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The wikipedia article on dahlia says that they are perennial plants. However, the dahlia section at my local garden center claims (in their little info booklets) that they are annuals. Upon further research, I found that:

Generally, seed grown varieties of Dahlias are started as bedding plants and then treated as annual plants. They will produce tubers during their first year of growth which can be dug and replanted in the same way as larger Dahlias, but because of the ease of growing them from seed, most gardeners prefer to discard the old plants and start fresh the following year.

So, they're only treated as annuals and are not really annuals. This coincides with some other articles on the web that suggest removing dahlia tubers and storing them over the winter and replanting them in the spring (i.e., if you choose not to discard them) if you live in a cold place.

My question is: Will dahlias grow as perennials and not die if I just leave them in the ground? I live in SoCal and we don't have winters here.

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Absolutely. If you can protect them from freezing (probably not too much of a problem in Southern California) and rotting from too much moisture (again, probably not a problem for you), they should be just fine.

I live in Portland, Oregon and have had some dahlias in the ground for -- I think -- 5 years now. They're underneath the overhang from my porch, so don't get the full brunt of the winter rains here. I also get a natural mulch from a nearby deciduous magnolia which protects against freezing. I have Hulins Carnival and a pink dinner-plate variety (can't remember what it's called) planted there, both of which grow 4' to 5' tall, so the tubers are planted deep; this also helps against freezing. I lift the smaller dahlias (e.g. Figaro and Diablo) that I grow every year.

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To confirm (check) your growing zone, plug your details in here: What is my arborday.org hardiness zone?

Then read some top quality information from the Missouri Botanical Gardens: Dahlia (group)

With both of those bits of information you should then be in a good position to make a well informed decision.

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I have dahlias in the ground here in ground in Chapel Hill, NC. They have been there for several years. If the ground does not freeze and if you have decent drainage (mine are in raised beds) they seem to be very reliable returners.

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