Replacing dahlias with tulip bulbs is a favorite fall gardening ritual

Autumn is the time when everything in the garden falls to the ground. It is the time of weighing, when the fruit, leaves, seed pods and berries descend to the ground. “Autumn” may sound pleasing to the ear, but “autumn” more accurately depicts the movement of the season.

Autumn is also rich in promise. A few years ago, I found a nourishing gardening ritual associated with fall that has become one of my favorite occasions for the season: the dahlia and tulip exchange.

This swap links two flowers, both of which are beloved in the United States, although neither is native to that country. Each heralds a new season, with dahlias celebrating the arrival of autumn and tulips marking the beginning of spring.

Both offer colors to suit any color palette, whether bright and happy or soft and calm. Although both are vibrant, the dahlias appear softer to me, and the tulips are more fragile, in keeping with the path of the sun. I have often felt that the seasons are intertwined with the colors of flowers, and the colors of tulips and dahlias support this theory.

Tulips have been adored for centuries, while dahlias have seen their ebbs and flows. Only a generation ago, some horticultural critics thought it lacked elegance and refinement, too conspicuous in its puffiness. But dahlias have had to answer to dahlia advocates, including, among others, legendary gardener-author Eleanor Perini.

A friend once criticized Perini’s love of dahlias: “You like big, clear flowers, don’t you?” Perini was not impressed. “To me, they are stately rather than vulgar,” she noted, “and I love their colors, their willingness to bloom until frost kills them, and, yes, their persistence.”

She was in good company. British horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll wrote: “The dahlia’s first duty in life is to show off and show off, to bear magnificent flowers above its leaves, and by no means to hang its head.”

Henry Mitchell, a former gardening columnist for The Washington Post, agreed, writing in his book The Essential Earthman that he couldn’t “think of a more vigorous, exciting, active late-summer flower.”

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Perini, Jekyll and Mitchell may have been encouraged by the renaissance in popularity of dahlias over the past ten years. Me too. Dahlias are the first flower I looked for for my garden, not only because they are so beautiful to look at, but also because they bloom when they do few other things. In all its immensity, brightness and diversity, it is the season’s final salute to summer.

When I started working seriously in gardening, I began learning through books, volumes of garden writers who documented their gardening lives. I was pleased to read that gardeners I admire appreciate dahlias, too. In those writings, I also discovered the interchangeability of dahlias and tulips, which increased my appreciation for dahlias even more.

This exchange occurs twice a year, immediately 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 do the same in May, after the tulips have finished displaying. This is so obvious, and so attractive in its simplicity, that I have now organized nearly half my garden around this idea. My system: I gather bags of tulips, all different types — double, fringed, and my all-time favorite, parrot tulips — and divide them by bloom time (early, mid-season, late season), then toss them in the ground where the dahlia tubers are. It was just that.

There is no pattern or arrangement, outside of the time that particular bulbs bloom. Catherine Schiavone, a gardening teacher, made this suggestion. It extends the time to enjoy the tulips, and also provides an element of surprise. Next year’s bloom is sure to be different than last year, and it seems like any combination will work. Come March and April, I’m guaranteed a pageant, a festive spring whirl that appears even before the leaf buds reach the trees.

Swapping dahlias and tulips is a tried-and-true ritual: take out the dahlia tubers, then put in the tulip bulbs. Tried-and-true rituals not only define the joy of gardening, but enhance it. This feels like a way to root myself in my surroundings and the seasons. Other species have these seasonal rituals as well. Birds migrate south. Bears prepare for hibernation. Even squirrels bury their nuts in the fall, just as we bury our tulips, and they will dig up their treasure just as tulips emerge from the ground.

The exchange also promotes hope for spring. Autumn is probably the busiest season for a gardener, and there is a lot to do and finish: intensively raking foliage, clearing apples, storing tools for the winter, dividing perennials, and laying straw over the beds. It’s a meaningful time — and when you add the exchange of dahlias and tulips, it becomes a hopeful time, too.

In storing dahlia tubers, I can honor what was; In planting tulip bulbs, I can plan ahead and imagine what spring will bring. American historian and gardener Alice Morse Earle wrote: “Half the care of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.” The anticipation of tulip colors stirs my imagination during the winter, when there is no planting.

Research shows that much of the joy of vacation lies in the imaginative prediction. The simple act of booking a ticket or setting aside days on the calendar boosts our mood, which lasts from the moment the plan is made until the moment the plane departs. The November exchange of dahlias and tulips is the gardening equivalent: the hopeful raising of the next flower.

For me, this feeling doubles this winter. With the world unstable, we will need more to sustain us as the days shorten and the cold arrives. The exchange of dahlias and tulips gives us something more: the feeling that, even as we brace for snow and frost, tulip bulbs are brewing beneath them, preparing a greeting of spring and reminding us of the bright dawn yet to come.

Katie Maron is the author of “Becoming a Gardener: What Reading and Digging Taught Me About LifeFind her on Instagram: @catamaron.

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