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Food First, Dahlia Grab Bag Last

November 20, 2013

Frost is on the way again, so that meant I had to quit procrastinating and get my dahlia tubers lifted, washed, labeled and put away for winter.  This is a task I probably haven’t done in 15 years or more.  I used to grow way too many dahlias and glads, and unlike potatoes, you don’t eat the multipliers, you have to store them through the winter for the next years garden.  If you’re a dahlia seller, it’s worth the work and space you need to devote to the tubers over winter.  Dahlias can quickly get out of hand – see below.

too many dahlias - main garden 1982

too many dahlias – main garden 1982

May 2013 - dahlia tubers

May 2013 – dahlia tubers

I want more food than flowers, so proceeding with caution (warning:  dahlias are a lot like material, one more yard to add to the stash is a good thing, right?) this year, I bought a few dahlia bulbs just to add some larger flowers to the garden.  All my food chores in the garden are about done, except hilling the remaining root crops with soil, but before I do that I do need the plant tops to freeze back a little.  I found out the hard way that jumping the gun on that task made a nice area for voles to keep warm and eat my vegetables.

I only bought twenty tubers so this wasn’t really too big of job.  A spading fork is the only tool needed to loosen the soil and gently lift out the tuber clump.



Nothing gets done around here without the crew of vole hunters.  I didn’t see much hunting going on yesterday though, mostly just hanging out with the two-legged.  The dogs and cats steered clear while I hosed the soil off of the tuber clumps, but they quickly migrated back as soon as the hose was drained and put away.

I don't know!

I don’t know!

I purchased these tubers from a small farm on a whim, and they were neatly displayed for self-service in the farm house breezeway.  The farmer was spreading manure on her pasture when I stopped by, so I only had to write down my list and count the tubers and hand her the cash as she went rattling by with the tractor.

Most folks I know that grow dahlias casually, occasionally have mislabeled tubers.  It really makes no difference, and once you see the blooms you can make note for the following year if it matters to you.  She had some of my old favorites and some others that I wanted to try.   I wasn’t worried about each tuber not being marked, I liked them all, and could sort them out after the first blooming season when I lifted the tubers.

Somewhere during the summer as we were enjoying the dahlias in the garden and in bouquets, I misplaced that list.  I had every intention of marking those plants by name and the pressure was on as the weather turned cooler.  I finally found that list, but to my surprise after an internet search of dahlia images I discovered about half of the dahlias I bought weren’t the ones on the list.  I like them all, she sells cut flowers and that is what I wanted, dahlias with strong stems that will hold up to the rigors of bouquet making.  The internet is a wonderful thing, I could at least confirm some of the names of the dahlias, for the others I had to resort to dahlia lingo.  I have some that are marked like this: Purple, B FD, which means in dahlia speak – color, size and style, I have a clump of purple, 4″ – 6″ , formal decorative tubers.  Some have harried gardener lingo because I was late in finding the list, and the freeze destroyed the blooms and tweaked the colors.  These are marked IDK, I Don’t Know.

Ink In A Bottle marking pencil

Ink In A Bottle marking pencil

For marking the dahlia tubers before storage I like to use an indelible ink pencil.  This makes my job much easier come planting time.  The ink on the tuber will stay readable even through the next growing season, it’s that good.  And it’s also to remind me of my mistake, Nadine Jessie is the proper spelling.  I did this immediately after washing the tubers because the tuber needs to be damp for the ink to work.  If they are dry you can use a damp cloth or a spray bottle to wet a small area for writing.

At this point you can divide the clumps leaving an eye on each tuber or you can leave the clump.  I just store the clump and divide at planting time.


To take up less storage space I cut the stem just about the eyes and store the marked clumps in recycled plastic burlap weave feed bags.  Not the new fused plastic feed bags, the old style gives a little breather room, and also holds in moisture.  I gave up long ago packing tubers in vermiculite, perlite or sawdust.  I store the bags in the cellar to keep them from freezing, and I can monitor them for dryness.  If they start to look a little shriveled I tie the bag closed.  You don’t want too much humidity nor too little.  Part of our cellar has a dirt floor, and I have found that is the best place to store my dahlia bags.

If you’re a gardener, you know the saying next year all too well.  Next year I plan to mark my dahlias a little better and do more research on the varieties I have.  Of course, this research will have to be a field trip to the farm where I purchased these, and maybe I’ll get a few more  :)

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2013 9:21 am

    I remember when you bought them!
    Maybe you’re girly after all :-)

  2. November 20, 2013 9:25 am

    I would never have thought to write on my dahlias. Clever!

  3. Shannon Gene Templeton permalink
    November 20, 2013 9:46 am

    Nice to see you have a handy crew out there to help you with the project.

  4. November 20, 2013 12:47 pm

    I like the idea of that pen. I got my dahlias up a couple of weeks ago. The area most of them are planted can get quite wet in the winter, so I was lucky and got them out while the soil was still quite dry. I did split them up this Fall (first time ever), and labelled them with a marker and a piece of flagging tape tied to the clump. Between the soil being mostly dry, and then splitting the tubers, most of the soil fell off, so I didn’t wash them. Hopefully I’ll be able to sell some of them in the spring. Usually I struggle to divide them in the Spring, and not knock off the new shoots. We store them in the paper feed bags in the garage.
    I struggle with getting them all correctly labelled just like you, I always seem to mess up somewhere along the line, and I have a few IDKs:) The colours of the flowers fade out as their season gets to the end, and one year I thought I had a whole bunch of white ones, but when they came up in the Spring they were actually all pink.

    • November 20, 2013 6:22 pm

      That is so true about the spring dividing, the stems are dry and hard to cut and those poor little tender shoots are cringing I’m sure ;)

  5. barefootfarmflower permalink
    November 20, 2013 7:00 pm

    Yes, sometimes I think I live and die by the phrase “next year..” I am completely crazy about labeling every little flower, piece of fruit, variety of tomato plant…and it throws my world out of whack when I discover I messed it up. This year my dahlias are all staying in the ground and I’m hoping they make it through the winter. I didn’t dig them in time and ended up running livestock through the garden to make clean up easier. Next year I’ll probably have a whole lot of IDKs. Love the pen idea!

  6. November 21, 2013 6:51 am

    Actually, in the late 1800′s when there where many dahlia hybridizers in England they ate the ones they didn’t like. They are, after all, relatives of the potato. I’m not vouching for their edibility, and if green, they probably also contain the same glycoalkaloid poisons as green potatoes, but still my dahlias this year out produced my potatoes.

    • November 21, 2013 8:40 am

      Luddene, that’s interesting, I’ve heard of making Dacopa a coffee substitute out of them, but I think I’ll stick with my chicory for that ;) They definitely put on a great number of tubers each year.

  7. December 13, 2013 5:02 am

    Motherearthnews (and others) has/ve an article about how they are used as a food plant. I’d pursue it (I know I am.)

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