Happy New Year! Hard to believe that it’s time to kick off a new season, but here we are. As I write this the weather has turned, the days are shortened and I am in serious hibernation mode. But there are still dahlias to divide, bulbs to plant, fields to clean, and countless other chores to get done before the rush of spring.
Taking stock of our tubers this last fall gave me pause and made me think that a little refresher/insight into our processes with dahlias might be a great way to start the new year. Our dahlia sales have become our single biggest crop for revenue. Over the course of the last 4 or 5 years we’ve expanded our collection to include just a bit over 100 varieties, and over 20,000 plants on about 2 acres for the 2021 season. We grow our dahlias a bit differently than is traditionally thought of as the “right” way to grow, but it’s the right way for us! During those years we’ve also done extensive trialing of different varieties to ensure that we are growing the best, longest-lasting, most desirable blooms for our customers.
When looking at such a diverse crop, as far as variety goes, it’s really important to identify your market and thus what the best options are for your farm. I’m including some variety names below as options if you’re looking for solid, readily available ones to add to your lineup.
If you sell exclusively at farmers’ markets, or other consumer-driven markets (like grocery), bright, long-lasting blooms are going to be a great fit. Balls, poms, and some formals are top of our list for markets and grocery—bright colors and plenty of variety is the name of the game in our markets. Some that we really like are ‘Cornel Bronze’, ‘Ivanetti’, ‘Audrey Grace’, ‘Pink Sylvia’, ‘Hillcrest Suffusion’, ‘Maarn’, ‘Red Fox’, ‘Purple Fox’, and ‘Sweet Love’. All these dahlias have high productivity, long stems, and great vase life.
Are you aiming at the wedding/event designer? Maybe a more subtle approach in colors is appropriate (although we have seen an increase in demand for colors here, yay!). Blush, white, cream, pink, burgundy, you know the deal—these are always in demand for the event crowd. We love ball and pom dahlias for their longevity, but in event application there’s more demand for softer shapes and petals, and longevity isn’t always as important. Hence the constant demand for ‘Café au Lait’ and her diva sisters in the dinnerplate category. Some other great options in this color realm are ‘Sweet Natalie’, ‘Silver Years’, ‘Wizard of Oz’, ‘Ryecroft Jan’, ‘L’Ancresse’, ‘Small World’, ‘Jowey Mirella’, ‘Karma Chocolate’, and ‘Sierra Glow’.
The largest portion of our dahlia sales comes through our florist sales, which may be for events, but are also dailies and brick and mortar shops. Again, we lean heavily on the ball and formal varieties, as they consistently give us the highest-quality, longest-lasting blooms that keep our customers coming back week after week. Some of our favs are ‘Jowey Winnie’, ‘Peaches n Cream’ (or just Peaches if you will), ‘American Dawn’, ‘Daisy Duke’, ‘Doris Duke’, and ‘Linda’s Baby’.
So, you’re all set with what you are going to grow for your market. Now you’ll need to decide how you’ll plant them. If you’ve grown dahlias before you’re aware that the tubers aren’t hardy in all climates, and generally speaking, will need to be dug and stored to ensure that they survive the winter. If you are in a climate that allows for it, you can try overwintering. We dig and divide dahlias every year. In our climate (zone 8b), we are able to overwinter most years with no problems. However, there are always those years that are out of the norm and we’ve learned that lesson the hard way. In the 20+ years we’ve been growing dahlias we’ve lost substantial amounts of tubers twice, like more than 50%, so now we hedge our bets by digging and storing at least a good portion every year. Be aware that even in climates that allow for successful overwintering other factors may hinder your success. Dahlia tubers will rot in excessively wet soils, so make sure that your dahlia beds are well drained when prepping them in the spring. Another issue that we encounter in our overwintered tubers is rodent damage. Turns out that the cozy spaces that we create for our tubers to overwinter also lend themselves to lovely homes for rodents, who won’t say no to a free tuber snack in the deep dark winter.
In our mild climate we start planting in the field in March, and usually have field blooms by the middle of June, making our season about 4 months long. We also grow a select variety in high tunnels to give us even earlier blooms, by the first of June to hit that first wedding and event window of the summer. I would encourage you to watch that last freeze date in your region and experiment with planting some tubers early to see if you can push the window of harvest too.
