After a time the popularity of the flower waned for some reason hard to account for, except on the theory that there are fashions in flowers as in clothes. I presume that the true explanation is that we people are prone to run to extremes, and when we take up a plant and it becomes a favorite we overdo matters and tire of it because we see so much of it. Then we relegate it to the background for a time, and after a while we drag it out of the obscurity to which we temporarily consigned it as a penalty for its popularity, and straightway it comes into greater prominence than ever, precisely as does the cut of a sleeve or the style of hair-dressing. This explanation may not be very complimentary to some people’s good sense or taste, but I think it goes to the root of the matter. It is sincerely to be hoped that the time will come when our flower-growing will have no trace of the fad about it, and that whatever we cultivate will grow into favor solely because of real merit, and that its popularity will be permanent. I am encouraged to think that such may be the case, for some of the favorite flowers of the day have held their own against all newcomers for a considerable period, and seem to be growing in favor every year. This is as it should be.
It used to be thought that the Dahlia could not be grown successfully at the north if it were not started into growth in the house, or greenhouse, very early in the season. Nine times out of ten the result was a weak, spindling plant by the time it was safe to put it into the ground—which was not until all danger from frost was over. Generally such plants were not strong enough to bloom until about the time frost came in fall, for it took them the greater part of the season to recover from the effect of early forcing, in which the vitality of the plant suffered almost to the point of extinction, and to which was added the ordeal of the change from in- to out-door conditions. “Our seasons are too short for it,” was the universal verdict. “At the south it may do well, but there’s no use in trying to do anything with it at the north unless one has a greenhouse, and understands the peculiarities of the plant better than the rank and file of flower-loving people can expect to.” So it came about that its cultivation was given up by small gardeners, and it was seen only on the grounds of the wealthier people, who could afford the services of the professional gardener.
We have learned, of late years, that our treatment of the plant was almost the opposite of what was required.
Some eight or ten years ago, I ordered a collection of choice varieties of the Dahlia. I ordered them early in the season, expecting to start them into growth in pots as usual. For some reason they did not come until the last day of May. It was then too late to start them in the usual way, and I planted them in the garden, expecting they would amount to nothing.
The result was, to me, a most surprising one.
The place in which I planted them was one whose soil was very rich and mellow. It was near a pump, from which a great deal of water was thrown out every day.
In less than a week after planting, the tubers threw up strong shoots, and these grew very rapidly under the combined effects of rich soil, warmth, and plenty of moisture at the roots. Indeed, they went ahead so rapidly that I considered their growth a discouraging feature, as I felt sure it must be a weak one.
The result was that when the State Horticultural Society held its summer meeting in the village in which I resided, on the twenty-eighth of August, I placed on exhibition some of the finest specimens of Dahlia blossoms the members of the Society had ever seen, and carried off eight first premiums.
Since then I have never attempted to start my Dahlias in the house. I give them an extremely rich soil, spaded up to the depth of at least a foot and a half, and made so mellow that the new roots find it an easy matter to work their way through it. Water is applied freely during the season. I consider this an item of great importance, as I find that the plant fails to make satisfactory development when located in a dry place. A pailful of water a day is not too much to apply to each plant in a dry season.
The soil must be rich. In a poor soil development will be on a par with that of plants which have been given a dry place.
Because of the peculiar brittleness of the stalks of the Dahlia it is quite necessary to furnish them with good support. My plan is to set a stout stake by each plant, at planting-time. This should be at least five feet tall. I put it in place at the time of planting the tuber, because then I know just where the root of the future plant is, and can set the stake without injuring it. But if stake-setting is left until later in the season one runs a risk of breaking off some of the new tubers that have formed about the old one. I tie the main stalk of the plant to the stake with a strip of cloth instead of a string, as the latter will cut into the soft wood. Sometimes, if the plant sends up a good many stalks, it will be necessary to furnish additional support. Unless some kind of support is given we are likely to get up some morning after a heavy rain, or a sudden wind, and find our plants broken down, and in attempting to save them we are pretty sure to complete the wreck, as a slight twist or turn in the wrong direction will snap the stalk off at its junction with the root.
The Dahlia will be found one of our very best plants for use in the border where something is needed for a filler. It is very effective as a hedge, and can be used to great advantage to hide a fence. Single specimens are fine for prominent locations on the grounds about the house. In fact, it is a plant that can be made useful anywhere.
