How to grow dahlias: the complete guide to raising beautiful dahlias

how to grow dahlias: red ball dahlia

Before we think about how to grow dahlias, we might ask ourselves why should we grow dahlias?’ In other words, do dahlias repay the attention that we are required to give to them?

According to the late Christopher Lloyd, whose Great Dixter garden featured multiple dahlia cultivars, dahlias are best in in late summer, when they are valuable in: “stiffening a garden that might easily dissolve into an amorphous froth of Michaelemas daises, and when the mellow quality of autumn sunlight best suits their warm colours.”

This is undoubtedly true, but I think there is even more to dahlias than that. They are, to my mind, one of the best all round garden plants.

Having been a stalwart of many a 1950s and 1960s garden, they gradually fell out of favour. But now, like Eames chairs and G-plan sideboards, these retro garden stars are back.

Dahlia care

Dahlias originate from the mountainous areas of Central America and Mexico. There are about 30 species of dahlias, including dahlia pinnata and dahlia coccinea, and thousands of different cultivars or varieties.

Dahlias are tuberous perennial plants, grown in gardens for their showy flowers which last from midsummer to late autumn.

Most dahlia cultivars have mid to dark green leaves, although some modern varieties have dark red-black foliage.

Here I’ll give you the full year round rundown on how to grow dahlias, from planting in spring, through summer dahlia care and over-wintering.

Growing dahlias

As noted, dahlias originate from the warm, dry areas of Central and South America and, as with all plants, the place of origin gives us a strong clue as to the conditions in which dahlias thrive.

Soil for dahlias

Dahlias will grow in most soils, as long as the soil (like the hillsides of their home) is well drained and not prone to water-logging. Dahlia tubers are liable to rot in waterlogged soil.

That said, dahlias do need plenty of water, so it is important that the soil is reasonably water retentive. Pure sand or very free-draining soils that easily dry out are not ideal.

Well drained soil that is also water retentive – wouldn’t we all like to have such soil in our gardens? The fact is, if you don’t have the perfect soil, it won’t stop you growing dahlias and, if you are willing to put in a bit of effort to improve the soil that you have, you can grow outstanding plants.

The key to improving any soil is the addition of organic matter. This means adding well rotted manure, garden compost, mushroom compost or commercially available soil improvers.

It is a good idea to start improving the soil for your dahlias at the end of the growing season in Autumn. In this way you begin the process of replenishing the soil with the nutrients that have been used up in the summer’s growth. This means identifying where you are going to grow next year’s plants.

If you lift your dahlias for the winter (more on this later) and intend to grow again in the same spot the following year, then dig in as much organic matter as you can into the area you have lifted the tubers from.

If you leave your dahlias in situ over trhe winter, mulch thickly over and around the site where your tubers are. Use good organic matter, such as garden compost, for the mulch and and it will break down over winter to improve the soil.

For more on mulching, read this post on the best mulch for dahlias.

After this preparatory work you can then leave the site until Spring. Wait until the soil begins to warm and is not too heavy and wet and then turn over the top layer of soil. This doesn’t have to be a deep dig, more just a loosening of the first few inches of soil to undo the compacting that may have occurred with the snows and rains of winter.

At this time it is also a good idea to add some organic fertiliser ( I use bonemeal or blood, fish and bone) at about 4oz per sq yard (100g per sq metre). Sprinkle over the surface and then fork it in gently. You might also want to add some organic slug pellets (see Pests and Diseases, below).

how to grow dahlias: pink dahlia

How much sun do dahlias need to grow?

Fundamentally, dahlias need a position in full sun (remember those Central American hillsides where they originate from). They need warmth and light in order to put on the huge amount of growth that they do over the course of 3 or 4 months of summer. So dahlias planted in the shade of trees or shrubs, or hard against a boundary wall or fence, will struggle. They may grow, but they will not thrive.

That said, dahlias can stand some partial shade, especially afternoon shade where temperatures are very warm. They can also grow in cooler climates. I grow dahlias in Scotland, and whilst they don’t do as well as the dahlias I grew when I lived further south, in London, they will do okay. Although, where temperatures are lower, the more sun you can give your dahlias, the better.

It is a good idea to plan where you are going to plant out your dahlia tubers. You need to give some thought to the characteristics of the particular varieties you intend to grow. You can place some canes for staking in the proposed position of the plants, leaving enough room for anticipated growth.

