Hartley Magazine

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Dahlias in a Hot Climate

It’s been said that if you have a view you don’t need a garden. Tell that to my plantaholic friend, she who inhabits a houseplant jungle on the top floor of a loft building with views of Pike’s Peak—if you can see it through the foliage. Of course, the walls are mostly windows, making the place a virtual conservatory, and the greenhouse effect guarantees success. However, for others not so blessed, growing outdoors at altitude means I’m closer to the sun, the air is thinner, and the atmosphere is so dry I leave herbs on top of the fridge to dry. Overnight. Okay, I exaggerate; two days max.

Hollyhocks hug the fence line in a Taos, New Mexico, garden.

Last week I was in Taos to sample the garden scene (and Hatch chile burgers—highly recommended) at nearly 7000 feet. Tucked into the high desert foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range, it’s no wonder the place has long been an artists’ colony; sweeping vistas, snow-capped mountains, curvaceous adobe buildings and light that just glistens. And the cloud formations? Heart-breakingly beautiful, with sunsets to match.  And yet Taosians garden. Some by accident – hollyhocks are exceedingly happy here—some by intent—native plants mingled with “mediterranean” perennials. With lots of gravel and rockscaping serving as mulch, but with design in mind.

A contemplative maze of local rock and pebbles is an attractive garden artifact compared to a sea of gravel.

Why it was surprising to me to see a garden devoted to dahlias, I don’t know. They are native to Mexico after all, but being accustomed  to seeing them in cooler zones, from Ireland to Minnesota, could account for it. I grew them in England, and most recently in Pennsylvania from tubers donated by Longfields; some of the blooms were as big as my head! There’s Old House Bulbs, based in Michigan, who offer the prettiest heirloom varieties if you like your plants to tell a story (who doesn’t).

A page torn from garden history — dahlias have been popular for a long, long, time. Photo from Old House Bulbs.

In this Taos garden of dahlia delights I got talking to Mary Ann Matheson who’s been growing these outrageously beautiful flowers for a couple of decades. “I got the bug from my father,” she revealed. “and then my husband shared my love of dahlias, but he was very scientific about it and raised them from seed, while I wanted to grow them for market and needed to know what I was getting.” And for that she embraced tubers and market-gardening, selling her crop at the Taos Farmer’s Markets. That was then; now she grows them for pleasure and gifting. Swan Island Dahlias in Oregon is her go-to: “I learned right away to avoid the dinner-plate sorts as they bloom too late, and our elevation gives such a short season. Better to look for the smaller-sized, early bloomers to avoid our early frosts.”

Mary Ann Matheson could be called a dahlia whisperer, such is her expertise growing top quality blooms.

This season I’ve been growing a few dahlia varieties in big pots; they’ve flowered…sort of. From Mary Ann, I learned that one tuber in a pot is plenty – I had used three!  To burst with blooms, they need plenty of nutrition, and the competition added to frequent watering that washes out nutrients is not the recipe for success. Honestly, dahlias do better in the garden than in pots, no matter how big. We also spoke about propagation; I have always lifted the tubers, shaken off the soil and stored them in the basement, then replanted in the spring, setting out the offsets hoping to increase the stock.

One of Swan Island Dahlia’s best sellers, ‘Pooh’ is a collarette type that blooms dependably over a long season.

No good, said Mary Ann. Better to remove the offsets taking GREAT CARE to include a shoulder of tuber from the mother plant, as that nub of flesh is the growing point for next year’s display. Pot these youngsters in gallon pots of well-drained potting soil, labeling the varieties (very important), bring them into warmth in the early spring and then plant out. Water, feed regularly, deadhead routinely and away we go. In a blaze of glory! I may even try to convert my urbanista friend into a high-rise gardenista.

©text and photos, Ethne Clarke, 2019

If you’re not in the southwest, my colleagues at Hartley Botanic magazine have written about dahlias for their regions; search the index to find their features.

Follow Los Jardineros of Taos to learn more about their programs and garden tours at https://gardencluboftaos.org.

Heirloom dahlias and more can be mail-ordered from Old House Gardens; see their catalogue here.

Longfield Gardens list of dahlias is extensive; to learn more, visit their catalogue here.

Swan Island Dahlias are hosting a week long dahlia festival beginning 24 August; find out about this event and check out their catalogue here.