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How to Grow More Amazing Dahlias Than Your Neighbors

A Dahlia Primer: From Planting to Blooming

Guest Blogger —  August 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

Get ready for an explosive burst of color September 9-10 at the annual American Dahlia Society National Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden. More than 2,000 flowers in the dahlia family will be on display in a wide variety of colors, sizes, and forms. 

Dahlias are indigenous to Mexico, where they were grown by the Aztecs, who used the tubers as one of their staple foods. The plants were brought to Spain and eventually spread throughout Europe, as people appreciated the beauty of the flowers themselves. Through hybridization, there now are more than 70,000 varieties of dahlia, about 1,500 of which are popularly grown.

Here are some tips for growing these beautiful plants in the garden. 

Dahlia bouquet from the American Dahlia Society National Show

ILLUSTRATION: dahlia artOn September 9 and 10, the Central States Dahlia Society and the Chicago Botanic Garden present the 51st annual American Dahlia Society National Show. For detailed information on the show and the Central States Dahlia Society, please visit centralstatesdahliasociety.com


Selecting a site

Pick a sunny spot where, optimally, the plants will receive at least six hours of sunlight. Since dahlias do not like to get their “feet” wet, the area should not accumulate water and should drain well. If the soil is clay-like, it should be amended with leaf mulch, compost, or peat moss. Since dahlias should be planted about 18 inches apart, it is easy to determine the number of plants the area will accommodate.

Planting

You can plant your dahlias as soon as the danger of frost has past, and the soil temperature remains above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In Chicago, this typically means about the middle of May. However, some growers wait until Memorial Day just to be sure. The delay does not seem to appreciably affect when the first blooms appear. You can start with either potted plants or tubers that have been over-wintered from last year’s crop.

If using potted plants that have already developed a root system, place the plants in the ground so that the top of the potting medium is level with the ground. Many growers will add a slow-release fertilizer (e.g., Osmocote) and/or composted manure to the bottom of the hole. Water the plants once they have been put in the ground, and water as needed to keep the soil moist (about one inch per week).

Planted dahlia tuber

Planted dahlia tuber

A new dahlia plant

A new dahlia plant

When starting with tubers, dig a shallow hole (about 6 inches deep), add material as described above, and place the tuber on its side. Loosely cover the tuber—but do not bury it—with soil. Once the tuber has sprouted and the sprout has reached the level of the soil, the hole should be back-filled. The tubers should not be watered until they have sent out a sprout that reaches above ground level. A word of caution: Tuber sprouts can be quite delicate. It is a good idea to use a short, temporary support until the plant becomes established. You can start with tubers planted directly in the soil or start the tubers indoors in pots to get an early start. If starting inside, the tender plants should be “hardened” off prior to planting in the garden.

Since dahlias will often grow to five feet or more in height, they need to be staked. The stake should be placed in the ground as soon as the plant, or tuber, is in place. Put the supporting stake within a couple of inches of the plant and avoid damaging the tuber. Plastic stakes tend to bend and break. Many growers use ¼- to ½-inch rebar that can be bought from big-box stores or building supply centers. Tomato cages also provide good support.

New dahlia plant staked, tied, and identified

New dahlia plant staked, tied, and identified

Depending on the height of the plant, you should loosely tie it to the supporting stake. The final step in the planting process is to write the name of the variety on a plastic tag. The tag should be stuck in the ground or attached to the support system.

Dahlia bed ready for the growing season

Dahlia bed ready for the growing season

The first several weeks

As the plant continues to grow, additional ties will have to be placed at about 12-inch intervals. After the plant produces three or four sets of leaves and is about 18 inches tall, the plant should be “topped.”  This means that the terminal bud, at the top of the main stem, must be removed. This will be done only once. This process forces that plant to develop lateral stems, which results in more flowers. 

A "topped" dahlia with terminal bud removed, and laterals forming

A “topped” dahlia with terminal bud removed, and laterals forming

Water as needed to keep the soil moist. During this early phase, many growers will use a nitrogen fertilizer to promote leaf growth and stimulate the plant’s development.

Once buds appear

Depending on the weather and maturity of the starting stock, after about six to eight weeks the first buds should appear. These will develop in groups of three. Two of these should be removed. This process, called “disbudding,” will result in larger blooms. The first blooms tend to be the largest ones that the plant will produce. Growers who plan to compete in shows will try to time these first blooms so they appear just before the show.

A dahlia plant ready for "disbudding"

A dahlia plant ready for “disbudding”

During this phase, water the plant as needed. Watering should be done at the base of the plant. Water on the leaves may cause disease, and water on the blooms may cause them to become top-heavy and droop, or even break. Fertilizing during this phase should consist of potassium and phosphorus to encourage root and bloom development. Do not “over-feed’ the dahlias. Fertilizing about every three to four weeks is the generally recommended practice.   

