Don’t dig up dahlias for winter! What to do instead….
I don’t dig up dahlias to store them at the end of the summer.
I’ve been growing dahlias for fifteen years, and I only dug a few up once. They died.
But the dahlias I’ve left in the ground, year after year, have filled our late-summer borders with glorious colour.
Although, perhaps the borders are not exactly the colours I originally planted. But more of that later.
As soon as people see the late-summer border, they ask two questions. The first is always ‘do you dig dahlias up for winter?’
Of course, those who have ‘proper gardens’ almost always dig up their dahlias. Then they store them expertly, and they have places to do so.
But we’re a bit short of storage here, and my over-wintering expertise isn’t up to much either.
So this post is about middle-sized garden tactics, not ‘proper gardening.’
How not to dig up dahlias
Firstly cut away the dead and dying foliage. I find some of my dahlia stems are so thick, they need loppers not just secateurs. (I particularly like Wilkinsons Ultralight Loppers, because they really are so light.)
Note: links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links, which means I may get a fee if you buy through them, but it won’t affect the price you pay. I’ve only linked to products I’ve tried myself and liked.
Once you’ve taken away all the vegetation, cover the dahlia with as big a mound of compost or mulch as you can. Pile it on, making sure that the stems are well covered to protect the snow and rain getting in down the hollow parts.
Then add a stick to show you’ve got a dahlia there. It’s as simple as that.
But take your anti-slug precautions early
The second question people ask is how I keep the slugs and snails off the dahlias. As you can see, I co-exist with slugs and snails. But I prevent them from winning by starting the battle early.
Best tip: I got this from a friend in the RHS. Start taking your anti-slug and snail precautions in February. Don’t wait until you see snail damage. I use ferric phosphate slug pellets, which are certified for organic use,and are pet and wildlife friendly.
Take a handful and simply throw them across the border in February. Don’t try to make little piles around where you think the plant will be. A light sprinkling will help protect your dahlias.
Sometimes you do have to dig up dahlias…
I must admit one thing.
Not all dahlias survive the winter protected by mulch, so I have lost a few over the years. The colour scheme is now dominated by reds and oranges, although the beautiful peach ‘Henriette’ has come back three years in a row.
Dark red Rip City and Black Cat dahlias have proved hardy, and also the orange Dahlia David Howard. However, a few dahlias haven’t survived, no matter how much mulch I pile on top.
So it’s a question of trial and error. And it also depends on where you live, – we’re in Southern England, so we have some quite mild winters and some harsh ones. It’s usually considered equivalent to a US hardiness zone 8, although it doesn’t quite match.
The secrets of growing dahlias…from an expert!
Steven Edney, award-winning former head gardener of The Salutation Hotel & Gardens, comes from a family of professional dahlia growers. For his advice on how to choose dahlias, how to plant dahlias and what to do about slugs and snails, see this video, which also features the beautiful gardens at The Salutation (now closed). Or you can read his advice in this blogpost on growing dahlias.
Other garden lovers who don’t dig up dahlias….
Update: since this post appeared, I’ve had many comments (see below) and on Twitter. Some people find that dahlias survive the cold under mulch, but struggle in wet or poorly drained soil.
Gardening writer Susie White, who gardens in Northumberland says that she leaves her dahlias in the ground successfully, in spite of being in a frost pocket. Her garden was featured on Gardeners World as an example of gardening in extreme temperatures! However, she does have well drained soil, and adds a deep mulch. She has even managed to keep the black-leaved ‘Bishops children’ alive!
Blogger The Reckless Gardener also leave his dahlias in the ground, although his Cumbria garden is also in a frost pocket. ‘Glad to see another gardener being reckless, too….’
If you love dahlias and would like to know more about them, Naomi Slade has written a glorious book about them called Dahlias – Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden, with photography by Georgianna Lane.
See ‘Don’t dig up dahlias’ on YouTube
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(Although Anne Wareham is pretty good at not doing gardening in her book The Deckchair Gardener)
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