How to Grow Cafe au Lait Dahlias
Inevitably every gardener is going to try growing dahlias at some point in their career. Whether it’s for showing in the local Dahlia society exhibition, cutting for arrangements or enjoying in the garden, dahlias are invaluable for their vigor and of course their amazing flowers.
And if you’re growing dahlias, no doubt you’ll be interested in growing the famous (or infamous depending on your personal opinion!) Cafe au Lait dahlia.
The one dahlia that everyone seems to love - retail customers, floral designers, gardeners, dahlia enthusiasts and casual observers all agree that its a spectacular dahlia. In fact, the only people that seem to dislike Cafe au Lait dahlias are flower farmers for a few very specific reasons - but we’ll get into that later on.
If you’re growing for the garden and are have just a couple tubers for your personal enjoyment, then growing Cafe au Laits is pretty easy. After being planted, the tubers will get to work producing a nice large stem that grows vigorously to create a nice large dahlia plant - practically an herbaceous shrub at this point.
So long as you keep the Cafe au Lait dahlias staked, watered, fertilized and deadheaded, you’ll enjoy blooms all the way until the first frost. Those beautiful perfect blooms range from coffee-cream light ivory all the way to a deep blushy-pink and can get very large and full in only the way large decorative dahlias can.
Digging up the tubers after the first frost for storage, you can overwinter and multiply your dahlia stock from year to year. Cafe au Lait is a very good tuber producer, and you’ll soon have more than you know what to do with.
Growing Cafe au Lait Dahlias for Flower Farmers
If you’re a flower farmer and you’re looking to grow plenty of Cafe au Laits for production, you’re going to have to change the way you grow them.
Cafe au Laits aren’t the best dahlia when it comes to flower production - they seem to be very slow to bloom and aren’t the most productive dahlia you can grow. You have to really love them (or have customers that really love them) in order to make their production a priority.
When we grow Cafe au Laits for mass production - selling to florists, for wedding design and workshops - we usually have to order a lot of dahlia tubers. We’re talking 300 tubers bare minimum (if not more) in order to get enough stems.
The reason for the big number is to ensure the timing is correct. It’s not even so much that the Cafe au Lait dahlias don’t bloom - they do, and will bloom very prolifically, but never the time that you need them. The flowers will be opening after that big blush wedding you had planned, or will be blooming one week before your favorite florist needs them for an event - somehow their timing is always off!
If you have enough plants producing flowers, you’ll be guaranteed to have at least a decent sized amount producing when you need them. It’s not a great strategy, but it’s the only one we’ve found so far to combat the seemingly random production of Cafe au Laits.
You could also do what some growers do and grow Cafes along with other similarly colored dahlias - Labyrinth, Peaches n Cream and Appleblossom being some of the more popular varieties - that can help to supplement a lack of Cafe au Laits (but are similar enough in color to be a decent substitute).
Incidentally, if you’re a flower farming that is growing cut flowers for florists, Cafe au Laits are the most popular and most desired flower that we grow for florists, hands down year after year. If you’re interested in learning more about growing cut flowers for florists, check out the book we wrote on growing for florists here.
Harvesting Cafe au Lait Dahlias
Cafe au Lait dahlias aren’t a super long-lived flower since they are a dinnerplate dahlia (also known as the decorative form of dahlias) and dinnerplate dahlias are generally very short-lived flowers, lasting only days in the best case scenario.
For this reason, we try and harvest our dahlias as fresh as possible for the event. For example, if I have a wedding on Saturday, I’ll usually be harvesting Friday morning or Friday evening to ensure the maximum amount of vase life possible.
Cafe au Laits will usually send up their first bloom on a big gigantic stalk that is thick like a broomhandle. We do love these first blooms for how big and sturdy they are - but they can be very difficult to work into arrangements due to how thick those stems are! We usually harvest the first blooms for use in a large arrangement (such as an altarpiece or foyer display) and then wait for the smaller, more reasonable sideshoots for regular wedding design.
You can of course skip this by pinching the dahlias when they are small, forcing them to branch out much sooner, so that all you get are more slim-stemmed dahlias.
Make sure you are harvesting your Cafe au Laits straight into water. We just use cool water in a clean bucket - nothing fancy - and ensure that we strip the stems of any large leaves. It’s important when cutting dahlias to get them into water immediately to ensure that they hydrate properly, so don’t wander your rows with cut dahlias for too long a period.
We shuttle our Cafe au Laits directly into the cooler during the hotter periods of the year to ensure that they get the “field heat” removed as quickly as possible. In the fall when the temperatures cool off, we will sometimes just leave them in a air conditioned room in the house since they last longer when the temperatures are cool.
Saving Cafe au Lait Dahlia Tubers
Cafe au Laits are a surprisingly productive plant when it comes to tubers. From one single tuber, they will produce up to a dozen large tubers when well watered and fertilized - it’s pretty impressive!
Our first frost usually comes at the end of October, so we wait until the frost has killed off the foliage of our dahlias before we start to dig - this allows for the tubers to firm up a bit more and prevents them from snapping off when digging - and then we will lift them from the ground using a potato fork so as not to injure them with the sharp edge of a spade or shovel.
After rinsing them off, we’ll let them dry for a couple hours (which happens quickly in the New Mexico weather) and then bring them inside. We’ll start dividing dahlia tubers after that (and if you want some excellent information on dividing dahlia tubers, our friend Michael Genovese of Summer Dreams Farm has a great and detailed tutorial!) and then store them for the winter.
We’ve also experimented with leaving our dahlias in the ground too - we dig a deep hole and then cover them with mulch. Given that our winters are so dry here, dahlias overwinter very easily even when it gets very cold.
If you like the sound of Cafe au Lait dahlias and you enjoyed this post, check out our post on growing perfecting dahlias here!
If you’re interested in growing cut flowers for florists, check out our book on growing for florists here!