Digging and Dividing in Autumn

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

A little photo montage follows and will hopefully help someone harvest and keep those little tuber treasures that have been working so hard through the summer. This is pretty much how I've done it for several years. The only exception is that there is no visible stalk- this plant broke off in wind/rain. But once you cut off the plant and dig the clump you'll find pretty much the same thing with some variation in clump size.

www.dahlias.net also has a great photo spread on this process.

Dig with a shovel or fork starting about 10 inches away from your stalk. The little stick with label is my imaginary stalk here. Our soil is wet so I usually go with the fork rather than lifting that huge clump of heavy dirt with a shovel which can break delicate necks.

It helps to scrape away mulch in the target area too: less weight on the clump when you lift it.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Dig and gently loosen the soil on 3-4 sides of the stalk. I will sometimes take my hand to unearth some of the loosened soil, again to reduce the weight of the wet soil. Thank your lucky stars if you get to do this in a dry area!

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

The final lift should be deep so you can hopefully avoid breaking or cutting off some of the lower tubers.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Tag the clump! There is nothing worse for me than wondering which clump of dahlias I'm staring at- they all look so much alike! I have been known to go around and write on the stalk base with Sharpie or No Blot Ink in a Pencil just as an added precaution to a tag.

Once the clump is out, I move the tag to a tuber that isn't going to break off easily.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

A most handy thing to make is a wood framed screen of 5/8 or 1/2 inch hardware cloth on 1 x 1 framing is what I have. Placed between two sawhorses or other stands, it offers a great place to rinse off, cut and work on tubers.

The initial wash off using the 'Shower' setting on a hose sprayer can be done anywhere but it is a dirty job. Sometimes I'll just wash them on the lawn, but that leaves rocks and debris behind. If it's freezing cold I'll do a quick hose wash outdoors, and then try to dip/swish the rest of the dirt off in a bucket or two inside the garage by a space heater. With age, comes wisdom, sometimes!

The washed clump looks better already.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Get rid of all the roots, extra stems, and much of the stalk ( missing in these photos.) It's much easier to see what you're doing without them. By now, it's a good idea to write the name of the variety on tubers you hope to cut and save. LABEL FIRST, CUT LATER. Those tubers can fly off the clump and if they hit the ground it is very tough to tell one from another.

See the eyes? I'm not sure when this plant broke off, I'd guess only 2 days and already you can see eyes.

All the pink stuff where the green stalk used to be will have to be trimmed away. Go for nice off-white tissue, clearing out any rust or brown colored decay before saving your tubers.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Eyes marked for reference. Deciding how to cut them to get at least one eye per tuber is another thing. That gets easier with practice.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Don't forget to turn your clump over and check for easily cut tubers with eyes. Go for the easy ones first, the trickier ones can wait. Skinny necks are prone to breakage, pencil thin tubers are prone to dry up or rot, but sometimes they can be saved. Why not try?

Two easy tubers had been cut off here (the unerside of the clump) already.

The lines are mere suggestions at first glance of where I might stab and cut, trying to keep enough tissue behind the eye area so it doesn't break off.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Upper side of clump with eyes marked in blue.

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Sometimes it's very tricky to get an eye matched up with a good tuber. Some tubers will just go to waste even though they are well formed, if they have no eyes they will be worthless.

Here is one way to tackle these with cuts along the red lines; certainly not the only way, and possibly not how I ended up doing it!

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Once your tubers are all trimmed up, if you choose, you can keep a bucket of about 10% bleach water nearby and drop your labelled tubers in for a soak as added protection against fungus and bacteria. Anywhere from 5 minutes and up works for me. This gets them nice and clean. I fish them out with a kitty litter scooper to keep my hands warmer.

In the end, if you're lucky, you should have labelled clean tubers with eyes ready for storage in the method you choose. These will go onto a screen to dry overnight. Then they get shaken in sulphur dust/vermiculite in a baggie for further antifungal protection, Saran wrapped and packed in a ziplock bag inside a cooler for winter.

And then the wait for April begins!

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Delhi, IA

What are you going to use to actually cut apart? That's the hard part of it for me.

