How to divide and store dahlia tubers

Dugald Cameron

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dahlias make cut flowers
dahlias make cut flowers
Dahlias make wonderful cut flowers. If you have a favourite, you’ll want to overwinter it and replant it next year. (Photos by Dugald Cameron)

Colourful dahlias, native to Mexico, make a superb cut flower. They thrive in hot, sunny weather and rich, fertile soil, but they won’t survive freezing temperatures. This means you’ll need to store dahlia tubers over winter if you wish to plant them again next year.

But before learning how to divide and store dahlias, first decide if it’s worth the effort. Unless your dahlias were a spectacular success and you simply must have these exact ones again, why not explore the incredible variety of dahlias out there and buy new tubers next spring? They’re not expensive, and nurseries, dahlia societies and garden clubs would be thrilled to lead you on your dahlia adventure.

If you decide to keep them, next decide if you want to divide them. If you have plenty and no remaining sunny spots to plant more dahlias, skip the instructions on dividing and go straight to storage instructions.

Lifting tubers

The little potato-like tuber you planted in the spring has likely grown into a large, multi-stemmed plant, and the tuber has probably grown huge and multiplied, too. In fact, a dahlia continues to grow until frost turns the stems and foliage into a collapsed sorry version of its former glory. Leaving plants until they’ve been killed to the ground is critical to storage success. The tubers are toughening up and getting thicker skins (a.k.a. ripening). Tubers lifted too early won’t store well.

Cut off the stems, leaving a few inches (about 8 cm) above the soil; the shortened stems make handy handles for carrying the tubers once they’re dug up. Start at least a foot (30 cm) away from the stem and gently lift the whole clump. It’s fragile and there’s probably some water in the stems. Carefully remove loose soil, placing the clump upside down for a few hours to dry out. A warmish, late fall morning is best. They’re less likely to fall apart if they’ve had a chance to dry out a bit.

The second trick is to remember the variety. Record the height and save any photos you’ve taken to help jog your memory next spring. If you’re not planning to divide the clump, skip to storage instructions.

A note about container-grown dahlias: Plants in containers freeze solid earlier than tubers in the ground. Lift these plants as soon as their foliage has been killed. Otherwise, the procedure is the same as plants grown in the ground.

Dividing tubers

It’s easier to divide clumps in the fall after you’ve lifted them than to do so next spring. A clump left until spring becomes as tough as wood over the winter months and hard to divide. The question now is how many more plants do you want? It’s always a good idea to have some spares, but do you need 10 more? If you just want a couple more, then divide the clump into a few roughly equal pieces.

Start by washing the soil off with your garden hose. Cut off the remaining stem as close to the base as possible. Now, use a sharp knife to divide your clump from the top downwards through the stem base, like a pie. Each piece should have a section of the base (also known as the heel) and a single or cluster of tubers attached. Cut out and dispose of any damaged tubers; these will likely spoil in storage.

You may notice clusters of dark bumpy spots on the tubers. These are the “eyes” that will form stems when the dahlia is planted again in the spring. Let your tuber(s) dry thoroughly.

A whole Dahlia root in the spring
A whole Dahlia root in the spring

Storing tubers

It’s most important that they remain dry regardless of where you decide to keep them. Once dry, you can wrap them in a few sheets of newspaper, taking care to label each piece. You can also put them into individual paper bags, loosely closed. An ideal location is somewhere dark, between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius. They mustn’t freeze.

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5 thoughts on “How to divide and store dahlia tubers”

  1. Your article gave me good instructions on separating the tubers. Mine were given to me 2 years ago and I was told they were 25 years old . They sometimes come out in a huge clump. Now I understand that I can slice them as long as there is a stem on the clump? I havent been slicing them, but have been pulling them apart into 2 or 3 sections. Is this okay? My question is about the tubers that come away from the main clump and look like a potato with roots. If these are planted next year, will they grow? And also, should I be cutting off the long roots that are attached to the tubers? Thank you for your time

    • Dahlias form a cluster of tubers, radiating from the swollen base of the stem (known as the Heel). The size of your dahlia roots may vary from year to year depending on the weather; smaller in dry or cool seasons, larger in moist and hot ones.

      In spring their new stems grow from this heel which is why you need to have a piece of it attached to the tubers when you divide your root. You’ve had this dahlia for 2 years so your breaking apart must have given you tubers with heel or they wouldn’t have grown the next year. Any roots attached to the tubers can be removed when you lift your dahlia in the fall.

  2. What happens if there is no frost to kill the foliage? Where I live on the’ wet coast’ we sometime have snow before frost. Can I still take tubers in say mid November?

    • You have 2 choices. Either way, you begin by cutting your plants to the ground when the foliage begins to turn yellow.

      Lucky gardeners who have frost free winters can actually leave their tubers in the ground over the winter. They’ll rot over the winter if the soil is wet. The trick is in keeping the soil barely moist.

      Cut the stems down to the ground when they start to turn yellow. Cover the area with a plastic sheet, covering it with a 8cm (4″) layer of straw or bark chips.

      Your second choice is to carefully lift and store them in as cool a place as you can manage.


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