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Dahlia blooms can be as small as 2 inches or up to one foot in diameter with one head per stem. Taller plants need to be staked to prevent them from falling over from their own weight during wind and rain. Dahlias are among the many plants toxic to dogs, cats and horses so avoid planting them where they might ingest them.

In a previous column I wrote about daylilies and how easy it is to grow them. This time I would like to focus on dahlias that are not as easy to grow, but with a little extra work can add a lot of color and beauty to any garden.

I don’t know much about dahlias. I like writing this column because I learn a lot by doing the research needed to write about topics readers are interested in — in this case, dahlias. I was inspired to write because a friend of mine in Minnesota, Bob Downs, is having a lot of good luck and fun learning how to grow them. A Fifield resident, Mike Atkinson, likes growing them, too. He used to share some of his magnificent flowers in our local post office and Kountry Kafe for all customers to enjoy.

Here is what I found out about dahlias with the help of Anita Hoaglund and the University of Minnesota Extension:

Dahlias were found in Mexico in 1615 and are the country’s national flower. Now they are common in gardens all over and used as wedding flowers, not only for their looks but also for their symbolic meaning. During the Victorian era, dahlias were a symbol of commitment and an everlasting union. They are also used to represent inner strength, creativity and elegance.

Lucky for us, they can be grown in Wisconsin and Minnesota and they can make a lovely addition to any flower garden. Dahlias grow naturally in climates that do not experience frost, and they are not adapted to withstand sub-zero temperatures. So unlike daylilies, dahlias cannot survive our winters. To grow dahlias, they either must be treated as annuals or you must lift the underground portion called the tuber after the first frost in fall and store them indoors overwinter. The tubers can again be planted outside in the spring.

Dahlias come in a full range of almost any color except blue. They usually start flowering in July, are fast-growing and keep flowering until just before the first frost. They are at their peak when many other summer blooms are past their prime, so they fill that flower gap nicely.

Dahlias need moist soil and the larger varieties will need staking so they don’t fall over during wind and rain. They need five to six hours of direct sunlight daily. They are also heavy feeders, so when you prepare the garden, loosen the soil to a depth of 8-10 inches and work in well-rotted manure or compost and fertilize with a 5-10-15 or 5-10-10 fertilizer. The more food dahlias get, the more root mass they’ll grow. The more roots, the more leaves, flowers and tuber growth you’ll have for next summer.

I think one of the best things about growing your own dahlias is picking, arranging and gifting them. To make the beautiful blooms last, pick nearly mature flowers in early morning or evening, immediately place cut stems in two to three inches of hot water and let stand, gradually cooling. It is most fun to give them to shut-ins who can’t get outside to visit flower gardens. Such flower-giving will make their day as well as yours.

Dahlias are considered by many professional landscapers and gardeners as one of the most attractive and most-requested flowers, so why not give them a try? For more complete information on growing dahlias, please read this University of Minnesota Extension publication by Deb Brown: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/flowers/growing-dahlias/

The private Nature Education Center in Fifield, operated by Tom an Mary Lou Nicholls, is open seasonally by appointment only.