Dahlias: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want

January and February are the peak selling season for dahlias. It’s still months before we start shipping tubers, but dahlia lovers are always eager to reserve their favorites. They know from experience that the only way to make sure you get the varieties you want is to order them early.

There are several reasons why dahlia tubers are often in short supply. First is propagation. Producing new tubers is a labor-intensive process with little room for shortcuts. It is still done much the same way it was generations ago.

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Clockwise from upper left: Flats of dahlia tubers with sprouts almost ready to for cutting. After they are rooted, cuttings are planted directly into Holland’s sandy soil. A customized wagon makes the planting go more quickly. Preparing the dahlia field in spring.

How Dahlias are Propagated

Our dahlias come from Holland and are sold in clumps rather than as individual tubers.  The production process starts in late winter. Growers plant clumps of “mother tubers” in shallow trays (see above). After a few weeks, the tubers sprout and begin sending up shoots. These shoots are harvested and planted into propagation trays. Once the cuttings are well rooted, they get planted out into the field.

Over the course of the growing season, each cutting develops into a full size plant with a clump of tubers. In late fall, the clumps are dug, graded and put into storage until they’re shipped to the U.S.

Each year growers must balance how many tubers they will sell with how many they will retain for use as mother plants.

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Harvesting dahlia tubers in late fall.

Fewer Farms Are Producing Dahlia Tubers

Years ago, most of Holland’s flower bulbs were produced on small to mid-size family farms. The process of growing dahlias had its place in the annual calendar of growing tulips, glads and other types of bulbs. But today, farms are much larger, more specialized and more mechanized. Labor is more expensive. Profit margins are tighter. Propagating dahlias is no longer a great fit.

Though the demand for dahlias is strong, the number of producers is shrinking. Those growers who are still in the business, tend to favor well-known varieties that are ordered far in advance and in large quantities (Thomas Edison or Otto’s Thrill). They are less likely to take a gamble on producing varieties that are relatively new or unknown (Miracle Princess or Penhill Watermelon).

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Dahlia Cafe au Lait

Dahlia Café au Lait perfectly illustrates how this plays out in the marketplace. The variety had been around since the 1960’s and sales were relatively constant. Suddenly, it became a must-have wedding flower and demand skyrocketed.  For the next five years, tubers were expensive and difficult to find. Now that production has finally caught up, there are plenty of tubers to go around.

The variety Labyrinth is in the middle of the same cycle. We already know that for this growing season, there will not be enough tubers for everyone who wants them. So, in order to stretch our limited supply as far as possible, we are selling the tubers one-to-a bag, rather than the usual three.

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How We’re Helping You Get What You Want

As a short term solution, we now place orders with growers up to two years in advance. We have also increased our dahlia selection to almost 100 varieties, so you have more options when some varieties are out of stock. Getting your order in early is still the best strategy. Our early order discount is a good incentive (20% off) to lock in your order before mid-February.

With an eye to the long term, we are closely watching trends in the cut flower market as well as in the general gardening market. In addition, we are working to improve our own forecasting capabilities. If we can give growers in Holland more confidence about the U.S. dahlia market, they will hopefully be more eager to invest in propagation.

If you find yourself pining for a variety that’s out of stock, here’s a hint. Head on over to dahliaaddict.com. When you get there, you can search by variety and get a list of growers and importer who may have the one you’re looking for. Happy hunting!