If the plant becomes too full, you should remove a lateral stem or two. This process, called “disbranching,” should be done as close to the main stem as is possible. All plant grooming should be done in the early morning.  Ideally, you should sterilize the cutting tool as you move between plants to avoid the possible transfer of any disease for one plant to the next.

During the growing season, be aware of the impact of pests and plant disease. Snails and slugs may attack the newly planted dahlias. Spider mites are the most common pest. If they attack, the leaves will shrivel and yellow spots will appear. Many growers will preventatively spray once the hot weather arrives to avoid these pests, as remediation is difficult.

A garden full of dahlias

The fruits of your labor

Cutting the blooms

It is best to cut the blooms in the morning using a sharp instrument to make a clean cut. The stem can then be slit along its length to increase water absorption. Freshly cut dahlias will last in the house for one week or longer. 

 

By George Koons, Central States Dahlia Society


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

If you’ve been around the Regenstein Center in the past couple of months, you may have seen me around the librarian’s suite, Skyping in the library’s rare book room, training at the circulation desk or maybe having lunch in the break room. I’m Alicia Esquivel, a new addition to the library staff for 2017 who will be working at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library as a resident on a collaborative project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

My cohort and I are hosted at different institutions across the United States (including the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, Natural History Museum Los Angeles, Smithsonian Libraries, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Chicago Botanic Garden) and we are all researching best practices for digital libraries and making recommendations for improvement to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). BHL is a group of natural history and botanical libraries that work together to digitize books and articles about biodiversity and make them freely available to access and use. Over the past ten years, BHL has uploaded more than 50 million pages of biodiversity literature for public use.

(Left to right) 2017 BHL residents Ariadne Rehbein, Alicia Esquivel, Pamela McClanahan, Marissa Kings, and Katie Mika

(Left to right) 2017 BHL residents Ariadne Rehbein, Alicia Esquivel, Pamela McClanahan, Marissa Kings, and Katie Mika

My particular project is to define how much biodiversity literature is in the public domain and how much of it still needs to be added to BHL. This content analysis will help focus future digitization efforts by BHL and fill in gaps in the collection. By making this material available online for free, scientists and researchers from all over the world can have access to research needed to make new discoveries. This is especially helpful for scientists who may not be located near a library with the materials that they need. For more information on all of our projects and updates throughout the year, follow our blog!

Crimson bottlebrush (Calistemon citrinus)

My phone’s camera roll is quickly filling up as I find a new, beautiful plant every day on my walk in to work.

I’m excited to be hosted at the Chicago Botanic Garden this year—this is my first time working at a botanic garden and I have a lot to learn about how a living museum functions and operates. I got to meet Boyce Tankersley from Living Plant Documentation and was blown away by all of the data his department is responsible for managing and all of the work his volunteers do. We have similar missions of creating and maintaining open data that can be linked and shared with other platforms to make discoveries.

Working at the Garden has inspired me to do some small-scale gardening (apartment living) of my own. After checking out a couple of books from the library, I started a windowsill planter of mixed herbs from seeds this spring. If anything goes wrong (quite possible), I know I can ask the Plant Information Service for help!


Alicia Esquivel

Alicia Esquivel

Alicia Esquivel is a National Digital Stewardship Resident hosted at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library. Before moving to Chicago, she received a B.A. in art history from the University of Houston and a M.S. in information science from the University of Texas at Austin. Alicia is enthusiastic about transforming data into useful information to facilitate research. In her free time she enjoys reading fiction, baking bread, and watching live comedy.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In the Chicago region, we have been having record-breaking warm weather: For the first time in 146 years, the National Weather Service documented no measurable snowfall in either January or February. Chicago’s record year is mirrored globally. Scientists from both NASA and NOAA recently released reports showing that 2016 was the hottest year since global temperature tracking began in 1880. If that sounds familiar, it is: It was the third record-breaking warm year in a row. And so far, the warmth is continuing in 2017.

“Is it hot outside?”

Many of us in the United States are experiencing unseasonably warm winters with leaf and flower buds bursting weeks earlier than normal. While these balmy days may be welcomed by those in northern climes (ourselves included!), they may cause problems later in the year, for both natural and agricultural systems. 

In natural areas, we might experience more phenological mismatches. These occur when species that depend on each other do not respond to climate cues in the same way. For instance, hummingbirds and butterflies that overwinter in the tropics and migrate north as the days get longer may arrive to find the plants they depend on for nectar have already finished blooming.

In agricultural systems, fruit production could be harmed in a couple of ways. First, if winters are too short, chilling requirements for flower bud formation may not be met in southern regions (say, for Georgia peaches). In more northern areas, early blooms coaxed out by unseasonable warmth could be killed by a late frost (say, for Michigan cherries). In short: A mild winter and early spring may not be as “peachy” as one might hope.

