­fall. This frame can also be used in the sum­mer to dry your onions on the bar­row, as it al­lows air to cir­cu­late and speeds up the dry­ing process.

Where to over­win­ter

I am lucky enough to have a cel­lar that re­mains at a con­stant 6°C, so the dry tu­bers are placed here in old shal­low ap­ple crates. The roots are cov­ered with dry com­post (I use the old com­post from my sum­mer bed­ding con­tain­ers), mak­ing sure that the crowns are left ex­posed.

I then for­get about them un­til the spring, when they are ei­ther pot­ted up and put in the green­house to get go­ing early or planted out into the gar­den in May af­ter the last frost.

If you don’t have a cel­lar, then choose a dark, frost-free, dry place and make sure it’s free of ro­dents. Your gar­den shed might be dark but not nec­es­sar­ily frost-free, so on cold nights cover the dahlias with news­pa­per for an ex­tra layer of pro­tec­tion.

Leav­ing them out­side

If you grow your dahlias in a cut­ting gar­den in a row or block, and the soil is well drained, it’s easy to cover them with a mulch in­stead of lift­ing them. You’ll need to add a mulch of at least 21⁄4in (6cm) deep. In the past I have used Strulch (8 strulch.co.uk), which is a mulch made of chopped straw. When you have the odd dahlia in a mixed flower bed, it’s not so easy to mulch them.

Don’t make the mis­take of cut­ting your dahlias back once the flow­ers have faded and then leav­ing the mulching un­til later, as you’ll for­get where they are. I al­ways pop a short cane be­hind each plant to mark the spot.

One thing is for sure – what­ever you de­cide to do, dahlias are worth that lit­tle bit of ex­tra ef­fort.

Dig up dahlia tu­bers for stor­ing over win­ter once the fo­liage has been black­ened by frost

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