Success with Delphiniums

Question: I’ve failed with delphiniums in the past. Are there tricks to growing them well?

Answer: Well-grown delphiniums are an impressive sight that inspires onlookers to want them for their own gardens. These are classic perennials upon which much breeding work has been done, producing options for every position in the border. But they are not low-maintenance plants.

There are three basic delphinium groups to choose from:

  • the D. elatum hybrids, which have the showiest, tallest flower spikes, 5 to 6 feet tall and packed with bloom. These are great for the back of the border. Zones 4–7.
  • the Pacific hybrids, which are similar to the Elatums but usually about 2 feet shorter. A good middle/front border plant. Zones 4–7.
  • the Belladonna group, which have branched spikes lined more loosely with individual flowers. Generally 3 to 4 feet tall. Zones 3–8.

Delphiniums require excellent drainage and regular watering, and they prefer full sun. Some midday shade is appreciated in the south part of their range. In poor or heavy soil, add organic matter at planting time to improve drainage. They may need watering several times a week in summer. The soil should stay just barely moist. It should neither dry out nor become soggy.

Delphiniums require some space from their neighbors. They need full sun and good air flow; they don’t deal well with the shade and stagnant conditions that close planting creates. Giving them space will help stave off powdery mildew.

Delphiniums require supports—a good wind or heavy rain can bend them over and snap their hollow stems. Supports should be put in place before new growth reaches 12 inches tall in spring. “Grow-through” supports work well for delphiniums, as do cages.

Delphiniums require feeding. They’re hungry plants that thrive on rich soil and regular fertilizer. When planting them, add plenty of organic matter to the hole. Top-dress existing plantings in spring with compost. Feed the plants with an all-purpose slow-release granular food in early spring; then treat them to a drink of fish emulsion fertilizer several times over the summer.

Remove flower stalks immediately after bloom. The plant may flower again in late summer.

Finally, delphiniums are naturally short-lived plants. Expect them to peter out and need replacing after several years. The D. elatum hybrids can be longer lived. Delphiniums are easy to propagate by seed sown indoors in winter or outdoors in spring, or by cuttings taken in spring. Seed sown outdoors will not flower until year 2.

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Do you love perennial plants? Check out these great resources for more garden ideas: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden and  Hole’s Dictionary of Hardy Perennials and  Perennials & Bulbs

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6 thoughts on “Success with Delphiniums

  1. Pingback: Designing and Growing the Cutting Garden - All About Gardening

  2. Pingback: Perennials Not to Feed - All About Gardening

  3. My delphiniums in Md were about 4 inches tall. When I moved to VT I met an elderly gentlemanly gardener whose advice was “sweeten the soil”. A little lime in our acidic soil along with the organic matter, I had delphiniums with foliage 3 feet tall and the blooms rising to 7-8 feet. The cool nights, an easterly exposure worked the magic. They were in a bed by themselves, slightly raised by a low stone wall, lots of breezes. Only rarely staked them.

  4. I cannot grow these in hot, humid southern Indiana, either. They indeed do not like heat. Most of make just make do with larkspur instead.

  5. I was surprised to see this critical (to me, anyway) info missing: Delphs do not like heat. They may be hardy in zones 7 and 8, but this doesn’t mean they can be successfully grown in places like Maryland or the Carolinas, unless they’re treated as annuals. Here really determined gardeners can start them very early in a cool greenhouse, then plant them outside in spring, and remove them after they bloom.

  6. I planted 9 delphinium plants – within 3 days there wasn’t a bloom or a leaf on any of them, thanks to our abundant supply of rabbits and squirrels. Is there any chance that the plants will rebound? All I have now are sticks.

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