A Dahlia Grows in the Basement

– Posted in: Experiments, Garden chores

Oopsie. I finally decided to figure out what was in the garbage bag in the seed-starting area of the basement, and it’s a dahlia. Last fall, I let this chore go too long, and when I finally decided to remove the dahlia from the large pot it was in, I discovered it was mostly frozen in place. I managed to get it out of the pot, then put it in this bag and into the basement so the soil could thaw. After that, I planned to remove as much soil as possible and store it with the other dahlias.

Look what I found in the basement, inside a plastic bag.

But clearly I forgot. And now this dahlia is sprouting in the basement, yearning for light and life. What should I do? Several options come to mind.

  1. Wrap it back up, stick it in the dark, crawlspace part of the basement with the other frost-tender bulbs, and hope for the best.
  2. Same as above, except cut off all the sprouts first.
  3. Do what I originally intended: wash off all the soil (outside? in the cold?), let it dry, cut off the sprouts, and put it in a box in the dark part of the basement.
  4. Pot it up and grow it like a houseplant.

I chose the last option, partly because my husband said, “It’s trying so hard to live, you’ve got to give it a chance!” But also because I’m already tired of winter and kind of bored and I want to see what will happen.

Phooey. It doesn’t fit.

I wanted something wide and shallow to pot it into. My windows are already crowded with houseplants, so I didn’t want a huge container–or a top-heavy one. I had a pretty large hanging basket in the basement seed-starting area, but that wasn’t big enough.

Rats. This means a trip out to the garden shed. It’s 34°F (1°C), which is actually not too bad for this time of year, but it’s warmer in the house and snow covers the ground, so I’ll have to put on my boots. Sigh. At least I remembered to measure the diameter of the pot that didn’t fit, and to bring the measuring tape with me to the garden shed.

Not really wide enough, but it will have to do.

My rummaging in the garden shed failed to turn up a completely satisfactory pot. The larger 2 and 3 gallon pots were not quite as wide as this one, just deeper. I don’t want a deep pot. I’m afraid if there is a lot of soil in the pot, the dahlia tubers will rot. I would have to use one of my outdoor, fake-stone pots to get more width, and I just didn’t want to bring something that heavy and bulky into the house.

So Mr. Wants-to-Live dahlia will have to make do with cramped quarters, and I will have to be very careful watering him. I’ll probably take the pot to the sink.

Will this work?

I expect the leaves will green up and grow taller. There certainly won’t be enough light for the dahlia to bloom. I hope there is enough light that the foliage stays compact. If it starts stretching to the ceiling and flopping over, I will have to cut it back. I will be keeping my eye out for insect pests–aphids, scale, mealy bugs–and I might just chuck it if it gets infested.

If I manage to keep it alive until the Spring Equinox, I will take cuttings to see how they do. I’ve never taken dahlia cuttings before but I’ve seen it recommended. In fact, some people say you get a better flowering plant from a cutting.

Why was that dahlia sprouting?

It may be hard to believe, but it’s too warm in my basement. It’s best to winter over frost-tender bulbs and tubers at a temperature between 40°F (4°C) and 50°F (10°). Our basement–even in the crawlspace part–is a bit warmer than that.

The area where I store my frost-tender bulbs is in the mid- to upper fifties (F) (11°C-13°C)

That’s good for our plumbing (no frozen pipes!) but not the best for the frost-tender bulbs–or for forcing spring-blooming bulbs like hyacinths, which want to be chilled at 45°F (7°C). Look what’s going on in the dark crawlspace, where the rest of my frost-tender stash is.

canna growing in the dark
I kept these cannas in their pots, and they’re starting to sprout.
These are miniature dahlias, also sprouting.

I don’t usually check my stash in early January, so I don’t know if it’s early for them to be doing this. They are usually putting out some sad growth by the time I check on them in March, which I don’t cut off when I plant them. But I never had a dahlia tuber send out such vigorous growth before.

Maybe after these get greener I’ll take cuttings right away, and not wait until March.

By the way, you should check on stored tubers once a month, to make sure they aren’t drying out. If they are, you’re supposed to mist them.

dahlia tubers stored in boxes
The rest of my dahlias were dug up, cleaned, and stored in boxes.

I should probably open the boxes and check on my dahlia tubers. Maybe tomorrow. The crawl space is a rather awkward place to move around heavy boxes, and I’m feeling lazy. My dahlia tubers rarely get checked until I think it’s time to start potting them up in April. The crawlspace has a dirt floor, so it usually stays humid enough. Usually.

Despite the basement’s drawbacks, I haven’t figured out a better place to winter over these tubers. The attic and the detached garage both get below freezing on our coldest nights, so they are even less suitable storage areas for these plants. Page Dickey, in Uprooted (aff link), describes forcing bulbs in a cold frame. I think forced bulbs can take it a bit colder without harm. I’m not sure that would work for storing dahlia tubers, especially if I kept it dark.

I’m not ready to entirely give up on wintering over tender plants or growing bulbs indoors in the winter. But I am starting to wonder if dahlias are worth the trouble. They haven’t bloomed well for me the last couple of years, so why am I doing this? Because I remember the one or two years they did do well, and keep hoping to repeat that.

And in the depths of winter, anything is possible next spring.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Carol January 14, 2021, 1:49 pm

I’m “rooting” for the dahlia.
And thanks for the reminder. I need check on the canna roots I’m overwintering in my garage, which is also probably too warm, but it is the only place I have to keep them.

Nella Davis-Ray January 11, 2021, 6:31 pm

Glad to read that I’m not the only person that stuffs things into bags and then forgets about them! Fun experiment. Looking forward to your results.
Just potted up 3 Amaryllis bulbs yesterday.

Kathy Purdy January 11, 2021, 9:34 pm

Wonderful, Nella! I hope they grow quickly for you!

commonweeder January 11, 2021, 4:22 pm

How wonderful that you got a dahlia to sprout. I have three amaryllis bulbs that haven’t done anything! The bulbs seem firm and healthy but NO growth.

Kathy Purdy January 11, 2021, 9:36 pm

Did you just buy them this year, or have you carried them over from a previous year? None of my amaryllis carried over from previous years have sprouted, either. The ones you buy are specially treated to bloom at Christmas time. The carried over ones have their own schedule. Mine often bloom at the same time as the crocus, and sometimes they wait until mid-summer, so they can bloom on the porch!

Lisa at Greenbow January 5, 2021, 5:02 am

What fun to find a bit of a green surprise. I will be curious to hear how it goes. I don’t try to keep dahlias or anything else over winter. If I remember to dig them up I forget to plant them out the next year. A vicious circle.

Jennifer Patterson January 4, 2021, 2:47 pm

I have dahlia in a pot in a sunny south window, that I didn’t have the heart to cut back and clean for storage. It’s been blooming! Granted it’s long and leggy, and the blooms are small. But it’s fun to have them right now. I don’t know if it survive the winter and do well after planting out, but it’s a fun experiment.

Kathy Purdy January 4, 2021, 4:12 pm

Oh, Jennifer, this is good to hear. The only south window I have is in a room above the attached garage that I rarely go into. I’m afraid if I put it there I’ll forget to water it. But it might be the smartest thing to do. I’ll have to think about it.