Most cultivars, other than the bedding varieties, will require staking. It is advisable to get a sturdy frame in place early in the growing season and to tie in stems as the plants grow out.

Pay attention to the height and width that your dahlia variety will eventually reach – this information should be available from the plant catalogues or websites of dahlia sellers – and plan your planting accordingly.

If planting in a mixed border with other plants (or planting different dahlia varieties), you’ll also need to take account of the size of surrounding plants and make sure that the smaller plants are not obscured by the taller ones.

A mistake that is easily made (in other words, it’s one I sometimes make) is to under-estimate the size of different plants, with the result that by mid-summer some of your favourites are hidden by taller plants in front.

You can rely on the published information about the eventual sizes of your plants, but also use you own local knowledge. If your soil is gold and your climate is perfect, your plants are likely to grow bigger. If your soil is so-so and your climate is cool, plan for smaller plants.

For a complete guide on when to plant dahlia tubers, wherever you are, read this post:

how to grow dahlias
dahlia tubers

Growing dahlias on over summer

Dahlias prefer fertile humus–rich soil with good drainage in full sun. They should be fed with a nitrogen rich fertiliser in early summer to promote bushy leaf growth.

Once the flower buds start to appear, in midsummer, they should be fed with a high potash/potassium fertiliser as this promotes flower growth.

One of the great attributes of dahlias is that they can flower for a long period between midsummer and the end of autumn. However, the key to extended flowering lies in deadheading, which is one of my favourite garden tasks. See this separate article on deadheading dahlias for some important deadheading tactics.

End of season dahlia care

Dahlias are borderline hardy. Flowers and foliage will be cut back by the first frosts. But the tuberous root system can survive winter temperatures down to around -5° C, if conditions are not too wet and a thick layer of mulch is applied.

Where winter temperatures are colder, or where otherwise desired, dahlia tubers should be lifted once the first frosts have hit.

The tubers should be cleaned up and, in the first instance, stored upside down so that water can drain away from the hollow stems. This lessens the risk of rotting of the tubers during storage.

Once the tubers have dried out, it is worth dusting them with an anti-fungal powder. They should then be stored in a dry growing medium or dry sand, preferably in a slatted wooden box to allow air to circulate, in a dry and dark place where temperatures don’t dip below freezing.

For a complete guide to how you can overwinter dahlia plants and tubers read this post.

Stored dahlia tubers can be replanted once the risk of frost has receded in spring.

Pests and diseases

Dahlias can be troubled by aphids, red spider mites, caterpillars, earwigs and slugs.

They can also be prone to powdery mildew and mosaic virus. Certainly in my experience, powdery mildew is the biggest potential problem and not one I’ve found very easy to deal with.

Conventional wisdom says that it occurs in hot and dry conditions where plants are tightly packed together. Therefore a good watering regime, mulching and wider spacing may help.

how to grow dahlias


There is a bit of work in growing dahlias, but to my mind it is well worth it. Dahlias are large enough to add presence to a border or to stand alone as a featured plant. The multitude of different varieties offers countless different flower shapes and colours.

Best of all, dahlias provide us with a focus for the whole growing season. First, a sense of anticipation, as they gradually grow and bush out into their allotted space. Then, the grateful appreciation of their floral display and, finally, the careful attention we give to deadheading and pruning, as we seek to eke out their beauty for as long as the seasons will allow.

Buy dahlias

All the best nurseries and plant supplier will stock dahlias – either as tubers or as grown on plants.


Brickell C (ed), 1998, the Royal Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants Dorling Kindersley, London.
Buczacki, S., & Harris, K. M. (2005). Pests, Diseases & Disorders of Garden Plants (Collins Complete Photo Guides) Harper Collins UK.

Lloyd, C. (2001) The Well-tempered Garden Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, London

More on growing dahlias

You can also get much more guidance on growing dahlias in these posts:

Love Dahlias?I've written the book on them

Check out my comprehensive step by step guide, with plain language explanations and ultra-useful images and illustrations. This is for you if you love dahlias and want to the best out of the dahlias you grow.

28 thoughts on “How to grow dahlias: the complete guide to raising beautiful dahlias”

  1. Thank you for the info, very helpful! Dahlias have always been one of my favorite flowers, this is the first year I have planted them. Happy growing!