This is where you come in.

Scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden and across the country are researching the impacts of these warmer winters on plants and ecosystems, and one challenge in this work is the need for very large, long-term data sets documenting when plants leaf out and bloom. We need your help.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has recently taken over Project BudBurst, a national citizen science project designed so you can help us collect just such data, and in this very warm year, it is more important than ever that we collect as much data as possible.

Three of the most common plants in our area—and earliest to bloom and leaf—are forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia), red maple (Acer rubrum), and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). When you see that first yellow forsythia bloom, the first leaf on your red maple, or that first bluebell bud open, let us know by contributing to Project BudBurst. It’s easy.

Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)

Forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia)

Red maple (Acer rubrum) in bud

Red maple (Acer rubrum) by Plant Image Library [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Visit Project BudBurst
and create an account
and you’re ready to go.

Once you’ve created an account, you can make a single observation on any of our target species.

If you want to make more of a commitment, you can create a site location—your backyard, for example—that will allow you make observations on the same plants throughout the growing season, from budburst to leaf fall.

Your phenology observations—especially in unusual years like this one—can help scientists understand how plants are likely to respond to future climates. And that will help us all adapt to the changes that will come!


PHOTO: Kay HavensKay Havens, Ph.D., is the Medard and Elizabeth Welch Senior Director, Ecology and Conservation, at the Garden. Her research interests include reproductive ecology and conservation of plant species.

PHOTO: Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D., serves as the vice president of education and community programs for the Garden. In this role, she oversees the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden, horticultural therapy, and the Windy City Harvest urban agriculture program.

 


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

No matter where I teach—at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at Edison Elementary in Morton Grove—I see how kids recognize the value of science education.

For each of the last 18 summers, I have been a science teacher at the Garden. My own children grew up attending Camp CBG. It was—and is—a family tradition, and something my kids and I looked forward to each summer.

PHOTO: Jim O'Malley teaching Camp CBG at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Teaching Camp CBG is something I look forward to every summer.

The Garden is an extraordinary science location. At the center of its mission are three core “beliefs.” All are excellent, but one correlates most strongly with my values as a science educator: “The future of life on Earth depends on how well we understand, value, and protect plants, other wildlife, and the natural habitats that sustain our world.” For kids, taking care of the Earth is a no-brainer, it is something we should all be doing, a “given.” It has been a privilege to be a part of the Garden’s mission. 

In 2014, camp director Amy Wells nominated me for the most prestigious award a science or math teacher in our nation can receive: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). I had the good fortune of being nominated before and achieved recognition as a state level finalist on three previous occasions (2006, 2008 and 2010). As it turned out, Amy’s nomination was the lucky one. Thanks, Amy! After being chosen as a 2014 state level finalist, I was awarded national recognition from the White House in 2015, and got to attend a special ceremony in Washington D.C. this past September with my wife, Tiffany. 

To learn more about Jim and other extraordinary PAEMST teachers, please visit recognition.paemst.org

My twelve-year journey, from my initial nomination to my national award recognition, intertwines with my teaching at the Garden. Although it was challenging to wait 12 years to finally achieve this recognition, I came to realize it was a journey that forced me to grow as an educator. It made me a better teacher, no doubt, and the hands-on experiences at the Garden honed my skill set—benefitting my school kids and my campers at Camp CBG. Win, win, and win for all.

PHOTO: Jim O'Malley posing with his PAESMT Certificate.

Posing with my certificate between John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, and Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, National Science Foundation.

The award ceremony in Washington was magnificent. To be evaluated by experts at that level and recognized by the White House was truly humbling. I was able to meet teachers from around the country who also shared a passion for science instruction. So much positive energy. While I was in Washington, and in the past few months since I discovered I won (while I was working with teachers in Kenya), I have reflected on my teaching history. I recognized that the Garden was such an important part of the teacher I have become. I’ve had the good fortune of teaching hundreds of kids here, in all age ranges, in an environment that maximizes science instruction. Here’s to another 18 years.

—Dr. Jim O’Malley


PHOTO: Jim O'Malley under the presidential seal at the door to the Blue Room in the White House.

I got in a quick photo underneath the presidential seal at the entry to the Blue Room during our White House tour.

Fourth grade science teacher Dr. Jim O’Malley, better known as Dr. O to students, has spent the better part of his career engaging kids by offering a mostly hands-on science curriculum where students learn by doing at Edison Elementary School in District 69.

He was a winner well before being honored with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching by helping students tap into their sense of wonder and curiosity as part of every-day science discovery.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pokémon hunting in the Garden can be a great way to stop and take a closer look at some of the gardens while connecting with other visitors. Ordinarily, we love our visitors to enjoy our gardens with their senses, not their phones, but with the new Pokémon GO app, you can do both.

