February 9, 2015



Really, this new dahlia rage shouldn't be a surprise to any of us at all -  as the signs were everywhere. Farm stands, farmers markets both have been selling out of virtually buckets of dahlias for the past two years, and then there are those oh-so-sick (as in awesome) images over at Floret Farm - seducing us into wanting not only every single ball and dinner plate cut flower dahlia there is, but to also quit our jobs and move to Seattle where we can hang out our laundry on the line, and run all tanned, barefoot and bearded through a perfectly solar-flared bedazzled flower farm field in the holder alpen glow of ----oh wait, that was my fantasy --sorry. All of this endless snowshovelling is affecting my brain).  Still, for whatever reason, and there are many, the dahlia is officially back. 

Yay, right? 

Well, not if you are trying to find some of the best colors - why does it seem that all the good ones are all sold out? OK, if you are interested - here is my story:


So my story goes like this: Today, during another blizzard here in the North East, I decided to be proactive and place some orders for dahlias - I mean, it's early, right? It's just the first week of February and most dahlia growers won't even think about shipping their tubers until mid April - what's up?

Once I went on-line, I began to discover that whenever I saw the perfect, must-have dahlia, it was sold out or out of stock. I could write this phenomenon off simply as my taste is so impreccibly hip[, that it's no wonder that the same variety I must have in my garden is sold out. After all - Martha and Ralph Lauren need to buy their dahlias too, I totally understand the economics - there are only so many'Cafe au Lait' dahlias to go around.

But I have this sneaking suspicion that it's more than just supply - but could it really be true? That the truth is that others are beginning to catch on? I mean, why? That gardening editor position at Martha Stewart Living is still vacant (hint hint MSLO) so it can't be that, Stephen Orr is focusing either on his next book, or having herbal cocktail parties with Amy Stewart - regardless, they are might be so sloshed that dahlias are the last thing on their mind.  

ANd what's so wrong about small growers of specialist plants being sold out of stock in our mass market world today? On one hand, this is GREAT THING. It may even regenerate the American Dahlia Society - hey, maybe there will be a chapter here in my home town again ( like when I was growing up and entering exhibitions at the Worcester County Horticultural Society summer Dahlia shows). It should all be super great news, but why do I feel so sad? Well, maybe only because I can't order the few dahlias which really appeal to me ( orange petals with white tips, crazy fimbriated ones - aaargh!). 

On the other hand, why is the dahlia so cool again? I mean really. I am old enough now to remember one time when the dahlia was, well, sort-of in vogue, at least with post war housewives like my mom, who could finagle their husbands who grew Big Boy Tomatoes on tall stakes near the clothes like, to have a row of dahlias too - at least, if a few were on sale in mesh bags in the spring - but back in the 60's, no one ordered named varieties from catalogs through the mail, unless one was exhibiting them, and was an active member of a dahlia society. Everyone else just 'threw some in' because they were something easy and different to grow, something to distract one from the gladioli and to cut to bring into the house. Believe me, no one had 'cutting gardens', and certainly, the idea of a flower farm was about as absurd as an edamame.

I am also confounded  by the style of dahlias, but only in much the same way that I can't figure out why 'Dancing with the Stars' is such a hit today. I think I blame my own predujuce on style perception - as in association (my ADD mind makes complex associations between the soothing sounds of Montivani (look it up, boys), rubber grapes on coffee tables, maple Betty Crocker Cake with pecan frosting (don't ask) and Lawrence Welk  and - boom. Lawrence Welk. That is preciceslyt where my predujice with dahlias connects with some vague idea of inauthentic or bad taste. As in "ballroom dancing is NOT cool. While opera and classical music is quite cool.  Meaning, I like it, respect it and understand it. (still, figure skating? It's oddly cool, …but Bobby and Sissy? nope. ). 


