This swap links two flowers, both beloved in the United States, though neither is native to this country. They each herald a new season, with dahlias celebrating the arrival of fall and tulips marking the beginning of spring.
Both offer colors to suit any palette, equally bright and happy or soft and subdued. Although both are vibrant, dahlias seem more mellow to me, and tulips more crisp, in keeping with the sun’s path. I’ve often felt that the seasons intertwine with flower colors, and the hues of tulips and dahlias bear out that theory.
Tulips have been adored for centuries, while dahlias have had their ebbs and flows. Only a generation ago, some gardener-critics thought them lacking in elegance and refinement, too conspicuous in their flounce. But dahlia downers had to answer to dahlia defenders, including, among others, legendary gardener-author Eleanor Perenyi.
A friend once critiqued Perenyi’s love of dahlias: “You do like big, conspicuous flowers, don’t you?” Perenyi was unmoved. “To me they are sumptuous, not vulgar,” she observed, “and I love their colors, their willingness to bloom until the frost kills them, and, yes, their assertiveness.”
She was in good company. “The dahlia’s first duty in life is to flaunt and to swagger,” wrote British horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll, “and to carry gorgeous blooms well above its leaves, and on no account to hang its head.”
The Washington Post’s own former gardening columnist Henry Mitchell concurred, writing in his book “The Essential Earthman” that he couldn’t “think of a more vigorous, spectacular, up-and-at-’em flower for late summer.”
Perenyi, Jekyll and Mitchell probably would have been encouraged by the dahlias’ renaissance in popularity over the past dozen years. As am I. Dahlias are the first flower I sought for my garden, not only because they are so beautiful to look at, but also because they bloom when few other things do. In all their bigness and brightness and variety, they serve as the season’s final salute to summer.
When I took up serious gardening, I began learning through books, the volumes of gardener-writers who documented their horticultural lives. It pleased me to read that the gardeners I admired also appreciated dahlias. In those writings, I also discovered the dahlia-tulip exchange, which increased my appreciation for dahlias all the more.
This swap happens twice a year, right after each flower has had its day. In November, after the first frost, you dig up the dahlia tubers and plant the tulip bulbs. Then you do the same in May, after the tulips have finished their show. This is so straightforward, so appealing in its simplicity, that I’ve now structured almost half of my garden around the idea. My system: I gather bags of tulips, of all different kinds — double, fringed and my favorite of all, parrot tulips — divide them by bloom time (early, mid, late season), then toss them into the ground where the dahlia tubers just were.
There’s no pattern or order, outside of when the particular bulbs bloom. A gardening mentor, Katherine Schiavone, made this suggestion. It lengthens the time for tulip enjoyment, and it also introduces an element of surprise. The coming year’s bloom is sure to be different from the last, and whatever combination arrives seems to work. Come March and April, I’m guaranteed a pageant, a festive spring swirl that appears even before the buds of leaves arrive on the trees.
The dahlia-tulip exchange is a tried-and-true ritual: Take out the dahlia tubers, put in the tulip bulbs. And tried-and-true rituals not only define but also enhance the pleasure of gardening. This one feels like a way of rooting myself to my surroundings and the seasons. Other species have these seasonal rituals, too. Birds migrate south; bears prepare to hibernate. Even squirrels bury their nuts in the fall, just as we’re burying our tulips, and they’ll dig up their trove just as our tulips pop out of the ground.
The exchange also cements hope for the spring. Fall is perhaps the gardener’s busiest season, and there is much to do and finish: intense leaf-raking, cleaning up apples, storing the tools for winter, dividing perennials, putting straw over beds. It’s a purposeful time — and when you add the dahlia-tulip exchange, it becomes a hopeful one as well.
In storing the dahlia tubers, I can honor what has been; in planting tulip bulbs, I can plan for what is next and imagine what the spring will bring. “Half the interest of a garden,” wrote American historian and gardener Alice Morse Earle, “is the constant exercise of the imagination.” The anticipation of the tulip colors exercises my imagination through the winter, when there is no planting to be done.
Much of the pleasure of a vacation, research shows, lies in imaginative forecasting. The mere act of booking a ticket or setting aside days in the calendar enhances our moods, a lift that lasts from the moment a plan is made to the moment the plane departs. November’s dahlia-tulip exchange is gardening’s equivalent: the hopeful lift of the bloom to come.
For me, that feeling counts for double this winter. With the world unsteady, we’ll need more to sustain us as the days shorten and the chill arrives. The dahlia-tulip exchange gives us something more: the feeling that, even as we prepare for the snow and sleet, the tulip bulbs brew underneath, readying their spring greeting and reminding us of bright dawns yet to come.
Catie Marron is the author of “Becoming a Gardener: What Reading and Digging Taught Me About Living.” Find her on Instagram: @catiemarron.