B&B Winter Projects: Preparing for Summer Flowers

Dahlias make great bouquets at our B&B's breakfast table.

Dahlias make great bouquets at our B&B's breakfast table.

We love to grow flowers to put on the breakfast table or in our B&B's guest rooms. Even in the dead of Vermont winter, we are starting seeds or planning the flowers to plant in the seasonal garden beds. It takes some love and care to keep the gardens in line.

During our last post we mentioned that our Dahlia tubers that we placed into storage this winter began to mold a little and were generally not doing well. We are going to devote an entire post to Dahlias because not only do they add a huge burst of color to the Bed and Breakfast property every summer, but this flower in particular holds a special place in our hearts. 

Dahlias, to be made into bouquets at the B&B.

Dahlias, to be made into bouquets at the B&B.

Dahlias run the gambit from small, 1 inch diameter flowers on short stems; to flowers the size of dinner plates on massive stalks that need stakes driven into the ground in order to support their weighty heads. Whichever type of Dahlia you choose, they run the rainbow spectrum in color and eye popping appeal. This is why they line the banks of our pond and adorn the nightstands of our guestrooms when they are in season. Dahlias do, however, have one major drawback for Vermont growers. 

Dahlias 

Dahlias 

Native to Mexico, Dahlias are closely related to the Zinnia and Sunflower. Needless to say, they are a very tender annual and do not handle cold very well. While Zinnias and Sunflowers are easy to grow from seed each year, the Dahlia's root system is a group of meaty tubers that take time to become established. Therefore it isn't as easy as throwing a bunch of seeds in the ground each spring. Dahlia tubers can be purchased from any mail order seed catalogue, or even purchased at your local hardware store; but if you live in a climate such as ours, and you want to save your favorite Dahlia plants from one year to the next, certain precautions need to be taken so they can thrive in a Vermont garden.

Dahlias, ready for the guest rooms!

Dahlias, ready for the guest rooms!

At the first signs of frost their hearty stalks turn black with winter chill and they begin to die off. Before that frost reaches the ground, we snip off the blackened stalk and use a pitchfork to loosen up the soil around the mass of tubers. Once we can extract the tubers from the ground we rinse the mass off with water and set them out to dry for several days. The reason we had some mold popping up on our crop this year was twofold: I was impatient and didn't let them dry enough before putting the tubers into storage; and the storage container I placed them in did not have enough ventilation holes. 

Dahlia tubers, being prepared for winter storage

Dahlia tubers, being prepared for winter storage

Dahlias adorn the Blue Spruce Room bedside table.

Dahlias adorn the Blue Spruce Room bedside table.

Since there is a good 6-7 month stretch from killing frost to spring planting, these Dahlia tubers actually spend most of their life in storage, which means we need to be very careful about how and where they are stored. In years past I've placed them all in a cardboard box, separated by thin layers of newspaper, and placed them in the basement. This works well for many but here at the B&B our basement stays a little too warm. Ideally, they should be in storage conditions similar to a root cellar. Chilly, but never frosty. To meet these special conditions, our Dahlia tubers get stored in our garage for winter. I wanted to upgrade from the cardboard box to something more substantial this year, so we went out and got two large plastic totes to store everything in. Since Dahlias need to breathe, I drilled a few holes around the sides and top of the totes, and stored them just like I always had: with just a few pieces of newspaper in between them. 

Dahlia storage

Dahlia storage

After two weeks I went to check on them and lo and behold: MOLD! I knew right away what had happened. In the short time that they had been in storage, the extra moisture in the tubers came out and the few holes and sparse packing material were not enough to wick away the moisture. We were able to save them just in time! They all came out, got sprayed with 1:10 bleach solution, sat under a fan for a week, and we re-packed them for a long winter’s nap. This time I drilled many more holes in the containers and used a bag of pine shavings to pack in between the tubers. You want your packing material to pull extra moisture away from the tubers, but not pull TOO much moisture away from them. So now they sit in our garage. I make a point of checking them every other week to make sure they are still doing well; and waiting for their chance to be planted and enjoyed by our guests for another season.

-Luke McCarthy