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Dahlias for the 21st century; still spectacular but more versatile than ever ... from new dwarfs to classic 6-footers.

Dahlias for the 21st century

Brilliant colors and fanciful shapes havelong made dahlias the stars of late-summer flower shows across the West. But until recently, floppy growth habits made most dahlias unlikely candidates for center stage in gardens.

Now, new lower-growing varieties, withall the colors and flower shapes of their taller cousins, expand the possibilities. Increasingly, Westerners are using these tuberous perennials in a full range of roles--in beds and containers, massed in single colors or mingled with other plants.

"There's nothing wimpy about dahlias,'says one Northwest gardener. "Gutsy flower shapes and colors are like exclamation points in mixed borders. And the little guys are great fillers. They're also forgiving and easy to grow.'

And they're versatile. Today's dahlias--hybrids of a species discovered in Mexico in the late 1700s--come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors. Plants range from 10 inches to over 6 feet tall; flowers vary from 1 to 15 inches or more in diameter. Depending on variety, flowers come in single colors or are blotched, flecked, tipped, or striped with second colors. Petal edges may be neatly pointed, quilled, scalloped, or serrated; flower centers may be closed, open and ringed with a second color, or tufted like pincushions (see choices on pages 184 and 185). Varieties with 3- to 6-inch blooms and long, strong stems make magnificent cut flowers.

For a good selection of flower sizes andtypes, shop for dahlia tubers in nursery bins this month (April and May in coldest climates). Or choose plants in jumbo packs, 4-inch pots, or 2-gallon cans starting later this month in mild climates. If you can't find the kinds you want in nurseries, order tubers soon by mail from specialists (see page 190); cost is $2 to $20 per tuber, depending on variety.

Dahlias for landscaping

Our photographs show some ways to usedahlias of different heights in the garden. Dwarf bedders with 1-inch single blooms include "Bonne Esperance' (pink blooms), "Chip' (yellow), and "Inflammation' (orange). Smallest strains commonly sold in mixed colors in nurseries included Figaro (semidouble and double blooms), Fresco (double blooms), and Rigoletto (semidouble blooms).

Midsize kinds include "Border Princess'(salmon cactus blooms), "Park Princess' (pink cactus blooms), and "Rosa Bella' (rose-pink decorative blooms). Unwin types have 3-inch double blooms.

Give them heat and good drainage

Plant dahlias after frost danger is pastand soil is warm: mid-March to April in mildest parts of California, April and May in mildest Northwest climates, June in coldest areas. Choose a spot that gets full sun (light shade in hottest areas).

Provide good drainage. Several weeks beforeplanting, dig soil about 1 foot deep and work in organic amendments such as ground bark or redwood compost; where soil is heavy, also add coarse sand.

For tubers, dig holes and follow plantingdirections at right; put a granular fertilizer such as 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 in the planting hole and cover it lightly with soil before setting in tuber (or wait until after planting--when shoots have reached about 4 inches tall--to apply it). Where gophers are troublesome, line the hole with 1/2-inch-mesh chicken wire. Set started plants about 1/4 inch lower in planting holes than the soil level in the pot. Bait for snails and slugs. Keep newly planted tubers slightly moist.

When shoots reach about 4 inches tall,water plants regularly and deeply (avoid wetting the mildew-prone foliage). Apply half-strength liquid plant food every four to six weeks during growing season.

To encourage compact growth on standardand tall varieties, pinch out top shoots. On plants that produce blooms under 6 inches wide, pinch after four or five sets of leaves have formed; on 6- to 8-inch-bloom varieties, pinch after three or four sets of leaves have formed; on the largest-flowered varieties, pinch after two sets of leaves have formed.

If powdery mildew appears in late summeror in foggy weather, apply sulfur. Where ground freezes in winter, dig and divide clumps after tops yellow in fall; dust with fungicide and store in boxes or plastic bags filled with vermiculite or peat moss in a cool, dry place until planting next spring. In warmer climates, you don't have to dig the tubers, though heavy winter rains can cause them to rot.

Photo: As a summer hedge, golden yellow doubleblooms cover 2-foot Unwin dahlias in Menlo Park, California, garden. Six plants in hedge (three are pictured) came in three years from one clump of tubers

Photo: Sampling of dahlia bloomsshows wide range of flower types and sizes. Each type comes in many colors

Photo: In a mixed border, cactus-flowered dahlias form the backbone of Rucy Neiman's flower border in Mercer Island, Washington; dwarf pink dahlias grow near front, behind blue ageratum, sweet alyssum

Photo: Cactus

Photo: Anemone

Photo: Orchid

Photo: Single

Photo: Incurved cactus

Photo: Formaldecorative

Photo: Ball

Photo: Formaldecorative

Photo: Double

Photo: Collarette

Photo: Pompon

Photo: Novelty

Photo: In a bed by an entry, caramel blooms of standard semicactusdahlias rise behind edging of marigolds. Planted 2 feet apart on May 1 in Roger Walker's Bellevue. Washington, garden, they reached peak bloom in mid-August

Photo: In a low border edging a walk,midsize pink cactus-flowered dahlias combine handsomely with marigolds, heather, and zinnias

Photo: Dwarf (15 inches and under)

Low, bushy plants, many withpetite flowers and foliage. Ideal for pots, window boxes, edgings, low beds. Plant clumps or single tubers 10 to 12 inches apart in garden beds (about 8 inches apart for hedge effect) or plant two clumps 3 inches apart in 12-inch containers

Photo: Midsize (18 to 24 inches)

Mostly sturdy plants thatdon't need staking. Mass single colors in beds or low borders, or combine with low-growing annuals. Space 12 to 18 inches apart; in containers, plant one per 12-inch pot

Photo: Standard (3 to 4 feet)

Most have long stems thatare perfect for cutting; plants require stakes. Grow as summer screen or hedge, or intersperse with other bloomers in mixed borders. Plant 2 to 3 feet apart

Photo: Tall (5 to 6 feet and up)

Flowers often beyond easy reachfor picking. Use plants as backdrop in mixed borders (for screen effect, intertwine branches of adjoining plants). Good against distant backdrop of trees or mingled with shrubs. Require sturdy stakes. Best in large gardens. Plant 3 feet apart

Photo: In a 12-inch pot,midsize bronze-leafed "Fascination' adds splash of color to edge of garden pool

Photo: Single tubers should have at least one eye(bud) on the stem part, like the one at top left; fat tuber (bottom left) looks healthy but has no but and will not send up shoots

Photo: Plant tuber in mix of soil and peat moss;as tuber grows, fill in top of hole
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Date:Mar 1, 1987
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