Growing dahlias and other summer bulbs in Oklahoma

Dahlia 'Arabian Night'
Dahlia ‘Arabian Night’

This week I picked out several dahlias for my garden. Summer bulbs and corms don’t get the kind of press that fall-planted ones do, but they are bright in the spring and summer garden when the other bulbs fade. Think about irises, cannas, elephant ears, caladiums, lilies and glads. Where would cottage gardens in sun or shade be without them? I love spring, but if you want a four-season garden with some structure other than trees and shrubs, you might consider summer bulbs and corms.

Dahlia 'LoLo' with dark stems.
Dahlia ‘LoLo’ with dark stems.

Dahlias really don’t like Oklahoma, but I love them so I’m willing to work a bit to coax them into bloom. Let’s begin with soil. They should be grown in an area with extremely good drainage, with sandy  soil. I do not grow dahlias in the pockets of clay that pepper my garden despite my best efforts. I have a border next to the garage that is a favorite because it still has builder’s sand left from construction.

Yellow dahlia, probably 'Mystic Illusion' taken at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum.
Yellow dahlia, probably ‘Mystic Illusion’ taken at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum.

Here, dahlias grown abundantly, flowering in late summer when everything else is tired. After the first season in that garden, I amended that soil with Back to Nature, compost, shredded leaves and manure. I planted a few shrubs, some grasses and annual seeds. I was working on the potager too so I didn’t have much time for this border. The first year, it looked pretty good.

Garage border second season
Garage border second season

In the second year, I added irrigation in the form of a soaker hose with a y-connector, and I pondered how I wanted the garden to look. I added a couple of daylilies, a clumping bamboo, Rhus typhina ‘Tigereye Bailtiger’ sumac and bulbs in the form of ‘Atom’ glads and dark-foliaged Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy.’ Although these are still small, I’m hopeful that one day they will take off and really grow. Later, I decided to add black or red-leaved cannas like ‘Australia’ because I wanted height. The other bronze plant in the photo below is ‘Maple Sugar’ hibiscus. It’s supposed to return. I hope it does. I can’t remember the name of the pink dahlia in front, but it pops against the cannas and hibiscus.

Dahlias, cannas, clumping bamboo and 'Hameln' dwarf fountain grass in the side garden.
Dahlias, cannas, clumping bamboo and ‘Hameln’ dwarf fountain grass in the side garden.

I also planted ‘Princess Caroline’ and ‘Princess Molly’ grasses along with the even larger ‘Prince.’ I love those dark grasses with a special kind of garden love. Since they are annuals here, I’m able to change up where I plant them every year. I don’t have live with them in any particular spot for forever. Those large grasses lend stature to the border are an excellent foil for the bulbs.

I’ve always grown dahlias, but they were hit and miss until I planted ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ on a whim. This Anglican bishop likes Oklahoma weather as much as he seems to like England. Each year, I now add more of these single dahlias like the beautiful ‘Lo-Lo’ with large dark leaves. Plant them against a large, lime green coleus like ‘Electric Lime’ or ColorBlaze® Lifelime and watch them sing. Their leaves are a color echo for the dark grasses, cannas and pineapple lilies too. Now, I’m planting ‘Australia’ cannas in the lower part of the garden to tie it to the garage bed. It’s good to repeat color. I don’t really love cannas, but I like these ones with dark leaves, and they are so easy to grow here.

For a touch of beautiful blue, I’m growing ‘Madonna’ glads. They are tall drinks of blue water in a dark garden. I’ve also added dark red ‘Tom’ glads to echo the darker dahlias.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'
Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ a bit tattered from grasshoppers. I must remember to spread Nolo bait to stop the grasshopper population from growing.

The dahlia obsession continues with ‘Arabian Night,’ ‘Le Baron,’ ‘Boom Boom Red,’ ‘Rosamunde,’ tiny ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Classic Poeme

I’ve been planning even bolder scenes after reading The Bold and Brilliant Garden, by Sarah Raven. I love this book. I found it on Amazon and read it cover to cover. Her interesting combinations of dark and light foliage and flowers made my heart skip a beat. So much so, that I went over to Old House Gardens and bought a few more dahlias, including ‘Claire de Lune’ and ‘Prince Noir,’ . With plants there never is too much of a good thing.



  1. Cindy, MCOK says:

    You make me want to try dahlias again. I wonder which ones, if any, would grow here?

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I don’t know Cindy. You’re even hotter than I am for a longer period of time. It all depends if you have some shade in the morning in your garden. Then, if it cools down enough in fall, maybe?

  2. Aisling says:

    I have not tried to grow Dahlias, but you inspire me to try. The colors are stunning.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Aisling. I think where you live you would need to dig them every year. Try Nan Ondra’s blog, Hayefield, because she digs hers each year and is very successful.

  3. Nelson says:

    Lovely dahlias, I just love the it as it can be grown in varying shades of white, yellow, orange, red, pink and purple. It is commonly used for decorative purposes on cakes, tarts and pastries. Serve alongside cheese or desserts as a garnish. Try removing the petals of the dahlia and add them to grain or green salads to add a pop of color.

  4. Like Kathy I have a hard time with them but if we have enough warmth and rain in the summer I may see them flower before the frost gets them. I do need to get them in the ground a bit sooner I think too.

  5. Sue says:

    I found Madonna Glads at the Ace Hardware, SW119th and Western in OKC. They were $3.99 for 10 big bulbs.