Now that I have completely confused you, I think what I am trying to say here is this: Over the late 20th century, interest in the dahlia has waned, due to many factors, one of which is their obtuse size ( with some flowers larger than - um, yes - dinner plates ( at least dinner plates in the 60's, not most American dinner plates today). But maybe the problem with how to display, grow, stake or cut these giants of the border wasn't the problem, maybe it was just their sheer awesomeness, which somehow seemed overwhelming to a pre-digital world of Leave it to Beaver-ness and Betty Prior demure-ness. Today, a little Times Square or Las Vegas is OK (in moderation), and well, at least, a little 'Disney' can go a long way.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that dahlias are gorgeous?

I may dedicate my entire veg garden to dahlias next yeat - oops, I sort of did that this year!

SO here in another theory of mine - I think that this mad dahlia trend has taken dahlia growers by surprise.

I may even argue that the American Dahlia Society doesn't have a clue about this 'hottest of hot' floral trends, and just for the sake of it, if THEY DO know about it, then I would argue that the small growers don't know anything about it.

I',m getting that message in a few ways. First, the descriptions. You might read "the florists love this variety', (but those growers may just be noticing that florists are making more and more visits to their fields in the summer, or calling them up looking for hot colors). Growers may not realize that it's not even florists at all who want their 'Cafe'au 'Lait's", but in reality, they are blogHer reading 'Prinzing' reading, Farmers-market buying twenty somethings just back from a week or whisky and craft beer at SXSW, continually pinning their favorite flowers - including dahlias, to their Pinterest boards.

Look, the dahlia isn't going anywhere other than up, so breeders and growers need to get onto the band wagon and start amping up their websites, getting ApplePay and Paypal working, and the American Dahlia Society really needs to grow a pair, then get an injection of Superthrive and own this thing. I can say that, because I am intimate with many plant societies. It's not easy, but do try. And you hobby growers? You need to step up to the plate, too.If you love Dahlias, promote them with your friends!

There exists this army of 'more conscious,'  flower savvy consumers who would rather grow their own food or raise honey bees who are fueling this real wave. After all, there is only so much force a group can put behind the Billy Button, or air plants. And Dahlias are easy, over performing, and bloom just when you really want great flowers both in the garden, and in the house.

And this brings us to the crux of this post - the lack of the prettiest dahlias, but I am sure you are all waiting to jump to the comments section to tap out on your keyboard "but what about Swan Island Dahlias, Matt?" OK, I love Swan Island, and everything about their great site - but after my fourth year in ordering from them, I really want to try some different varieties, that's all.  Swan Islans folks are great, and I am so thrilled that they got a good jolt in business after that 'Martha Effect' thingy a few years back, their website is the best in the industry, and they even publish a glossy catalog that can handle lots of moisture in our bathroom (um - OK, TMI).  They are a great source, but sometimes I crave different varieties than my peers have, and I really lust for the ones that are winning dahlia shows, as often, they are so superior and new. After all, I am 'me'.

It's always best to check with a simple Google Image Search to make sure that the variety you crave looks like the actual plant you are getting. Amateur photographers can sometimes over-enhance an image. Yes, I ordered Alpen Fury.

Generally speaking, dahlias tubers are not difficult to find at all, as most retailers such as big box stores, garden centers and nurseries carry them in poly bags, but I know that you are like me, and you want the most beautiful colors and forms, so it's time for me to share some of my dahlia secret sources - I mean, beyond Swan Island Dahlias, who are great, but it seems everyone is ordering from them now (I still do, but I want even more varieties - and I know where they exist).

YES! There are dahlias out there that defy description - but..ugh, these were all sold out! But still on my 'must get' list.

So are you looking for really beautiful colors and super unusual forms as I am? If so, then I urge you to do this right now: Go to the American Dahlia Society website, and then look at their list of sources - listed here are fine specialist nurseries - those folks who breed their own varieties,on their small farms and then exhibit them in small, local ADS shows, and within a year or two of breeding their special varieties, introduce them in limited quantities to the public via the worst designed and ugliest, un-manageable websites that you could ever imagine ( the poor dears, but I am so sorry, and once you go there, you'll see what I mean - someone, please help them!).

Here is a frustrating screen grab from one site. I still plan of placing an order, but I just don't know how - since I need to print an order form, and honestly, this site is a bit of a hot mess - each  page contradicts the previous page, and I can't seem to navigate around to see what is in stock, and what is 'out of stock' and what is 'low in stock'. I won't be discouraged though - must work through some sites like this.