PHOTO: Screen shots of Pokémon GO game being played at the Garden.

Tagging us on Facebook, Pokémon hunter Patricio28 shared these screen shots of the forest of PokéStops and Gyms at the Garden.

Essentially an app that lets you run around and catch Pokémon using GPS and the camera on your phone, Pokémon GO has taken over the imaginations of kids and adults alike since its recent release. The game is global—users can play anywhere in the world—and the Garden is one of the locations with many features for those using the game.

Nearly 50 PokéStops dot the Garden grounds, typically tied to sculptures and commemorative plaques embedded in walkways. In addition, six Gyms—virtual locations where players can train and battle their Pokémon—are currently found on-site.

But that’s not all that’s to be found: the gardens are a mass of blooms and butterflies, herons and hostas, and beautiful sunsets. The best of both worlds—real and virtual—is here.

The Circle Garden in summer

The Circle Garden in summer

Circle Garden Fountain Pokemon Screenshot

Two PokéStops can be found at the Circle Garden.

PHOTO: Birds on Eggs by Sylvia Shaw Judson is a Poké Stop at the Garden.

Hidden behind tall corn and sunflowers at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, Birds On Eggs by Sylvia Shaw Judson would ordinarily be missed in the height of summer, but as a PokéStop, visitors get to enjoy the sculpture and explore the path to the orchard behind it.

PHOTO: Olivier Sequin's  Caricia sculpture .

A Pokémon Gym location near Olivier Sequin’s Caricia sculpture takes visitors on a path less traveled behind the Farwell Landscape Garden.

As you discover the Garden and the Pokémon here, please keep these tips in mind:

Look up! Please always be aware of people around you, especially in the Visitor Center. This is a popular location to plant Lures, as people take a break and eat at the Garden View Café and on outdoor decks. When you find a Pokémon on a path or in a garden, please take a moment to look around you first—you want to frame your screen shot nicely, but you also don’t want to ruin the visitor experience for our other guests, who may not have any idea what you are doing with your phone. 

PHOTO: Goldeen Pokémon at the Visitor Center bridge.

Goldeen

PHOTO: Psyduck Pokémon at the Visitor Center bridge.

Psyduck

PHOTO: Kukuna Pokémon in the Heritage Garden.

Kakuna

PHOTO: Meowth Pokémon at the Visitor Center entryway.

Meowth

Walk away, and walk back. If the GPS signal stops or you can’t get to a particular PokéStop, just keep walking. There is probably another one close by that’ll spit out more PokéBalls, eggs, and potions.

The perimeter of the Garden is less crowded with Pokémon hunters, and it is a beautiful 2.3-mile walk. Hatch an egg or five while you take in the sights from afar. The Dixon Prairie is in full bloom, and the East Road offers a lovely vista of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. Visit the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center Green Roof Gardens (where a Pikachu was spotted earlier this week), and get back to the main gardens over the Trellis Bridge. 

The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center Rooftop Garden

The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center Rooftop, and its view of the Garden.

Summer Evenings at the Garden

Summer Evenings at the Garden

Find nighttime Pokémon as you picnic at our evening concerts. The Garden is open through 9 p.m. all summer, so stay late, and join us Monday through Thursday nights for open-air concerts at the Garden. Pack a picnic and some lawn chairs—and maybe an extra battery charger. Activate a lure in the app to attract Pokémon to one of the PokeStops nearby while you enjoy the music.

Get creative. The Garden is always a great place to take photos. Get creative by trying to screenshot your Pokémon frolicking on the grounds. Get a shot of Goldeen swimming in a fountain, position Pidgey on the branch of a Linden tree, or catch Charmander riding a train in the Model Railroad Garden. The photos are also a great way to remember what you saw in the Garden, since the app’s journal tells you when you caught certain Pokémon but not where. Use the photos as visual reminders of the places you enjoyed on your Pokémon hunt and as a way to mark what you’d want to experience further on a future visit, either on another virtual adventure or for an unplugged trek.

Tell us what you find. Grab a screen shot and tag us on social media with #CBGPokemonGO—we’d love to know what you find and share with our other visitors.

We have found that Meowth is almost always hanging around the entrance to the Garden, which is also a Gym location, as well as the path to the Visitor Center. Psyduck is usually on the southern end of the Garden, but a Golduck has been spotted by the Crescent Garden. There’s a lot of water here, so expect to catch Goldeen, Magicarp, Polliwag, Shellder, and Staryu. A garden is full of birds and bugs, and ours is no exception—Pidgey and Spearow abound; Weedle, Metapod, Caterpie, and Kakuna are out and about. Ratata can be found near buildings, of course, and Eevee can be found throughout the Garden. Dratini and Bellsprout were lurking here this morning. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org