In fall, when our early frosts come, it will be necessary to protect it on cool nights, as it is extremely tender. This can be easily done by setting some stout sticks about the plant and covering it with a sheet. If tided over the frosty weather that usually comes for two or three nights about the middle of September, it will bloom profusely during the weeks of pleasant weather that almost always follow the early frosts, and then is when it will be enjoyed most.
When the frost has killed its stalks, it should be dug and got ready for winter. Lift the great mass of roots that will have grown from the little tuber planted at the beginning of the season, and do this without breaking them apart, if possible. Spread them out in the sun. At night cover with a blanket, and next day expose them to sunshine again. Do this for several days in succession until the soil that is lifted with them will crumble away easily. Exposure to sunshine has the effect of relieving them of a good deal of moisture which they contain in great quantity when first dug, and which ought to be got rid of, in a large degree, before they are stored in the cellar.
The tubers should never be placed on the cellar-bottom, because of the dampness that is generally found there. I spread mine out on shelves of wire netting, suspended four or five feet from the floor. If they show signs of mould I know they are too damp, and elevate the shelves still more, in order to get the tubers into a dryer stratum of air. If they seem to be shrivelling too much, I lower the shelves a little. Cellars differ so much that one can only tell where the right place is by experimenting. Watch your tubers carefully. A little neglect will often result in failure, as mould, once given a chance to secure a foothold, is rapid in its action, and your tubers may be beyond help before you discover that there is anything the matter with them. As soon as you find a mouldy root, throw it out. If left it will speedily communicate its disease to every plant with which it comes in contact. Some persons tell me that they succeed in wintering their Dahlia tubers best by packing them in boxes of perfectly dry sand. If this is done, be sure to elevate the box from the floor of the cellar.
Quite naturally persons have an idea that the best results will be secured by planting out the whole bunch of tubers, in spring. This is a mistake. One good tuber, with an “eye,” or growing point, will make a much better plant than the whole bunch set out together.
To sum up the treatment I advise in the cultivation of the Dahlia:
- Have the ground very rich.
- Have it worked deeply.
- Plant single tubers about the first of June.
- Furnish a good support.
- See that the ground is well supplied with moisture.
There has been a great change of opinion with regard to the Dahlia. We no longer confine ourselves to one type of it. The single varieties, which were despised of old, are now prime favorites—preferred by many to any other kind. The old very double “show” and “fancy” varieties are largely grown, but they share public favor with the “decoratives,” the pompones, and the cactus, and, as I have said, the single forms. Which of these forms is most popular it would be hard to say. All of them have enthusiastic champions, and the best thing to do is to try them all.
“Show” Dahlias are those with large and very double flowers of a single color, and those in which the ground color is of a lighter shade than the edges or tips of the petals. The outer petals recurve, as the flower develops, until they meet at the stem, thus giving us a ball-like blossom.
“Fancy” Dahlias are those having striped petals, and those in which the ground color is darker than the edges or tips of the petals. This class, as a rule, is very variable, and a plant will often have flowers showing but one color. Sometimes half the flower will be one color, half another.
The Pompone or Liliputian class is a miniature edition of the show and fancy sorts, quite as rich in color and perfect in form as either, but of a dwarf habit of growth. This class is well adapted to bedding out in summer.
The Cactus Dahlia has long pointed or twisted petals. Most varieties are single, but some are semi-double. This is the class that will be likely to find favor with those who admire the ragged Japanese Chrysanthemums.
Decorative Dahlias have broad, flat petals, somewhat loosely arranged, and much less formal than those of the show, fancy, or pompone sorts. Their flowers seldom have more than two rows of petals, and are flat, showing a yellow disc at the centre. As a general thing they are produced on long stalk, a flower to a stalk. This makes them very useful for cutting. They are the most graceful members of the entire Dahlia family, allowing me to be judge.
The single type has but one row of petals. Plants of this class are very strong growers, and can be used to advantage in the back rows of the border.
No flower in cultivation to-day has a wider range of color than the Dahlia, and nearly all the colors represented in it are wonderfully rich in tone. From the purest white to the richest crimson, the deepest scarlet, delicate pink and carmine, rich yellow, dark purple, orange and palest primrose,—surely all tastes can find something to please them.