Now, all joking aside - - don't get all frustrated as I did, (really, I 'get it', dahlia growers you know - not UX designers!) Give them a break, but if any of you are reading this? Please consider a redesign - the good sites use Paypal and have large photos - oh, so important. Look - I want you to sell out (oh wait, you ARE selling out already - my bad!).

Want to get going? Then START HERE , the American Dahlia Society Super List, but I've added a few extra growers below who all carry amazing dahlias that will be different than any that you can by at your local garden center.

And, don't worry, I have placed my orders already so you won't piss me off.

This one site is almost sold out. Either the tubers are large, or exhibitors know that these are choice varieties.

Another place to look is the American Dahlia Society 'Fabulous Fifty', a list that shows the cultivars which have won at least 50 blue ribbons at ADS exhibitions. Not because they are winners, but because dozens of judges around the world have looked at thousands of dahlias every year, and when I attend plant shows, it's pretty clear why the winners are on that bench.

Here is my order from Arrowhead Dahlias.
After looking at a few sites, you will start to see similar varieties ( the names are often the same, indicating who bred them), and sometimes, you will find the same variety which is sold out at one grower, available at another. Good luck! Don't you love this color palette? I still need an orange dahlia with white tips. Help me!

Another list on the ADS called the 'Cream of the Crop' lists varieties that have won more than 15 combined blue ribbons and higher awards. Believe me, when you grow varieties that have won the highest awards, you can clearly see the difference - most of these will never make it to your garden center, and if they do, it might take 10 -15 years for Dutch growers to build up enough stock for commercial distribution.

Another ti0 - order dahlias in colors within the same color family - all purples and pinks, all apricot, peach, orange and melon, all white and yellow, etc. It will make your arrangements or garden look spectacular. In doubt? Look for varieties that are described as 'popular with florists' or 'good cut flowers' - growers are rarely wrong.

It is too early to plant dahlias, but in most of the country, April is the proper time to start them, which is when most growers will ship them - still, order NOW, and thank me later!

Lobaugh's Dahlias
Pleasant Valley Glads & Dahlias our local grower near us - no photos, but Google the name
Arrowhead Dahlias Great site, easy to use and accepts Paypal
Birch Bay Dahlias - OMG - The BEST varieties, but the site in INSANELY confusing
Accent Dahlias
Hollyhill Dahlias
Alpen Gardens
Floret Farm - cut flowers, but look - Cafe au Lait dahlias for sale! (Pleasant valley Glads had them too)
Swan Island Dahlias - great catalog, great site - quality all the way.

And, here is like - every Dahlia grower in the US and Canada - go crazy! (right now, go crazy).


  1. I planted dahlias for a number of years. This was when the lilac, red, white, and orange semed to be the only choices, none with unusual forms. Then I moved to a house without a basement or garage. I've tried to keep tubers from year to year, but find the newer varieties set the tiniest tubers, making them difficult to keep from complete and utter desiccation in less than perfect winter storage conditions. Cafe au Lait was on my short list for a number of years, but I failed to ever get any to come through winter dormancy and grow with any sort of vigor. Is it possible this tendency for the tuber to put out more flowers rather than store sugars is behind the "Sold Out" banner simply due to low production, rather than an increase in demand?

    1. Good question, Rachelle - I need to research this one - the idea of a tuber not producing strong tubers or blossoms due to sugars within the tuber - but part of your problem might be not in the storage, but in when and how you dug the tubers up in the autumn, and when you divided them - or even if they needed division at all. I have found out through research and some bad luck, that one must allow the plants to get nipped by frost first, and then wait a couple of weeks before digging up the clump of tubers. This aging and maturing period is essential as it 'messages' the plant to change how it is growing, and the tubers mature. I know, I am not clear on the science, but once I started practicing this, I started having better luck storing tubers. Secondly, division can be confusing - not all dahlia clumps need to be divided, but most importantly, when dividing large clumps, one must do so just after digging them up in the autumn, so that you can see the 'eyes', as these eyes practically disappear once the tubers go dormant for the winter. Still, better luck can be had when one divides clumps in the spring, but each tuber must have some of the main stem - I was just cutting off tubers as if they were potatoes, and thus, had little if any luck with any of them sprouting as sprouts can only emerge from those dormant buds near or on the old stem. Maybe I should do a details post on this? Better yet, join your local Dahlia Society and most have workshops in the winter months demonstrating all sorts of Dahlia care. Or, I could do a video ( Oh, I hate doing videos!). Thanks!