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Far and away my favorite cutting tool is the "Fruit Secateur." A fancy name for a really thin bladed pruning shears. It can stab into snug areas as a single blade and then you can make really small cuts using it as a double bladed tool. It's dead center above the freezer handle here.

The florist scissors are quick for trimming little roots if you have a very rooty clump. Can stab with those too, but the blades are longer.

There's the wood framed screen standing up behind everything. Maybe they're 2x2s instead of 1x1s, I don't know. And now that the rain is letting up I must suit up and go dig!

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Fox River Valley Are, WI(Zone 5a)

Well I started to dig with a spade in wet clayish soil, poor little tubers. Their skin is so delicate. Will the eyes be on the neck only? A lot of my tubers have little white nubs on the skin area.

Fox River Valley Are, WI(Zone 5a)

Here is the carnage...

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Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Hi Intercessor,
Yes, generally, the thickened 'collar' area formed below the stalk/s is where the eyes will develop on both the top and bottom sides of the clump. Some tubers are very nubby from head to toe, but anything beneath the thinner part of the neck is likely not an eye.

When you dug the above tubers, did it come out in one clump, or a group broken apart? You'll be able to see better when that carnage is rinsed off! Then the real fun begins.

Fox River Valley Are, WI(Zone 5a)

Well the idea was to do it in one clump. However the topsoil is very wet and some of the tubers grew into the clay layer that is only 9-12 inches down. I started to think about where I am going to store them and realized that I don't have anything cool enough besides the fridge fruit drawer until the basement gets down to 45-50F ish. I may not be able to store these.

Hey how would soakng in 10% bleach(before storing) or using a .4% sulfur spray work for storing?

Thank you

Winchester, VA(Zone 6a)

Thanks, pooch. I will keep this thread if i ever decide to dig my tubers. they sure do look like aliens, tho.

Appleton, WI(Zone 5a)

Looks good Pooch, I haven't gotten to where I cut the stem down that far yet. How thick of a piece of stem do they need? There is different tissue in the stem that allows eyes to grow - is that right?
I do like the tines to dig - I wish I had a longer one, but they bend some as they are already.

Albany, OR(Zone 8a)

Very nice pics, Prof. Annie! LOL
But really, you did good. Very informative lecture and pics.
I wished I had this when I first started with dahlias years ago, but live and learn.
I haven't used the bleach idea tho may try that.

I second Annie on the fruit sec. pruners. I love them for cutting the actual tubers apart. They do jab and cut nicely.

West Caldwell, NJ(Zone 6b)

Thanks, Annie! This makes the task a little less daunting. Now I have to get supplies..

Indianapolis, IN(Zone 5b)

So, that's what tubers are supposed to look like, hunh? Guess it helps when you plant them horizontally rather than vertically!

Pooch, your soil looks way lighter than mine! Is it sandy?

I wish I had seen the pictures before I dug! Somewhere I read that you cut the stems to 6" before digging so you can use the stem as a handle! I swear I did read that from a reliable dahlia website, and when I find it I will post the URL with a "see, I told you I read it!" note. The net result is that when you use the stem as a handle to yank the clump out, err, I mean to gently elevate the clump to the surface for its spa-like shower and sulfur mask, you don't rip the tubers off, but you sure break a bunch! Errr, I mean leave parts of them behind in the soil.

Guess I'll have to buy some fruit secaturs. Oh, and couldn't find any sulphur powder even though I looked all over town! All I could find was soil suphur, so I bought it. It looks like sulphur chips and doesn't stick to the tubers very well. My basement smells like matches.

Intercessor, My tubers have those bumps on them, too. Maybe we should start the tubers in clear plastic this spring so we can see what really happens under the soil....sort of like an ant farm.

Does anybody want to trade some Japanese Beetle killing Four O'Clock seeds for a little pharmacy bottle of powdered sulphur?

Suzy

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Intercessor, the bleach is completely optional. I like it as a precaution and to give the tubers a final rinse before winter, cleans out the freshly made cuts etc. I don't go to the trouble of cleaning the pruners between each cut. That would be sheer shear madness. So every little bit I can do to keep a bug of some sort from bothering the tubers during winter is worth the effort. Many people don't bother at all with the bleach.

