My father grew dahlias and chrysanthemums.


He didn’t just grow them. He showed them, by which I mean he entered competitions.


Always a keen gardener, he announced one evening that he was going out to see a man called Tom.


Tom, I knew, kept a good garden, filled with colourful flowers, particularly in the summer and autumn months. I did not know at the time that these were dahlias and chrysanthemums. Tom encouraged my father to join the local society and, before long, my father was pottering in the garden nursing along his plants.


I was at an age where children are sponges, soaking up information and I was keen to learn. I learned that dahlias are grown from rhizomatous roots called tubers but that chrysanthemums are flowering plants, grown from cuttings. I learned how to stop chrysanthemum plants (pinching out the growing points to encourage more branches) and to disbud dahlias to encourage larger flowers. My favourite job was coating the stems of dahlia plants with Vaseline, to stop insects crawling up into the petals.


I went along to competitions with my father, helping him stage his blooms. I learned the tricks some growers use, such as threading thin wire up the stems to make the flowers stand up straight. But my father wouldn’t stoop to such tricks. He preferred to win (or not) by fair means, rather than foul.


Over time, I came to prefer dahlias. They were larger and flashier than chrysanthemums and, frankly, more straightforward. They bloomed from mid-summer to early winter, when the tubers were lifted and stored over the colder months. Chrysanthemums, on the other hand, varied widely in their care. There were Earlies, Mid-seasons and Lates, all with different cultivation and stopping dates. And the flowers themselves were either Spray (daisy-like) or Bloom (with mop heads). There was just too much to remember.


And so, when I had my first garden, it was dahlias I cultivated. They were so easy. Plant the tubers under cover in February and wait for them to sprout. Enjoy the flowers and lift the tubers again in November, after the first frost has blackened the foliage.


And then, a couple of years ago, I decided to give chrysanthemums a second chance. Why not, I thought. The smell of the foliage — peculiar to chrysanthemums — transported me back to my childhood and I began warming to them. I forgot to stop the growth, of course, so they weren’t the textbook shape, but the blooms came and were glorious. Not as showy as the dahlias in the next bed but lovely all the same.




It was mild today. Warm, for February. I went out to the garden and took a hoe to the two beds. The dahlia bed was empty, save for a covering of small weeds. I unearthed the odd bit of left-over tuber, rotten from the cold and damp. But the chrysanthemum bed was springing into life. Not only had the plants survived the winter without being lifted but, already, there is healthy growth. In the otherwise bare February earth it was a welcome sight.  


I wonder if I might prefer chrysanthemums after all …




  • I really enjoyed this story. I was looking for the exact information you talked about. Thank you! I adore dahlias. Do you know if they can be cultivated by seed? Where can you find the tubers?


    • Hi Sandi,

      Lovely to hear from you – thanks for the comment.

      Dahlias come in many sizes, from the small bedding ones (usually discarded at the end of the season) to the large plants with “dinner plate” blooms which need staked to support the weight. They can all be grown successfully from seed and at the end of the season you’ll find they have developed tubers underground which can be stored in cool, dry conditions, then planted the next year. The larger dahlias may not produce full size tubers from seed in the first year – but still enough to lift and plant again. Both seeds and tubers can be bought from garden centres (or online from specialist growers) and I would suggest sowing seeds in February. They are quite large seeds and very easy to grow. Sow indoors in seed compost around 2″ apart. Once the plants have grown large enough to transplant, move to small individual pots filled with potting compost and, if you have it, some granular material like vermiculite or perlite to aid drainage. You can move to a cooler spot (still indoors in Scotland) in April – eg an unheated greenhouse – but keep an eye out and protect from sharp frosts. Gradually harden off in May and plant outside early June, leaving plenty of room for spread. For taller ones put the stakes in a the same time as the plant to avoid damaging growing tubers later on. At the end of the season you’ll have tubers you can lift (but be sure to dry them thoroughly before storing – I usually leave the bottom 3″ of stem attached and turn upside down to allow any moisture to drain out. So that’s seeds.

      GROWING FROM TUBERS: buy from garden centres or online from specialist growers. Plant in large pots in February and keep cool and moist. As the plants grow protect from frost (but don’t allow them to get too hot). Established growers will take cuttings as the plants become bushier giving them more plants but you can just use the tuber for one strong plant if you like – it’s easier than sowing cuttings. (but if you do want to take cuttings, make sure the plant is established enough to stand having sections cut off and use a rooting powder on the end before inserting into seed compost. Protect the cuttings from the cold, and water regularly. Again, lift the tubers after the foliage has been blackened by the first frost and dry thoroughly before storing in a cool frost-free place over the winter. Some growers store them in sand to leech out any remaining moisture. Sawdust or newspapers shreddings would also work but making sure they are dry is the important thing.

      Good luck and happy growing!

      PS At this time of year it’s too late to sow but if you do see a plant for sale in a garden centre you can buy it, plant it and save the tuber as before in late autumn.

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