Start Growing Dahlias

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Dahlia flowers in full bloom
Dahlia flowers in full bloom

Comes winter and vegetables and seasonal flowers abound and gardeners become joyful. Though there are plenty of varieties (of flowers) to choose from, one thing is for certain– Dahlia is a compulsory choice of gardeners by virtue of its size and dazzling vibrant colours. Kanchan, my friend, is no exception. He was content with his window sill garden and has become somewhat addicted to it. His passion for gardening persuaded him to obtain due permission from the apartment residents’ committee to use the rooftop for potting and planting. Earlier he used to grow a few winter seasonal flowers and has now decided to try his hands at Dahlias. He called me to help him out in this venture. So, one Sunday morning, I was at his place. Once inside his flat the delicious aroma of fried hilsa fish greeted me.

Collarette dahlia

The rooftop was open on all sides and that was an ideal condition to grow dahlias. After finding out the direction of the sun, we chose a spot with ample sunlight. Dahlias like that. 

– “Babuda (Kanchan calls me by that name), tell me what I should do to grow big Dahlias?” 

– “Kanchan, listen, the size of Dahlia depends on the variety you choose. So if you desire to have large Dahlias, you should select from large flowering varieties.” 

– “That means there are smaller varieties too?”

– “Surely. The beauty of a bloom depends on the colour, form and freshness. Just think, which is more beautiful; a small red Munia or a large vulture? Of course, all large objects may not be ugly, take the instance of Macao or Peacock.” Now Puchu, Kanchan’s daughter, entered the scene. 

— “Jethu (that’s how Puchu addresses me), I read somewhere that one Mr. Dahl had discovered Dahlia from the Mexican jungle. It was a tiny plant with only five petals.” 

— “What you remember is half-truth. It was discovered by Prof. Cabanius of Royal Botanical Garden, Madrid in Spain. He named it after the Swedish botanist Dahl. This plant was exported from Mexico in the year 1789, the year in which the French Revolution took place. Later through selective breeding we got the Dahlia of today, having different forms.”

Kenya (blend) dahlia

– “Jethu, what do you mean by different forms?” 
– “Since we have so many varieties of Dahlias today, those needed to be grouped into different categories like Decorative, Cactus, Semi- cactus, Fimbriated, Pompon, Water Lily, Anemone, Colarette, Ball and miscellaneous. The Dahlia variety we most commonly see in horticulture exhibitions or we grow is of the Decorative variety. Petals are densely placed in an organized manner. Cactus varieties have incurved petals looking more or less like a stick. In case of Semi cactus varieties, the petals are incurved for about half its length from the tip. As the name implies Fimbriated Dahlias have petals with multiple slits at the tip. Pompon Dahlias look exactly like tennis balls and are of smaller size.” 

– “Do you mean that only Pompon Dahlias are of small size?” 

– “Not necessarily, other varieties of Dahlias may also be small. For this reason Dahlias are also sub-classified into different size-groups according to diameter of the bloom, like Giant (more than 10 inches), Large (between 8 and 10 inches), Medium (between 6 and 8 inches), Small (between 4 to 6 inches) and Miniature (less than 4 inches). They are also sub-grouped into different colour groups like Monochrome, Bi-colour, Blend and Variegated.” 

At this point Kanchan snapped in and said, “Puchu, stop this academic discussion. Let us now hear about the knowhow of growing dahlias.” 

Prabhujee (bicolour tip) dahlia

 – “What will be the soil mix?” 

– “You have to make the compost manure at least 3 months before planting. Now I’m going to tell you what I prefer most. Garden Loam: 3 parts, dried cow dung manure 2 parts and leaf mould 1 part by volume. In case you cannot procure cow dung, you can use Garden Loam 2 parts, vermicompost: 1 part and cocoa peat 1 part by volume. In order to maintain the right proportion you can use a bucket with litres measurement denominated on its body. To each 2 litres of the above mixture add steamed bone meal (50 gms.), horn meal (20 grams), mustard/neem oil cake (50 grams). Keep this compost on a polythene sheet; turn over this compost now and then and occasionally spray with water. You have to cover it as well so that rain does not wash it away.” 

– “When shall I plant the rooted saplings?” 

– “You can plant them in November. But first, the rooted sapling should be planted in a 4 inches diameter pot for hardening. Keep the plants in a place that does not receive harsh sunlight. This is to acclimatise the tender plants to the environment, like we do for newborn children. Harden for about 15-21 days, and then re-pot in 10-12 inches diameter pots.” 

The process of hardening goes on for 15-21 days
– “Any type of pot will do?” 

– “No, use terracotta pots with at least 3 holes; one at the bottom and the others at the corners. The bottom of the pot needs to be filled up to 1.5 inches with rubble or pieces of broken earthenware pots for proper drainage. While repotting, keep free spaces measuring about 2 inches from the top as that will be needed for mulching. Remember, Dahlia is a voracious eater.” 

– “I like Biryani, what does Dahlia like?” Puchu quipped. 

– “You will provide additional food in the form of mulching, liquid manure and leaf manure. For mulching use ‘basic compost’ (3 parts), ‘mustard or neem oil cake’ (3 parts), Sterameal or Biral (1 part). Apply about 2 handfuls of this mixture at the periphery of the pot and mix it with the soil with a fork. This has to be applied at least after 15 days of repotting and when the plant has started growing you can apply this every 15 days…” 

– “Now what about liquid manure?” Kanchan asked.

– “You have to apply liquid manure when the flower bud sets in. Keep 2 parts of cow dung, 2 parts of mustard oil cake and 1 part of mourala (mola carplet) fish in a container, add 10 parts of water. Allow it to rot for 10 days. Dilute 1 litre of this liquid with 20 litres of water. Apply this diluted liquid every 10 days till the flower bud shows colour.” 

– “But Babuda, that will create quite the stink.” Kanchan was apprehensive.

– “Yes, you can cover the container or you can use chemical manure instead, in the manner of 19:19:19 NPK (2 gms) + DAP (2 gms) in 5 litres of water.” 

– “You said something about foliar feed.”

– “Yes, you can spray the chemical manure in a more diluted form (1 in 20) along with Trace elements.” 

Potted Dahlia flowers

– “When shall I water the plants?”

– “Best time to water the plants is in the morning or 3 hours after sunset. Water sufficiently so that the water seeps down to the soil at the bottom of the pot. After applying manure, water for at least 3 consecutive days.”

– “And what about pests?”

– “That’s a relevant question. We should not wait for the pests to invade, so, as  prophylaxis, use a mixture of insecticide (as Rogor) and Fungicide (as Blitox) at an interval of 15-21 days. You can very well add a trace element to this solution.”

Kamala (bicolour) dahlia

– “I have seen Dahlia plants being tied to sticks.”

– “Yes, you have to support the stem with a stick so that the stem does not break due to the weight of the big flower.” Masima in the meantime summoned us for lunch.

 – “Babuda, give me a list of plants which I shall grow.” 

– “You see Kanchan, there are so many plants to select from– Prabhujee, Sahitya Samrat, SP Bharati…” 

– “Wow, so many Bengali names?”

– “Yes Kanchan, these cultivars were bred here in Kolkata and the pioneer person is none other than a monk of Ramakrishna Mission order, Swami Vinayananda, fondly known as Buddhadeb Maharaj or Bhikkhu Buddha. He introduced India on the World Dahlia map. And yes, I shall send you the list.”

Assorted list of Dahlias

Kanchan has started working on his dahlias. If you have a taste for seasonal flowers, you can try your hand at Dahlias too. It is not as difficult as it sounds. 

Images used in this article are from the author’s personal collection. 

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