I'm not familiar with the 0.4% sulphur spray, but it wouldn't hurt a thing, and would likely help. If you have it, use it!

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Yes, yes you read it right, the ~6 inch 'handle' of the stem of the plant is the norm Suzy. But this particular plant above lost its entire stalk to a bad fall in wind: the stalk broke off well below the surface. I had to sort of hunt for the tubers to find where the clump would be.

Please don't tell us you buried your tubers 20 inches deep AND planted them vertically. I will have to go to the doctor for anti hysterical laughter pills! And you got flowers! Think what you can do with tubers at a depth of 6 inches or so? So much easier to excavate them gently for winter too....

If you hear that 'ripping' sound as you lift the clump, it's bad. After a while you don't care if you hear it or not though LOL! Our soil is anything but light. Even though a fair portion is sandy topsoil I added to the existing heavy clay and rocks along with about 2 tons of compost, it is so soaked with rain, that I was guessing how much the dirt and tubers weighed as they finally got gently excavated ( with only occasional ripping sounds.) My average guess was ~10-15 lbs: a lot of weight on those tender little necks. It rained about 75% of the day here; typical for dahlia digging. In the NW we just laugh when the dahlia info pages say to "quit watering your plants near the end of the season." We have no choice in the matter: they get watered plenty.

Fox River Valley Are, WI(Zone 5a)

OOops, silly me. If I would have read each post slower I would have noticed you had mentioned bleach already :*) Thanks for answering again. My tubers are so small they may just fit into the fridge all winter. That is if my DW lets me take another part of the house over :*0

Chicago, IL

Great turorial on tuber prep, Pooch. Thanks.

Mine are not as healthy looking, especially those that were farmed out in other gardens. The temp got milder, so I still have a lot in the ground waiting to be dug up. I hope they'll look as plump as yours and be good enough to survive the winter.

Nipomo, CA(Zone 8a)

Professor Pooch,
What is the lysol spray, hammer and screwdriver used for in your picture? I just want to make sure that I have everything and I know what everything is used for. I think I am going to dig one of my Mrs. Eileen and one Kelvin Floodlight just to see what does better next year. With my potted dahlias, I will mulch them really good, should I put the pots somewhere where they are a bit sheilded from the rain?
Dayna

(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

Terrific lessons and excellent photos Pooch! Thanks for being such a wonderful teacher.

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

I am hardly professor material, just passing on what I know has worked for me. The hammer and screwdriver act as a chisel to drive apart really gnarled clumps that have been in the ground more than a year, or just produced a huge mass in one year. The wood block is put underneath the 'center' bottom of the clump to act as a buffer, but I find a wadded up towel is better to absorb the shock of a hammer blow, or the wood block covered with a towel. You don't have to resort to such violence if you divide every year. The machete is rarely used, but if all else fails, flail away at a clump with that, and hope for the best~!

The lysol is handy to spray or spot treat cuts where you can't get all the brownish or discolored tissue removed. Just extra assurance.

Yes, keep the potted dahlias away from rain. I've never stored in a pot, so I'll be curious to see how yours do.

Albany, OR(Zone 8a)

I have stored potted dahlias and they do just fine. I have daf. and tulips in the one pot so it gets just sat on the front porch all winter long. Has been this way for 4 years now and is doing just fine.

Saint Paul, MN

Great information. Can you clarify what the ratio of vermiculite and sulphur is in the bag? I have to follow exactly!

Also, when the dahlia society sells them in a bag, it looks like they are stored in peat moss? Is that an option rather than wrapping them in the wrap?

And lastly, where did you get the tags you are using?
Many thanks!

Louisville, KY

This is really helpful. Thanks

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

Carol, do you just leave the pots dry and in shade all winter then? How do you start them up again in Spring? Or do they just sprout and you take over with watering etc?

Hey Soupy51, How's the weather in MN today? I was sad to see I missed much of the Fall foliage last week. There were hardly any leaves left in the northern part of the state, still a nice sky blue waters weekend though.