    • Thanks Chelle. I hope you enjoy growing dahlias this year. Good staking and frequent deadheading go a long way to maximising their display.

  2. Thank you for the clear instructions… Took the page for deadheading into garden with me so I could see exactly what to do. Can I use the deadheaded buds to grow more dahlias? ( I am very new to gardening!)

    • Sorry Leigh, I neglected to respond to your question.
      The answer is that you can’t use the buds you’ve cut off.
      When you dead head, the idea is to remove the spent flower before any seeds set. Because the plant’s evolutionary purpose is to create seeds in order to maintain its species in existence, the plant is then encouraged to create more flowers and, if left to itself, seeds. As gardeners we interrupt this sequence between the end of flowering and the setting of seeds so that we get the flowers that we desire, but the plant doesn’t get the seeds it desires.

      Hope this helps. All the best.

  3. Hello
    Thanks very much for your extremely useful tip on how to differentiate between a spent dahlia flower bud and a bud yet to open. The deadheading task s so much easier now. I appreciate your expertise and the generosity with which you share it.

  4. I am a new dahlia grower. I just wanted to know if anyone had any pointers, tips, or suggestion for me. Thanks in advance

  5. This is my first in growing dahlias. I bought them in a bag at a box store. I didn’t plant them til the new stem was growing well. When I pulled the bulbs out of the bag there were cattail like things hanging from the main bulb. Are these cattail things also bulbs? Do plants grow from each one? I planted 5 bulbs in 1 container. I didn’t know they would grow so big. They are beautiful! The leaves are turning yellow around the outside of the leaves. It’s not an all over yellow, yet. I know I have something eating on other plants. I am going to use a homemade insecticidal soap made from unscented castile soap. It’s not supposed to kill everything. I saw the info on deadheading which is where I started. Thanks for the info. Sorry this is so long. Any help would be appreciated. Peggy

    • Hi Peggy, sounds like you’re on the right track. The cat-tail things are probably the tubers. Dahlia’s don’t have one bulb they have a number of tubers. The yellowing might mean they need a feed. But as the plants grow, some leaves do die off. You just need to remove them. Best of luck

  6. hi again!
    you mentioned that dahlias are prone to powdery mildew and mosaic virus.
    any tips on what might help with that?

    thank you

    • Hi Sandra
      For powdery mildew – try to maintain air circulation around the plants. Water around the roots, not from above. Don’t overfertilise them. You can also try spraying with a solution of one part milk, two to three parts water. If you want to go non-organic, you can use a fungicide.

      Mosaic virus is fatal. You need to remove infected plants and destroy them in case they infect other plants.

  7. Hi Martin, Thanks for this very usefull site and I have learnt a lot about my Dhalias. I have been growing Dhalias in pots for a few years but this year the plants have lots of healthy growth but no or very few flowers! Very disappointing. Do you have any ideas of why?
    I always mix the potting compost with my garden compost as Dhalias are hungry plants. We feed and water regularly and they are in a sunny spot. The tubers are kept in the garage over winter. I wonder if they are a little old? Probaly 5/6 years or older.
    Any help gratefully received as I love Dhalias!
    Thanks, Fran


    • Hi Fran
      It could be you’re feeding it with too much nitrogen. Nitrogen promotes leafy growth. The received wisdom is that potassium promotes flower growth, but there’s some debate about that: see here . I suspect the answer is a balanced feed, though there are some theories about stressing the plant to make it flower (e.g. here). It’s true that this can promote flowering, though I’m not sure how good it is for the plant in the long run.

  8. Growing dahlias for the first time and loving them. I was having some issues and came to read up on the answers. Thank you so much for being so helpful and informative. I hope for many months of beautiful blooms to come.

