published Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Great balls of fire: Colorful dahlias grow as large as dinner plates

Hixson grower Ray Phillips has about 1,200 dahlias in his garden this year.
Hixson grower Ray Phillips has about 1,200 dahlias in his garden this year.
Photo by Maura Friedman.
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    "Hilltop St. Charles" dahlia
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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    "Pam Howden" dahlia
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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    "Wildwood Marie" dahlia
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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    "Robann Royal" dahlia
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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If You Go

What: Dahlia Society of Tennessee show.

When: 1-6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6.

Where: Conference Center in Erlanger at VW Drive Wellness Center, 7380 Volkswagen Drive.

Admission: Free.

Ray Phillips went to his first Dahlia Society of Tennessee show in 1991. He wasn't planning to grow any flowers; he was just there to support a friend who invited him.

But he was so impressed, he tried growing 15 dahlias that summer. With each passing summer, his love for the flashy flowers increased, along with the number of dahlia tubers planted in his Hixson yard.

"Last year, I had between 800 and 1,000 dahlias, and this year I've got about 1,200," he says.

In addition to taking them to dahlia shows, Phillips sells blossoms to area florists, wedding coordinators and event planners.

"I'm retired and can put as much time as I want into it -- it takes just about all my time," says Phillips. "A lot of times it's like Christmas morning in the garden when a new one I haven't had blooms. It's still a thrill."

Rose Newsom of Dunlap, Tenn., also was inspired to grow dahlias after attending a Dahlia Society show nine years ago.

"The first year I grew about 30 dahlias, now I'm up to 200," says Newsom, president of the society. "I don't sell my dahlias. I just love to see them in bloom in my yard. I like to give my friends a bouquet every once in a while so they can enjoy them as much as I do. Dahlias make excellent cut flowers."

The Dahlia Society of Tennessee is holding its annual fall show on Friday-Saturday, Oct. 5-6, in hopes of enticing more new growers and members. It's a chance for visitors to see what's new, meet area growers and ask their advice on any dahlia problems.

"Make a list of flowers you would like to buy in the spring when we have our tuber sale," says Phillips. "We show people what a good dahlia looks like, and it challenges them to do a little better."

Dahlias are perennial plants whose roots can be traced back to Central America. Their petals vary in size from tight 2-inch balls to foot-wide blooms the size of dinner plates. Dahlia blossoms are similar to their related species: daisies, mums and zinnias.

Experts say that, if you're adding dahlias for backyard color, check into how tall the plants will grow -- anywhere from 12 inches to 8 feet -- to ensure they fit the spot you have picked out.

Phillips' stellar reputation among dahlia enthusiasts has earned him the position of Southern states representative to the American Dahlia Society. He serves on the society's executive board and has been an accredited dahlia judge for 15 years, most recently judging the society's National Dahlia Show in Grand Rapids, Mich., earlier this month.

Phillips and Newsom offer readers these tips that they have found successful:

Planting: "I start planting May 1 and plant all the way through July," says Phillips. "The ones in May will still be blooming through October. The ones I plant in July may not start blooming until September, but they will bloom until first frost."

He says dahlias are sun-loving plants that need six to eight hours of sun a day.

Watering: "In hot, dry weather like now, I water three rows at a time using a soaker hose or misting nozzles. I leave the three hoses from 30 to 45 minutes, then move to three more rows and repeat. I do that every third day. A full-grown dahlia plant can soak in a gallon of water a day," Phillips says.

Fertilizing: "You can fertilize one time in spring with slow-release fertilizer then do it again when they start blooming. Right now I spray each week with Miracle-Gro high-nitrogen fertilizer. I also used some water-soluble fertilizer that was 20-20-20 with trace elements. You need trace elements if you want to grow a good dahlia," Phillips believes.

Staking dahlias: "Dahlias are brittle and they do not like wind," says Newsom. "People who do not want to stake them and tie them to the stakes as they grow use tomato cages when they plant. The dahlias will grow through the cages just like tomatoes." Newsom says she uses a combination of stakes and cages for her plants.

"If you want to stake dahlias, put the stake in the ground before the tubers; one stake per every two dahlias," advises Phillips, who adds this is the first year he hasn't staked every dahlia he planted.

"This year I used netting I ordered on the Internet, and just used stakes to hold the netting in place. The first layer of netting was somewhere between 16 to 18 inches off the ground, the second netting was waist high. Now I'm adding the third one and its between 5-1/2 and 6 feet." Plants grow up through the netting -- "Which makes them harder to cut" -- but he knows he'll get straight stems.

"If a real strong storm comes through, and you don't have them supported, dahlias can blow down on the ground. Once they do that, you'll never get a straight stem again," he says.

Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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