Truth be told, for a very long time I was no fan of dahlias.You know, those big, dinner-plate-sized, over-the-top plants that bloom in late summer. Yeah, dahlias.

Then I learned about the heirloom dahlias. Those darling little dahlias are unique. Some have charming butter-yellow blooms with picot centers (Claire De Lune) or regimented red-and-white-striped blooms (Union Jack) or possess brilliant burgundy foliage to color up the garden from the spring through fall, when their scarlet blooms pop (Bishop of Llandaff).

And I’ve been smitten ever since and continue to grow these, and a few other dahlias as well. Now that I’ve become accustomed to their culture and needs, these easy-to-grow and enjoyable late bloomers are a standard part of my spring garden routine. I couldn’t help but notice that dahlia tubers were hot sellers at the recent Merryspring Nature Center’s spring plant sale.

Many fans of these easy-to-grow tender plants like to start the tubers early in spring in indoor pots, and set them outdoors when all danger of frost has passed. That helps them get a jump on the season. From Longfield Gardens come these tips for growing these perennial favorites:

Sun and shade: Dahlias are sun-lovers and need a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day. The more sun they get, the better they'll bloom, so it's best to plant dahlias in the sunniest location.

Soil: Most plants, including dahlias, grow best in loose, fertile, well-drained soil. To improve the quality of your soil, add compost and an all purpose fertilizer at planting time. Avoid planting in areas where the soil is soggy or compacted.

When to plant: Dahlia tubers are planted in the spring after all danger of frost is past. You can start the tubers indoors about a month before the last frost date. Fill pots with growing mix and plant one tuber per pot. Put the pots in a warm, sunny place until the plants are several inches tall and the weather outside is warm. By using large pots to start dahlias indoors, you can simply sink the pots with the dahlias into the soil when it warms up, and then lift them for storage —pots and all — after the first frost. The potted dahlias will produce many new tubers over the summer, which makes the larger pots a good choice. Or, to plant tubers in the ground:

1. Dig a hole to four to six inches deep in well-drained soil.

2. Set the tubers in the hole with the stem facing up.

3. Replace the soil and water only if the soil is very dry. Sprouts will appear in two to four weeks.

Where to plant: Flower gardens: Dahlias bloom from late summer through fall and hit their stride as most perennials are starting to fade. Consider each dahlia variety's ultimate height when placing them in your borders, with tallest ones in back, mid-size dahlias in the middle and border dahlias up front.

Entryways, patios and decks: Border dahlias are ideal for containers. The compact, bushy plants stay just 18 inches tall and cover themselves with flowers from midsummer to frost.

Along fences or for screening: Dahlias can be functional as well as decorative. Full-size varieties can be planted along a property line to add privacy. They can also be planted in pots to enclose a space or in the garden to screen an unwanted view.

Vegetable gardens: Dahlias are great companions for almost any vegetable. Just plant them at the same time you're planting tomatoes and peppers. When you harvest your dinner, you can also harvest fresh flowers for the table.

Cutting gardens: Dahlias are fabulous cut flowers, and just a few plants will give you armloads of blooms. Planting several different flower styles will give your bouquets a professional look.

How to pinch and stake dahlias

Dahlias don't need any special care to put on a great show in your garden, but there are two easy techniques that will give you even better results. Pinching, or "topping," young dahlias will produce stronger, bushier plants with more flowers. This holds true for all types of dahlias, whether they are border dahlias, decoratives or dinner-plates.

The best time to pinch is when the plant is between 12 and 16 inches tall and has at least four sets of leaves on the center stalk. At this stage, it is growing rapidly and will quickly recover from being pinched.

Locate the uppermost sprout on the main stem and snip it off with your fingers or scissors. Take care not to tear the stem or damage the nearby leaves.

Removing the plant's terminal bud will stimulate lateral buds (lower on the stem) to develop into new stems. Where the sprout was removed, the plant will generate two shoots rather than one.

Staking or caging dahlias

There's no need to stake border dahlias and other types that are under two feet tall. Full-size dahlias, and especially those with large flowers, such as dinner-plates, perform better when their branches and blossoms are supported. Those growing dahlias in a cool, cloudy climate (or in partial sun), will find that the plants will get taller than they would in a hot, full sun location. This makes staking even more important.

The best time to stake or cage dahlias is before or right after planting. That way you won't accidentally damage the tubers when inserting the stakes. But even if you don’t get around to it until the plants are several feet tall, it’s still worth doing. Choose wooden stakes, bamboo poles or metal cages, such as tomato cages.

These small investments at the start of the growing season will ensure you get to enjoy a bumper crop of beautiful blooms. Dahlias are tender plants that will not survive in the ground here over the winter. We’ll discuss winter storage of dahlia tubers later. Looking for dahlia tubers now? Check out Longfield Gardens ( for new hybrids and Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs ( for heirloom varieties.