  9. Good morning, Martin–I have been disappointed for a number of years with no success planting Dahlias. I am thinking that I got old bulbs at the store, and/or they were not planted in the best spots. I started a new border that receives full sun this spring, and bought my bulbs at a couple of different local stores, and this year I am so excited to say they are very lovely and healthy. I did, however, find my biggest and strongest plant lying down on the ground after one of the few rains we have had this summer. (I thought I had it stakes well!) It has been very hot and dry, but I religiously watered and fed my babies. I live in NY, and my Dahlia foilage is beautiful and healthy and there are lots of buds, but they take forever to open. The anticipation is special with this type of flower, but they bloom so late, that I am now worried about the first frost! In any event, these gorgeous plants have added a whole new dimension to my summer, and provide color when my other perennial blooms have pretty much faded. I find Hibiscus is fun and keeps vibrant late summer also. I spot a beetle in my Dahlias here and there but have hung a bag to help that problem. Anyway, I am hopeful that I can store them successfully over the winter and enjoy them again next summer. I have gleaned so much information from your site, and I thank you for all of your excellent advice. I am wondering if buying new bulbs from a catalog might be a good idea. I absolutely love true red, but find that my bulbs seldom are the color shown on the packaging picture, and what I though was red turned out to be dark pink or purple! Wow–Sorry to drone on so.

    Thanks so much! Linda in NY

    • Thanks for your comment Linda. Certainly trying out plants form different catalogues. You should soon find which ones are the most reliable.

  10. my tubers are very small and young with only one main shoot from the base. a friend told me to remove the first lot of bulbs as this will make the plant more bushy. is this true cause he tends to joke a lot of the time

    • He may be referring to a pruning technique. If you cut back the growth about 2 or 3 months into the growing season, that will produce more and bushier growth. In the UK they call this the “Chelsea chop” because it happens around the time of the Chelsea Flower Show (end of May)

  11. My plants don’t seem to be growing. There are new buds on them but they’re drooped over as if their necks are bent and the buds are not opening.

    • not sure Anthony. If you fed them with a high nitrogen feed, that would encourage leaves over flowers. Try feeding with a higher potassium (potash) feed. You may also need to be patient, dahlias flower more in late summer.

  12. Hello, I am a new dahlia grower and I live in California (Los Angeles area where the weather is nice all year for the most part) I just purchased my first two dahlia’s about a week ago. The big yellow garden dahlias I bought at a local grocery store in and they are in a large pot with 3 large shoutes (I think that’s what they are called) and they do not have any stakes in the pot so the shoutes are starting to lean or bend all towards one side… I also purchased a sincereity dahlia from Home Depot which has one main shoute and I think I need to replant this one into a larger pot or something? (Advice on that would be great) also, I live on the 3rd floor of an apt complex with a balcony that gets direct sunlight from sunrise to about noonish and then indirect sunlight through the rest of the day since the balcony is covered and the direction in which my balcony faces (if that makes sense?) I am wondering if my dahlias will recieve enough sunlight everyday? And also if I see a beetle on my dahlia’s is that ok? Or should I remove it? (Advice on this would be great) and finally, can I add more medium to my dahlias? And when adding things like egg shells and coffee grounds and bananas or other fruit peels to the medium is there any particular place to put the compost? And are there things I should avoid using in my compost? (Advice on that would be amazing!) oh, one more thing: the leaves that are brown and dried and obviously dead, can I just pluck them off the plant or what’s the best method in removing dead foliage?
    Thank you so much for providing these very useful tips and for offering advice to beginners like myself, it is appreciated so much!
    Oh, and there is one more last thing: I was wondering if I can cut any of these and make a small bouquet to give to my mother in law or my sister? And if that’s not going to damage the plant too much what’s the best method for this?
    Thank you!

    -Ashley L.A. California

    • Hi Ashley

      Thanks for your comment and questions. I’m glad you’re enjoying your dahlia growing.

      Here are some thoughts:

      • Yes, you do need to stake dahlias in pots unless they are small bedding dahlias, which it doesn’t sound like yours are. Use bamboo canes and tie in the stems of your plant to the canes.
      • Yes, re-pot your dahlias if they are in a pot that seems too small.
      • Ideally dahlias need full sun, but they can do okay with if they are not in sun all day, as long as they are not in deep shade. You just have to see how they go.
      • Beetles – ladybugs are fine. Pick off anything else as it might be a capsid bug or an earwig, both of which may damage the plant.
      • Remove dead leaves with secateurs or scissors.
      • It is okay to add more compost to the pot but leave enough room for watering. I wouldn’t add bananas, coffee grounds etc directly – put these in a compost bin and let them break down first.
      • Dahlias make great cut flowers, but wait util you have plenty of buds before you cut the blooms.

      For my best advice and tips on rowing dahlias, why not get my book – “Dahlias Step by Step – the complete guide to growing dahlias in your garden” Click here to buy.

      I hope this helps.


Leave a Comment