    2. Please consider doing a detailed post on dividing tubers. For years I was doing it all wrong (just sort of breaking them off) and I have a heck of a time finding eyes (apparently because I was looking in spring). This year I stored my tubers en masse and was half thinking of just keeping them like that. Better to have them crowded rather than screw them all up and get nothing, or so my thinking goes.

  2. I just put in an order from Old House Bulbs last night, and they have quite a few cool varieties as well, including some of those so popular with hipster florists and brides right now, but seem to be selling out quickly as well. And boy do I hope that those giant exhibition chrysanthemums make a proper come-back in the wake of the dahlias as well!

    1. Thanks for reminding me aout Old House Bulbs, another fine vendor (they even sent me a loaded box of rare bulbs this past fall which I have yet to thank them for!- so nice!). Tonight, this is what I am going to do - write that thank you note, and then check out their list. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. How nice to find this post today, as I was just on the Dahlia Society website last night desperately seaching for some new varieties. I'm particularly interested in those with dark foliage and sadly it seems very few websites list them (or even mention) the foliage color (other than Swan Island). But I'm finding the same thing you are ... there is a tuber shortage! Thanks for the excellent list of sources; I've not tried some of them yet.

    1. I adore red-foliage types too - I did see a couple of new varieties last night when I was looking, on some of the smaller grower sites, but to be honest, I don't remember which one it was. I would advise you to just read the descriptions well, most would mention the foliage - that said, my favorite dark leaf dahlia is 'David Howard' which you can get from Plant Delights Nursery - I am obsessed with that dahlia, as are many English garden designers - it's color and foliage just does magical things on a July evening, I can't describe it. I swear, if you plant it in the perennial border near some blue delphinium, unicorns will appear. I know - I've seen it happen!

    2. Well, I'm pretty sure unicorns would appear, along with flying pigs, if I successfully grew blue delphiniums! But I will definitely check out David Howard. Thank you for the recommendation. I put in a too-big order with Swan Island today because now I'm afraid I'll miss out on even more by the time I ponder over it a bit more. I've been noticing the sell-outs as well.

    3. I should also add that in the past, I have purchased seed of red-leaved varieties ( Bishop's, you know) and they produced many nice plants in just a year's time, with no more or less effort than a packet of zinnia's. I started them early indoors in March, kept them warm, but provided bright light (watch out for aphids!).

    4. Really? I would have thought they would have taken much more than a year to bloom. Well that is a thought, then. Thank you!

  4. Thank you, Matt. You got me started on Swan Island Dahlias last year, and every one that I ordered from them was exceptional in producing beautiful blooms. We had bouquets for weeks, and I shared with neighbors and co-workers as well. This year, I DID order as early as possible to get a good selection, and upped the amount considerably. In fact, I am sectioning off a plot in the yard that will be dedicated exclusively to Dahlias. . .so YES, you can take blame/credit for my obsession. And now, you give me more sources for finding different varieties. . .Thank you!

    1. Cynthia, I know - the Swan Island Dahlias are just about the best, although sometimes I notice that when I order late in the season (which I often do!), I get smaller tubers. Not sure though how that affects the size, they always have dormant buds that emerge. They are such a good company, and their customer service is supreme. I think I am all over your idea for a yard full of dahlias!

  5. Anonymous4:46 PM

    Over in the UK the 'specialist dahlia' are supplied as cutting in April.
    The National Collection has all the 'established' varieties, but 'this year's new' ones need to be hunted down. The National Collection is here http://www.national-dahlia-collection.co.uk/

    1. I just noticed this last list while looking at some site. Can you tell me if these rooted cuttings grow just as vigorous and large as tuber-raised forms? I have some old gardening books from the 1900's they go into great detail on taking cuttings from young, emerging plants, but I have not tried it yet. I have roots a choice shoot which broke away from a tuber last year, and it grew taller and I am this year, and I should mentiont that seed raised dahlias grow rather quickly too, and are a great option if you don't care about the varieties you are getting.