  6. Sue says:

    I found Madonna Glads at the Ace Hardware at SW119th and Western in OKC. They were $3.99 for 10 big bulbs. I will give them a try.

  7. Jean says:

    Hmm, I had just convinced myself that I shouldn’t plant dahlias when I read this. Thanks Dee, if I buy some can you guarantee I won’t fail? 😉

  8. So pleased to see a post about Dahlias! They are, indeed, beautiful … and unique! I don’t have any myself, but fellow Wisconsin gardeners have told me that they do well here. They’re great cut flowers, too. Nice post, Dee.

  9. granny annie says:

    How I long for a green thumb. We have daffodils and Iris that will spring up on their own or we wouldn’t have color around here at all.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Annie, plant a few more daffs. You’ll be glad you did. Put tulips in pots where nothing can get them. Hugs!

  10. granny annie says:

    You so make me long for a green thumb. We have daffodils and Iris that spring up on their own. Otherwise there would never be color around here.

  11. Lea says:

    Now that I know they need sandy soil, maybe I’ll try them again. Yours are so beautiful!
    Have a wonderful day!
    Lea’s Menagerie

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Lea, dahlias originally hail from hot and dry places like Mexico, Central America, and Colombia. Yet, they don’t like extreme heat which makes me think they were from the more mountainous areas. Anyway, they like a loose and sandy soil. Have fun and plant more dahlias!

  12. I really love your garden photos. Thank you for sharing. Our winters are so wet here in Seattle that you really need to dig up Dahlias up each fall and replant them each spring. When I have a little more time I am going back at this. I do really love Dahlias, especially the larger flower varieites.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Oh Charlie, I bet. Dahlias do not like to be wet. They will rot quicker than you can say, “Boo.”

  13. I gave up growing the big dahlias because they always fell over and seemed too needy. Maybe I should give some of the smaller ones a try. I really like ‘Lolo’.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Don’t get me wrong . . . even the smaller flowered ones need staking most of the time. Now, the short ones don’t, but I want that height too. I’ve also grown the shorter ones at the front of the border. However, I just get plants at the nursery then.

  14. Oh Dee I can’t decide whether I enjoy your blog more for the gritty info (I often take notes, literally) or for your lyrical, affectionate style of discussing your personal garden. I love the way you personify each plant as if she (or he, as in the case of your Anglican bishop) is a family member, or at least a cast member in your gorgeous drama. Please keep it up. Oh, and I am so backwards. The spring-summer-planted bulbs and corms are about all I have ever planted. I have for all of my gardening years forgotten to plant anything in fall. LOL Silly! xoxo

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Marie, girl, you made my day. I just write like I think and talk. Now, it’s your turn to grow both types of bulbs and corms.

  15. In our climate, I have a tough time getting dahlias to bloom before the frost hits. The growing season is too short. I’m going to try starting them in pots indoors this year.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Let me know how that works Kathy. I bet it will.~~Dee

  16. Holleygarden says:

    I’ve never tried dahlias, but your post has inspired me to give one a try this year! I think I may have just the spot for one. Thanks, too, for the book suggestion. It sounds wonderful!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Oh good. I think a red one would look great in your red border. 🙂

  17. Laura D. M says:

    Do you leave the Dahlias in year round or dig up in the fall? Absolutely loved the Bishop, such a bright pretty red, and the glads you mentioned do you stake those? I am going to look for a picture of the Madonna, love putting blue/purple with orange and that might look nice with the orange crosmia.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Laura, I leave mine in the ground because the areas where I have them are protected from the worst of the cold. It is recommended that you dig them each fall, but I don’t have time for that.

  18. Scott Kunst says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Dee, and your order. Since you like ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ so well (and I agree it’s awesome), I can’t resist recommending ‘Madame Stappers’. It’s an almost-single red with dark foliage like the ‘Bishop’, but it grows as a dense, compact, peony-sized plant. Very cool. Thanks for the brilliant purple crocus photo at the top of your blog today, too. Spring!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      You bet Scott.Maybe I should add ‘Madame Strappers’ to my order. Hmmmm . . . .

  19. Sue says:

    Dee, when do you plant them? I have never grown them, but have had good luck with some of your other recommendations, so I’m willing to try.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Sue, I’ll plant these new ones in late April if it’s warm outside, or early May. It depends upon the weather. They won’t start growing well until it’s warm.

  20. Jeavonna Chapman says:

    I like that you mentioned that this was a multi-year project. People sometimes think they can get a magical garden in a year. Maybe, usually it takes time to figure out what will or will not work in a particular location. Even from one side of the yard to the other.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Jeavonna, thank you for catching that. It takes years and years for a garden to come into its own. Then, I promptly change my mind. Such is a gardener’s heart.

  21. Frances says:

    More is never enough when it comes to dahlias! Good choices and I love the coleus idea as partners. Thanks!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hurray for dahlias Faire!

  22. Jason says:

    LoLo and the Bishop are beautiful, and I prefer the single flowers anyway. I like dahlias, but I don’t grow them because I am too lazy to store the tubers, etc.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Me too Jason. I don’t store them. Ha!

  23. Leslie says:

    Beautiful! I bought a dahlia recently…after a number of years of having none. Now I want that dark stemmed LoLo…that looks lovely!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      ‘Lolo’ is lovely. She is yellow until the air begins to cool. Then, she goes apricot on me.

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