There is no ratio of sulphur to vermiculite per se. I use a little- maybe 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sulphur powder in a gallon ziploc bag containing approximately 4-5 cups of vermiculite. Zip it, shake and roll it all about to scatter the sulphur and then 'shake and bake' the tubers gently to your heart's content. You can add more sulphur when the dusting left on the tubers gets to be fainter or not yellow-dusty tinged in color. You could also use a grocery produce bag or any plastic bag that wouldn't rip easily. But ziplocs, especially ziploc freezer bags, they are sturdy. I've used the same two for 3 years in a row.

Usually a couple shakes/rotations of several tubers at a time, depending on their size, a turn over the bag and reshake once or twice will cover all the crevices and crannies. I'm trying to do a light coating this year so I do not have to rewrite the names on all tubers a second time before wrapping. I'm too old for such monkey business but I also like to see the tuber ID at a glance.

Peatmoss is certainly an option. Many sellers sell them bagged that way too. I find it annoying because I can't see what shape the eye end of the tuber is in, if I'm buying it. Makes for a lot of extra work shifting and turning the bag to loosen the peat so I can see what's up. Our dahlia society puts a tuber in an empty clear plastic sleeve with a stapled label over the folded bag end and that's it. They keep that way for a couple months before all the sales are over.

The white plastic tags are from an Ace Hardware source, but I get them at the local feed store. Cut in 1/4s and the cost is 1.5 cents each. Reusable and durable for years.

Timeinabottle, you're welcome!

Nipomo, CA(Zone 8a)

Pooch and/or bigcityal,
I have attached a picture of my tubers that I have soaked in a bleach bath for about 10 minutes. Are all the little bumps eyes? I think I can tell which tuber is the mother, but boy howdy is this a task. I had to put my dog in her kennel as she was disturbing my thought process when I was staring at this little guys. I actually put them on the bbq grill so the puppy wouldn't take a bite, while I went inside to get her lease. Tell me I am on the rigth track!
Dayna

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Appleton, WI(Zone 5a)

Dayna - you're on track. No all the little bumps aren't eyes. I couldn't pick out any eyes in that pic, is the stem on the right going down? Is it possible to get a pic of where the tubers meet at the stem? Those 2 small broken dried tubers in the middle left are probably form the mother also.
Pooch can maybe draw you a picture for you.
Al

Indianapolis, IN(Zone 5b)

How do we make this post into a sticky?

Suzy

Issaquah, WA(Zone 7a)

I hope you've let your dog free by now Dayna. She is going to think those clumps of tubers going on the grill must mean they're tasty treasures indeed LOL! Our neighbor dogs routinely patrol and steal the grill drip pan for treats.

From the fuzzy photo and my very fuzzy eyes at this point, I can't really commit to identifying any eyes but I've circled possible eyes ( lighter colored, yellowish raised areas) in red from your stolen photo LOL. Double misdemeanor for me! It's hard enough in real life, but really hard to see what's what with a photo. Can you get a macro shot of just the neck/stem part of the clump- a bit of the tubers, maybe from a couple different angles? Don't forget the underside if anything looks like lighter colored eyes down there.

The mother tuber looks to be the larger slightly darker one at about 11o'clock. I can't tell if the bubble neck/collar area with a red circle could belong to the tuber to the left of it, or if it only goes with the mother.

Are the oranged slashed upright white things shoots, do you think? IF they are shoots, vs, tubers forming, tell me and I'll redraw the photo because you could treat them as possible eyes for next year. You can slice them off to get them out of the way. Also, how big- length and width -are those 3-4 possible tuber candidates to the left?

I think your best bet is the one labelled tuber 1- the biggest ( though size doesn't always matter in tubers) Next best is the one above it next to the mother IF that little red circle goes with it. Then the odds for survival go to the ones labelled '2nd tuber' and 'possible 3rd tuber.' But a clearer photo would be better still.

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Nipomo, CA(Zone 8a)

Pooch,
I tried to attach three photos I guess only one came through, and of course it was the blurryist one. My camera couldn't get too close without becoming fuzzy. I will attach the other photos I have but I will also preint the one you wrote on for reference. Thanks a million for your help, you are so great!
Dayna

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Nipomo, CA(Zone 8a)

another one

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Nipomo, CA(Zone 8a)

one more

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