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The Crop Report | Dahlias for Days

This year we were later than ever getting our field of dahlias in the ground. While the rain screwed up my plans to get them planted a few weeks ago, we can finally check the project off the to-do list!

Each year, we learn new things about every crop we grow and dahlias are no exception. I’ve been growing them for 10 years, which ultimately means I’ve only experimented with this plant 10 different times. Over the years, I've modified my growing techniques and figured out what works best for us.

We grow dahlias inside one of our unheated high tunnels in a 96-foot-long bed that is an established planting of about 30 different varieties. This crop includes the most popular colors so that we can offer them for longer than if they were in our exposed field plot. These tubers are coming into their third bloom season in that bed. While we have never dug them or messed with the subsoil growth of this plot, we are planning to lift and divide them this winter to prevent new growth from getting too big.

We have the dahlias planted tightly due to their location, so I have to keep an eye on air movement in the understory growth of these plants. They are finicky and disease can quickly run rampant, so we have to be offensive. We hand-defoliate the lower part of the leaf canopy, which means removing the bottom third of the leaves from each plant by hand. This has greatly improved the culture, and gives us face-to-face time with these guys to monitor bug pressure - a relentless struggle this year. I feel our farm has tunnel dahlia growing down pat.

The field dahlia plot has jumped around the farm over the years, and usually starts the season homeless. We have grown dahlias in four different places, and this year they moved to a fifth! I am hoping that we have finally pinpointed the best field for them to reside in. While there have been different reasons for planting the dahlias where we did over the years, there are two main considerations I took into account when choosing their 2021 home:

Ease of Installation and Removal: It’s a big job to plant this crop because we grow thousands of tubers (I stopped listening to them rattle off inventory numbers when we got over 3,200). It’s really important to make a massive planting like that efficient, as is the end of season digging and sorting into crates.

Protection and Isolation: The dahlias are divas. They are one of the most delightful flowers to grow but EVERYTHING is a problem. They are shallow rooting, so they require support and protection from wind and frost. They also are highly susceptible to pest and disease pressure, and keeping any issues away from other crops is a real concern.

 

With these key considerations in mind, I decided that the old garden plot was our best location to test. This field, which we are confident will be the long-term dahlia home, is being renamed to just that: The Dahlia Garden! The location is behind the old bank barn and off to the side. This bed is in line with two of our smaller 50-foot houses which provide protection from wind and frost. 

This field was important to the farm before it ever grew flowers. Back in the days when it was a cattle operation, this was the location where the cattle were fed for many years, meaning that there is soft, naturally occurring compost about three to four feet deep. It was a serious draw for me when we first bought the farm. This is a quick-draining, easy-to-dig plot of ground making it ideal for large tuber plantings.

This was also the location of our own small compost collection site. Since it was already a compost haven, we decided to build our own compost pile directly on top when we first began the farm. This worked for many years, but with the dahlia garden going in we knew we had to relocate our composting setup. We decided to move it to the opposite side of the barnyard as a barrier between us and our hayfield. This way we still have our composting area at a close reach, and a squared-off dahlia garden to boot!

The crew sorted and prioritized the tubers based on quantity and need. We are focusing our production on ball dahlias and limiting the light fluffy girls (talking to you Cafe Au Lait!). While we will always grow them and offer them to our local farm customers, these just don't ship well and are best sourced from your neighborhood flower farmer. The crew plotted the field and laid the pathways, being sure to use extra measures to tack down the fabric since the ground is SO light and fluffy. Sometimes, your benefits can work against you. We learned this the hard way when the wind pulled the fabric pathways out of the glads that used to be planted here.

Then, hoops were labeled for variety identification and placed with each crate where they were to be planted. We plant the tubers in exposed ground, acknowledging that the weed pressure will be high here. We are hoping to keep it in check with weekly maintenance until the plants are large enough to shade out competing weeds. This is our main concern with this year's plan, although I'm sure others will present themselves.

Our goal is to figure out the best method while being flexible for modifications. We hope to determine a final home field for the dahlias this year so that we can then drill into improving our initial setup in this new location. We will always fine-tune to get the harmony we want, even when it comes to the dramatic dahlias.

- xoxo, Jess

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