If you’ve ever bought tubers you’ll know that many come as single tubers, and some places (mostly importers) sell clumps. We almost exclusively grow clumps in our fields. Over many years of trial and error clumps have proven to give us earlier blooms, higher yields, and more plant stability, meaning that we don’t stake our field-grown dahlias (we also don’t experience very much wind in our location). Our dahlias are planted 2 across a 2’ bed, about 16-18” on center, with a line of drip down the center. We plant with an all-purpose organic fertilizer (after studying our soil tests and amending for pH as needed), use a single line of 8” spaced drip tape on each bed, and lay 2-foot paths with weed barrier. And then we just start raking in the money.
Just kidding. We do a foliar feed on our dahlias every 3-4 weeks during the growing season, and cut them 4-5 days a week in the height of the season.
All in all, dahlias are a pretty forgiving crop. Give them plenty of sun, water, and attentive fertilization and they will thrive. For us, here in the PNW, our single biggest struggle is with insects, the top two being thrips and cucumber or coreopsis beetles. Some great information on thrips is buried deep in the old Bulletin Board in the Members Only section of the ASCFG website (which is freshly renewed and super great, check it out if you haven’t already!). We use a combination of strategically-timed applications of spinosad and beneficial insects (our top being Orius, minute pirate bugs). So much of the information that we’ve used to hone our dahlia growing was mined from past ASCFG conferences, other growers, and the Bulletin Board—I recommend spending some time this winter scouring those resources!
That brings us to harvest and sales. There are lots of different opinions when it comes to the best way to get the best blooms out of your dahlias. Many people pinch their plants to encourage multiple stems. Since we plant clumps, we are already getting multiple stems per plant, so we don’t spend the time to pinch. Instead, we cut the first blooms deep to encourage good side growth, without sacrificing that first flower. Now, this works for us because our season is long enough to ensure plenty of time for the plant to recover and come back even stronger. If you have a short season, or other factors (like extreme heat), you’ll want to experiment with different pinching options to see what works best for you.
Once we start harvesting in earnest, we cut dahlias pretty much every day of the week. Our markets use dahlias in bunch sizes of 5-stem and 10-stem, although we prefer 10-stem bunches. While a nice long stem is important, don’t discount interest in shorter stems if you have a market for them.
The single most important aspect of dahlia harvest is ensuring the proper stage of bloom at harvest. Each dahlia is slightly different, but on a 1-5 stage scale, with 1 being budded showing color, and 5 being fully open, we aim to harvest at stage 2-3 for all of our dahlias. The past two years we’ve been a part of a controlled dahlia trial through one of our markets, and there have been extensive data compiled about the majority of the dahlias that our growers produce, including best stage of harvest, vase life, and overall suitability for cuts. All the varieties I’ve listed above scored high in the rankings and are considered to be premium options for cut flower growers.
There is so much discussion about price points for dahlias so I’m just going to put it out there here—it is not a one price fits all crop. Here in the PNW dahlias grow really well, there are a LOT of dahlia growers and the price points reflect that. In the Midwest or South, that may not be the case and the price commanded will be higher (I hope!). I hear of people selling dahlias for $3-6/stem and that is awesome! Here, the average price is closer to $1-3/stem. It’s also worth keeping in mind that larger sales command a slightly lower price. So our price to florists and designers is slightly higher than when we sell through grocery, where we may be moving 500-1000 bunches a week.
Finding the sweet spot for pricing will take a bit of work on your part. Keep good records on input, tubers, fertilizer, and LABOR, in order to see a baseline cost for you, then compare to the going rates in your area by connecting with other growers, obtaining the price list of your closest wholesalers, and utilizing the price lists in the Members Only section of the ASCFG website. Once you have established pricing, consider contributing input to that price list, which is purely shaped by the self-reporting of our members. The more we all contribute, the more relevant a resource it becomes.
That’s all for the time being. If you have questions about how we grow dahlias, feel free to reach out while the winter season has me inside near the computer. Once spring hits, I’ll be out there digging holes and planting. Can’t wait! Here’s to a healthy, happy, and beautiful 2022 season!