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.