    2. Anonymous3:58 AM

      Yes Matt,
      In the first season you get a full sized plant, but with fewer stems. Here I can leave them in the soil and they will be larger [more stemmed] the second year. If I want to 'bulk up' a special one for bedding in a block then I will start off with tubers in a pot under cover and take all the first growth as cuttings. The mother plant will then grow a second crop as usual and I'll have a dozen cuttings too. This year I'm doing 'Twyning's After Eight'. It has 'black' leaves - not just the dark leaves of 'David Howard' or 'Englehardt's Matador' but a very distinct dark colour of their own. In order not to spoil the effect I'm undecided if I will have cut the flowers off though!

  6. I've never imagined that there are so many kinds of Dahlia. All of them are so beautiful, I love these flowers.

    Spring cleaning London

  7. Old House Gardens is indeed a wonderful source for any kind of bulb or tuber. My order has been in a long time with them; and I added a couple of newer ones for me this year. The dahlias will be here soon! I can't wait.

  8. Anonymous11:51 PM

    Orange with white tips? ... My googling has found Olson's Folly in stock at Clacksdahliapatch.com and Creamsicle at Oldhousedahlias.com. Good luck!

  9. Anonymous2:25 AM

    Ahem...Just so you know, those of us who are thoroughly and completely addicted to dahlias start ordering them as soon as the vendor's sites open for the sale season. This can be as early as November.

    We are really good at the deferred gratification thing.

    PS: Try Hollyhill Orange Ice - it's still available at LInda's Dahlias: http://www.lindasdahlias.com/Catalog.html#H

  10. Oh my. Laughing so hard. Maple frosting. check. Plastic grapes. check. Did we live in the same house? Raised in southern NH, now a little further south, your commentary cracked me up. We spend summers in Seattle and I have seen the dahlias popping up (and selling out quickly) for the last few years. You were much more eloquent than I could have been, but I could have written this same posting. Still laughing....

    1. Thanks R - I hope that I didn't reveal our age too obviously!

    2. My mother thought dahlias too fancy and showy, not that she thought about them too much to begin with back in the, ahem, 70's. The yankee in her wouldn't allow such wasteful beauty to distract her..she was too busy dusting the plastic grapes. Still laughing.
      Thanks for letting us all know to get a move on if we had not ordered (which I had), but I'm sure you caused a panic for others. Stay warm.

  11. Anonymous10:52 AM

    LaSalle Floral Farm in Whately Ma has been growing Dahlias for years. They supply cut Dahlias and lots of other cut flowers to other florists delivering to the Floral market in Boston all throughout the summer. My kids worked there through high school...planting and cultivating and even did some driving....taking flowers to NYC United Nations on a fairly routine basis. I wish I could recall all that they grow...Dahlias I remember as they need to be pullled up and replanted each year so quite the production. I also remember the sunflowers. Pioneer Valley grows some fabulous sunflowers and huge fields the can be seen in many places in Pioneer Valley, There are bulb growers now in Deerfield, occupying space once used to grow corn for dairy cows

  12. I adore the bright ones with dark foliage. We have trouble growing the biggest ones here, but last year, I loved Juanita. That's my grandmother's name and why I bought it, but that deep purple was so beautiful. I did buy some of Dracula this year too. I'll admit, I don't know enough about growing dahlias, but the smaller ones perform so much better in our heat. I do like that Old House Gardens lists those that perform better in hot climates.

  13. My Dad always grew a few dahlias along the edge of the vegetable garden. As I recall, he favored the big, dark red ones. Thanks for bringing back some good memories, for the good read and now I have to go buy some dahlias.

  14. Hi Matt, wonderful post and beautiful pictures. I'm from Holland, I haven't planted my dahlia's yet and will order some more this week. I could send you some if you are interested!


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