Thursday, 24 September 2009


Competition dahlias at Harrogate, shot on my iPhone which, as I've said before, is a fab phone but has an absolutely pants camera. Such big blossoms had me striving to invent an apt collective noun. A 'vulgarity' of dahlias? A blowzitude? If anyone can do better, let me know.

I promised a proper post, this week and have to say that I’ve been itching to mention dahlias. I wrote a piece on them recently in the Mail – here – comparing the brash giants my father loved growing with today's more elegant lovelies.

I thought the outsize wedding hat dahlia was a thing of the past, in these days of hazy, grassy perennial borders and naturalistic planting but I was wrong. They were at the Harrogate Autumn flower show, last week, in vast numbers, practically filling an entire hall. The gigantic flowers, in uncompromising colours, were huge enough to make show visitors look small and drab. (Though some of us show visitors were, indeed, small and drab.)

To avoid arrest by the Fashion Police, I admit that in the past, I’ve often shuddered with disapproval at the huge-flowered monsters so loved by competition growers. But I think it’s time I admitted to harbouring a secret admiration of such floral behemoths. I don’t think I’d grow any at home, because I don’t grow for showing or competing, but when you see these flowers lined up on a show bench, all you can say wow! Gosh! Begorrah! Or, if you’re a Kiwi, Cripes!

At Harrogate, I lurked, by the entrance and heard almost everyone exclaim in surprise and delight as they came into the hall.

The only people with miserable faces were the judges. Why do they – or I should say ‘we’ since I’m also a judge – often look as though we’ve just swallowed a tumbler of vinegar, when judging.

Big white cactus dahlias at Harrogate Autumn Flower Show

At Harrogate I bumped into King of Dahlias Jon Wheatley. His team manages the National Dahlia Collection at Winchester Growers and his Chelsea exhibit, you may recall, won not only a Gold Medal but also the President’s Award this year. We discussed the virtues of new varieties such as D. ‘Knockout’ – dark leaved with luminous yellow, single flowers – and agreed that with such virtues as handsome foliage, manageable flowers and stately growth habits, these made supreme border plants. Furthermore, they flower freely, provided you dead-head them, until November.

To Jon's list of outstanding performers I'd add 'Twynings After Eight' for its soft white flowers and chocolate foliage, 'Woodbridge' which is worth having, just for the foliage, and a personal choice, 'Bishop of Auckland' whose mid-sized, single, port-coloured flowers go on almost forever.

As far as management is concerned, climate change has resulted in a Hamlet-like dilemma for dahlia growers: ‘To lift, or not to lift?’ Whether ‘tis nobler in the husbandry to suffer the slings and arrows of a possibly outrageous winter – and leave the dahlias in the ground – or to take up the tubers against a sea of troubles with moulds and rots in the storage shed.

Jon says: ‘if you live south of The Wash, leave them in and treat them like hardy perennials – unless your soil is wet and heavy. Elsewhere, lift the tubers. I’m level with The Wash, but my soil is heavy, so I lift.

But here’s Jon’s best gem of advice: Don’t cut them right back. Instead, pot up your dahlias, in autumn – but before they get frosted – and keep them partially in growth in a greenhouse, so that they can subside gently into dormancy. That’s a method I’m definitely going to try, now that I’ve got the lovely Wendy to play in.

You have to admire the quality of the blooms and the skill in getting them up to show pitch.

And if you haven’t a greenhouse and live on clay, north of, say, Leicester? Lift them in the old way, but make sure the tubers are dry before storing. I learnt that the hard way last winter when I lifted them sodden and lost about 60% of my tubers, even though they were stored in airy trays, in a warm shed, and cosseted in bubble wrap.

I’m listening to Traffic outside, since I’m writing this post in the RHS Lindley Library, Vincent Square, London. You can go online for an hour for £1, here, or for 18 hours for £5. I think ALL libraries should provide free wireless internet collections and will tub thump at my next meeting with the RHS Bigwigs.

This week’s film
was Dorian Gray seen at the ritzy Odeon, Leicester Square. Lovely cinema, but it should be: my balcony seat cost £19. The film was a re-hash of the Oscar Wilde story and couldn’t make up its mind whether to be a treatise on Victorian morality, a gothic horror story or a ‘taut’ thriller. The gothicality was overdone, much of the film being shot in grim light and set in a bizarre Walt Disney London.

