Lend me your eyes; I will change what you seeI love to have my eyes opened to the new, irrespective of whether it is the joy of seeing or experiencing something for the very first time or perhaps observing something known but in a fresh or revolutionary way. That being said I have always been inherently drawn back to plants that are very much informal in their makeup, I suspect because I am at my happiest when connected to beautiful wild spaces that owe their beauty more to Mother Nature’s serendipitous ways rather than any thoughtful planning. I have a fondness for plants which hold their delicate flowers in dainty clusters on top of long, willowy stems. Plants that are airy, loose and transparent. Plants that have an ethereal beauty. Plants that are uncompetitive, understated and whose personality isn’t wired towards the stamping of feet and screaming ‘look at me, look at me!’
And so I had closed my eyes to Dahlias, blinded by my own preconceived ideas that they belonged to a distant gardening era. They were old fashioned, ornamental, garish, brash even and certainly had no place in the naturalistic planting design I felt connected to. Then a few years ago while indulging in a few ‘me’ hours at the renowned Cotswold Garden Flowers, my eyes rested upon a sumptuous flower of the deepest, richest maroon. It wasn’t flamboyant in a shouty ‘look at me’ sort of way but it definitely had presence, a voice. Petals, iridescent and silky in texture, formed a perfect Fibonacci spiral. I had been seduced and my seducer, a most handsome fellow indeed, Dahlia ‘Arabian Night’!
My passion for this Genus of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and its 5000+ cultivars shows no sign of abating and it is a ‘proper’ joy to browse the suppliers catalogues and websites searching for next seasons tuberiferous treasures! In the last few years my haul has amassed to 15 cultivars – some old favourites and some newbies. This year I am particularly enjoying ‘Thomas Edison’, a giant cactus form with vivid magenta/purple blooms. Reaching 1.2m high with flowers up to 15cm in diameter it is very long lasting and has proved a magnet for pollinating insects, especially bees.
One of my greatest and simplest joys is to fill my house with flowers from the garden so this year, border fork in hand and a barrow load of earthy organic matter, I created a dedicated cut flower garden to nurture more of these beauties with their gorgeous, vivid, clashing colours and forms. They are definitely not without their needs, but I wouldn’t call them onerous – garlic infused water and dishes of beer to keep the aphids and slugs at bay and a weekly dose of liquid organic seaweed will reward you with a garden and subsequent vases overflowing with cheeriness. Tubers are lifted after the first frost, cleaned and then over wintered in trays filled with a virtually dry mix of compost and sand in a cool, but frost free environment until spring. On lighter soils, in milder areas, I have clients who never lift them and they thrive year after year.
I am already planning next year. Top of the wish list are some fiery oranges plus a more restrained, Dahlia in the guise of Dahlia ‘Verones Obsidian’, a member of the single orchid class (sometimes referred to as ‘Star Dahlias’). They are characterised by having an open star like flower whose petals curl inwards. She is without doubt a minimalist sort of girl compared to some of her more flamboyant cousins – delicate and airy with small flowers on top of wiry stems. I will experiment, placing her amongst the naturalistic schemes I favour, quietly nestling alongside my Thalictrum, Sanguisorba and Fennel.Thankful that my eyes have been opened to this colourful and characterful Genus, I will continue to enjoy their presence in my garden. Whether or not it is a fleeting or more lasting relationship only time will tell, but for now I will embrace the mantra of just enjoying the ‘moment’ along with the joy and smiles they bring. 💚
Below are some suppliers I have used to source Dahlia tubers:
The Plant Lovers Guide to Dahlias, Andy Vernon ISBN: 9781604694161
Dahlia Festival 3rd September 2017, Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire