Many commercial growers are noted for a ‘signature’ plant. For my local nurseries it’s Salvia at Special Plants, and the National Collection of foxgloves at The Botanic Nursery. I fully expected my gardening friends to say it’s clematis for me, so I was quite surprised when they said dahlias instead.
I then realised they’re quite right. I was a huge fan of dahlias even when they were unfashionable, and nothing gets me more enthusiastic about my garden than when my beloved dahlia ‘Moonfire’ begins to bloom. It’s the combination of dark foliage topped with burnt orange flowers on opening, which mellow into a sunny yellow that I particularly love.
Another local nursery – not usually open to the public – had a plant sale last weekend and I went along to explore the hundreds of different plants on offer. I prepared a wants list beforehand, but guess what; the first plants I loaded into my wheelbarrow weren’t on my list. Yes, once again I was seduced by dahlias – sultry-leaved ‘Mystic Illusion’ and ‘Mystic Dreamer’ to be exact. ‘Mystic Illusion’ – also known as ‘Knockout’ – has bright yellow flowers and ‘Mystic Dreamer’ is a floozy pink.
I’ve just cleared away some of the spring foliage and these are ideal gap fillers. Like my ‘Moonfire’, they have simple, single blooms, which mean they’re attractive to bees and other pollinators. That’s another plus point in my view. Regular dead-heading will keep them flowering until the first frosts – usually in late October here – so they’re good value plants.
I find dahlias easy to look after. Slugs are my major bugbear, so I mount patrols most evenings to keep them at bay. Earwigs are cited as the classic dahlia problem, but I usually only find one or two per plant, so they’re not too troublesome for me. They feed on aphids as well as plant material, so they can be a garden friend as well as a fiend.
As I’m lucky to live in the south, I’ve managed to overwinter many of my dahlia plants out in the garden. This has the advantage of less faff with all that lifting and keeping elsewhere, plus I’ve noticed the plants increase in size, spread and number of blooms each year.
I’ve found winter wet is more of a killer than the cold, so I’ve confined my plants to the raised terrace beds in the centre of the garden. This keeps them above my cold, clay soil as well as the walls providing some additional protection. I apply a deep mulch after the frosts have cut the foliage down which helps to keep them snug over winter. I must confess it’s an anxious time in May waiting to see if they’ve come through, but then if they don’t it’s the perfect excuse to try some new-to-me varieties.
Having extolled the virtues of simple blooms and dark foliage dahlias, it doesn’t mean my mind is closed to the other kinds. For instance, the shaggy, dusky pink blooms of ‘Bonita’ followed me home after visiting my local DIY store the other day. They’re perfect for the couple of pots I have either side of our patio bench.
If you’d like to find out more about growing dahlias, I’ve found Andy Vernon’s ‘The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias’ is a great book. As well as a good cultivation guide, he’s also selected a mere 200 of his personal favourites, sorted by colour to give you plenty of ideas for your own planting schemes.
Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and blogger from Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst up at her allotment.