Showing dahlias is not for sissies!


WOOSTER, Ohio — Experience in dairy judging and helping with the family showstring as a 4-H and FFA member taught me what to look for in a good dairy animal. But when I decided to try raising and exhibiting dahlias at the county fair, I was in for a whole new experience.
Even though my dahlias were cut and carefully placed in glass jars, with plenty of water, and even more carefully transported to the fair to be put in display in the flower building, I felt like a little child heading into the show ring for the first time, not knowing if my animal and I would both enter and exit the ring at the same time.

Similarities in exhibits

In the end, there are a lot of similarities between exhibiting dahlias and cows. In both events, you want the ideal specimen that will attract the judge’s attention, the entry should be the right size for the class and they need to be properly presented.
As in the dairy show, judges look at the overall appearance of the dahlias, according to Dr. Russell Conrad, a veteran dahlia judge and grower. Typically, two judges evaluate the entries in a dahlia show.


Conrad recommends using a clear, plain heavy glass container such as a milk bottle to display the bloom. Adding a wedge will keep the bloom at the proper height, generally eye level and facing forward toward the judge. And don’t forget to attach the entry tag with the name of the dahlia variety to the container.
“We look at the overall appearance of the flower,” Conrad said. “They need to be as pretty in back as they are in the front.”
At first glance, dahlias need to be symmetrical in their appearance, with a well proportioned center. The blooms should be centered on the stem, and be as close to the ideal for their classification as possible.

All sizes

Dahlia varieties come in all sizes and forms ranging from small golfball sized pompoms to large blooms the size of dinner plates.
To determine what group or class the dahlias belong in, judges look at the width as well as the depth of the bloom.
Ideally, the depth of the bloom should be about three-fourths of the width of the bloom. Dahlias also need to be in the right stage of maturity on show day.
Sometimes, exhibitors will bring in a flower that is too young, particularly at early shows.
“You want to have the flower at its prime,” he said. “As judges, we must be able to see into the center of the flower. The size of the center is important because it can take away from the general appearance of the flower if it is too heavy.”


Just as good feet and legs are important on a dairy animal, dahlias need to have a straight, sturdy stalk to support the flower.
Caging the plants as they are growing helps support the stalk and keeps them straight and upright. The stem begins where the it attaches to the flower and ends at the first set of leaves. It should be round, strong, straight, and in proportion with the bloom.
The length of the stem should be about one and one-half times the width of the bloom. The stem of the bloom which starts just below the stem should also be straight round and smooth.
Judges look at the foliage as well as the bloom. To frame and set off the perfect bloom it should have two sets of leaves directly across from each other on the stem. The leaves need to be uniform in size and shape, have a healthy color and no evidence of insect damage or diseases.


Snails, slugs and cutworms can all create havoc on young dahlias. Cutworms will chew the stalk off at the base, while snails and slugs will go for the most tender part of the dahlia such as the tip of the plant or the lateral or side branches.
Growers have to be equally vigilant throughout the season as Earwigs, Striped and Spotted Cucumber Beetles and Japanese Beetles can destroy a potentially prize winning bloom. Dahlias can also be affected by diseases such as dahlia smut, botrytis, powdery mildew and viruses.

Air movement

While no grower can control excessive rainfalls during the season, keeping the plants at least 3 feet apart will allow air movement among the plants so the plants dry out as quickly as possible.
If growers have a problem with these diseases, they need to remove the affected foliage or blooms so it doesn’t spread to the rest of the plants. Judges will also fault an exhibit with evidence to a sucker or extra bloom coming out from the foliage.
These should be removed early in the growing season to allow the wound to heal. Judges also look at the angle at which the flower sits on the stem. The perfect dahlia bloom sits at a 45 degree angle from the stem.
“In the end, the straightness of the stem and good foliage may be the deciding point for the judge,” Conrad said.


Dahlias come in a variety of colors classifications including whites, pinks, dark pinks, reds, deep reds, yellows, oranges, bronze, lavender, purple, blushes, light blends, flame blends, dark blends, variegated and bi-color.
Blooms that fall in the blush classification have a light, uniform tinge on the petals or florets. Bicolors have two distinct colors on the petals and all of the petals should be uniform in their markings.
Blends have at least two and sometimes more colors from different color classes and the colors combinations are visible from a distance. No matter what color the bloom is, the color should be uniform in its clarity and brightness.
Some shows have a group class or collection of several different varieties in individual containers. This is an impressive class as it is a chance to see several different varieties grouped together.

Complement each other

While the judges look at each bloom individually, one secret that I learned from this class is to select colors that complement each other and arrange the exhibit in a way that the judge’s eye is drawn to the most perfect and spectacular bloom.
Showing dahlias, like showing cows, isn’t for sissies; they both take time, patience and hard work. But it is fun and that is why we make fair entries long after we get out of 4-H or FFA.

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