The lead, Ben Barnes – sloe-eyed, reminiscent of Johnny Depp – just didn’t strike me as a Dorian Gray type but Colin Firth provided some convincing acting. I actually burst out laughing at the scene where the forever young Gray returns after a long absence and we see the rest of the cast suddenly, hideously aged and, for some reason, grey all over and looking positively cobwebby, like the Fluck and Law John Major. Oh, and the soundtrack was awful – endless bursts of dirgy, funereal music.

¡Hasta la proxima!


  1. am entirely with you on Twynings After Eight - have lusted after this dahlia ever since I first saw it and will one day get organised enough to buy several.

    Can I also put in a word for the species dahlias - I've been rhapsodising with VP (whom I have converted in fine style) about Dahlia merckii which is my current Favourite Plant of All Time. It's hardy and almost slug-proof, too. And of course exquisite: mine is currently flowering its socks off and the most delicate shade of pale mauve with a yellow eye.

    I lift my dahlias not because they wouldn't survive my sandy soil but because they get mercilessly slugged if they're left outside in spring. So I grow them to a good size before planting out. I shall however follow Jon's advice this year too - thanks for the tip!

  2. I went to Harrogate about eight years ago to write about Dahlias (I also managed to write about Giant Vegetables, Bonsai and Chrysanthemums on the back of the same visit so that was a day well spent.)
    I went there determined to sneer and left amazed and a little intrigued by these enormous flowers. They are magnificent in a cumbersome, impractical, old fashioned sort of way.
    Very like a certain august Horticultural body whose name escapes me for a moment...

  3. A 'triumph','carnival' or an 'oomph' of dahlias?

  4. 'Twyning's After Eight' was in fine form at Special Plants last week. I'm curbing my lust for it until the spring...

    According to your WV, it's a chicr kind of plant!

  5. How about an 'oh my lawd' of dahlias

  6. Constant G: I LOVE Dahlia merckii. There's a fine hybrid, Woodbridge, which has even prettier foliage. Dahlia coccinea, the species, is a good one, too and at Bodnant, or possibly Powys Castle, I was shown a maroon form which, I believe had been wild collected.

    Next year, I'm clearing out a bit of garden just to house dahlias, but will mix in a few big Mexican salvias and things, just to prevent a monoculture. It's behind a tall hedge, so should I try Wedding Hat Dahlias?? (No one need see.)

    James - I presume you're referring to the Alpine Garden Society!

    trisha - 'Oomph' , definitely!

    Martyn - perhaps, but expressed as a single word an omilawd of dahlias.

    BTW, I heard a rather posh lady talking about Darhlias with a long 'a', recently. And a friend of mine always calls vases 'vauses' But not even my poshest friends dare to pronounce Fuchsia correctly.

  7. Vauses is very Lincolnshire - that's how my nan used to pronounce it :)

  8. Sorry I really can't stand show Dahlias of such sizes so un natural. The dahlias I grew from seed however have been lovely fill ins after digging out several years of ground elder gone wild.

  9. Congrats on a year of blogging! The dahlias shown in the sea of white photo have changed my mind about the large dinner plate ones. Maybe the white color soothes the senses that have been attacked by the size. Lists are being made to see if we can find some of those mentioned.

  10. I was born next to the Wash (not literally you understand) without realising I was on the Dahlia Meridian. How fabulous.

  11. The dahlias at the Malvern Autumn Show was great last weekend. We speculated briefly on how they got the plants to support such heavy flower heads but decided it was too challenging for us.

    My favourite at the moment is Chat Noir which has been stunning in my garden this year.

    Thanks for the advice on putting them in the greenhouse will definately follow this.

  12. Sorry that this is probably not the best place for this but I couldn't find a contact address.

    The link however is that manure contaminated in the way described is deadly to dahlias and I know of one grower who lost all his life's collection of dahlias due to this problem so please forgive the intrusion.

    I'm sure you must be aware of the problems experienced by allotment holders last year due to the use of manure contaminated by a persistent herbicide called aminopyralid. Information has been collated about this problem from the links on this page
    Just to update on the latest re aminopyralid contamination in case you would like to provide updates on your website or to allotment holders in your area.

    The latest information re manure contamination is posted on my website here
    I have also sent out a email for circulation by everyone I know that has been affected which is here which you may find useful to circulate to allotment holders in your area.

    It is particularly important that gardeners be aware of the need for caution when obtaining manure in light of the fact that the government are now considering reinstating the licence that was temporarily suspended last year. As this is a concern to many gardeners you may wish to publicise an a epetition that has been started here The petition closes on 23 October so we need a big urgent push to increase the number of signatures.

    I am posting updates as I get them on my blog just on case you want to keep a watching brief.

  13. Just to let you know that the website mentioned above has now moved to

    All the manure info has moved there

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