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Saving Dahlias

Saving Dahlias

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Larry Sagers Horticultural Specialist Utah State University Extension Service Thanksgiving Point Office © All Rights Reserved

Fall always brings changeable weather in Utah. Some gardens were hit with the frost several weeks ago, others have been spared until recently and others might have some plants that are still alive. Regardless of the current state of certain plants in your garden, the time is now upon us to quit dallying over the dahlias in your garden. Now you are finished celebrating the Halloween holiday do not neglect the treasures still lurking underneath your garden.

Frost has killed the tops of the flowers along the Wasatch front, but the bottoms are still ok. The same might not be true in Cache Valley and other areas where the temperatures plummeted much lower. Spend some time as soon as possible and salvage the tubers are still underneath the soil.

If we classify the plants in our gardens, one common category is the summer bulbs. So you do not misunderstand, these plants are called summer bulbs because of when they bloom. These further are subdivided into tender summer bulbs that are dug and sorted inside over the winter and hardy summer bulbs that are left in the ground throughout the winter.

Although we refer to these plants as summer bulbs, very few of them are really bulbs. They are a mixed assortment of tubers, rhizomes, tuberous roots, corms and other growing structures. These fleshy structures are storage organs, and allow the plants to survive and produce beautiful flowers the following season.

The tender summer bulbs, include many different plants including the gladiolus discuss in last week’s tips, cannas, tuberous begonias, alstromerias, agapanthus, calla lilies, and caladiums. Giant elephant ears are also in this category.

Other summer flowering bulbs are cold hardy and need no particular care to survive the winter. Asiatic lilies, liatris, Japanese anemones, daylilies and peonies are summer bulbs that can stay in the ground year round because they will not winterkill.

As mentioned, frost already struck some gardens. Even if the frost destroyed tomatoes, squash and other plants, all is not lost. Only the coldest areas of Northern Utah have had temperatures low enough to freeze the soil. Even if the tops of the tender summer bulbs froze several weeks ago, the tender summer bulbs can still be salvaged.

Starts by carefully digging the plants. Use a digging fork because it gets under the clusters and lift them up without breaking them apart. Dig several inches back from the base of the plants so you do not damage the tubers. After loosening the soil on all sides of the plant, lifts the clump of roots and soil.

Carefully shake the soil from the clusters and handle the clusters gently to avoid cutting, breaking, or "skinning" the fleshy structures. Diseases enter through cuts and bruises very readily and can cause rotting and losses in storage.

After digging, leaves them in the garage or other frost-free area out of the weather for a few days. This helps prepare them for the winter storage.

Dahlias are somewhat temperamental to store and save. They will dry out, and if they do, they will not grow. Give them some extra care to keep them healthy over the winter. To store them successfully they must have a high humidity.

The preferred storage medium is dry peat moss. Start by putting a layer of peat moss in the bottom of the bucket. Then put the bulbs on top of the layer of peat moss. Cover those with more peat moss.

Put a jar of water in the top of the peat moss. During the winter, it evaporates and that keep the tubers from shriveling. This keeps them in prime condition so they will start to grow quickly after they are planted next spring.

Keep them cool and but keep the temperatures above freezing. An ideal storage temperature is between 40-50 degrees but they are not too fussy if the temperature do not get too far out of these ranges.

Store begonias the same way. Cannas are even easier to dig and store. After digging, store them in some large containers. I use some recycled tree pots but old garbage cans, crates or even large cardboard boxes work well if the cannas are not too moist.

Spend some time salvaging the summer bulbs in your garden. You can preserve choice varieties and start with robust, large starts next spring. It is an environmentally friendly way to save plants and you might even save some of the other precious green material in your wallet.

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