Dreaming of dahlias

Spring has sprung, the air is thick with the sound of lawnmowers, and wherever you look in the garden something is calling for your attention. It’s easy to get lost in busyness, but whatever you do, don’t forget to make time for dahlias. You’ll thank yourself for it later in the year.

Many and various are the ways in which we mentally subdivide the year. All sorts of complicated international calendars have existed; lunar calendars, solar calendars, the Roman, the Julian, the Gregorian. There's the academic year, or that rather depressing 48:4 ratio representing the weeks we’re at work, versus the weeks we’re not. For the gardener, the passage of the seasons provides a handy timetable but, on the off-chance that dividing the year into four roughly equal periods should prove too onerous, I propose The Dahlia Year. It’s a very simple calendar; just two seasons, distinguished by whether these fabulous plants are in active growth, or having a kip – the Season of Sleeping and the Season of Waking, or Hypnos and Argus, for the more classically minded.

Why dahlias? Because, simply, everybody loves a dahlia, gardeners and muggles alike, even if they’re not sure what they're looking at is a dahlia – and if they don’t love dahlias, I’m sure there’s medicine they can get. Now and then, I come across as passage of text in the press advising the reader that dahlias have “come back into fashion”, implying that, at some point in time, they must have been out of fashion. That is a period of history which I am clearly too young to remember, unless I passed through it in blissful ignorance of the general opprobrium levelled by society at the most joyful and exuberant blooms you will find gracing an English garden. It seems unlikely to me, but then the Victorians used to consider a shapely piano leg too outre to be seen in polite company, so there’s no knowing what the arbiters of British taste can and will declare acceptable. 

A stunning unnamed waterlilly dahlia seedling snapped at the RHS Wisley plant show in the summer of 2015 – Halls of Heddon’s stand.

The first decent frost marks the turning of the Dahlia Year, as the stems and foliage blacken, and we can chose to lift and store the tubers under cover or, in milder, drier conditions, leave them in the ground with a generous layer of mulch to protect them through the colder days. 

The antipodean extreme to this moment occurs in high summer, when the flowers grace our gardens with their flamboyant presence, their abundant generosity providing plenty to cut for enjoyment indoors while leaving the borders looking undiminished by the excision.

The time between these two points  is spent in reverie – at first in blissful memory and subsequently in anticipation – and also in a constant state of war with molluscs, because while the enemies of a sleeping dahlia are moisture and rot, the enemy of a waking dahlia is a hungry snail, which will happily graze the emerging shoots into oblivion if left unchecked.

Even slightly battered at the end of summer, Dahlia 'Rip City' here in the walled garden at Holkham Hall in Norfolk is stealing the show. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been bringing the dahlias out of storage, and have been happy to discover very few losses. Those that did occur may well have been avoided had I followed best practice upon lifting them in late autumn by washing all the earth off the tubers and allowing them to dry out thoroughly, upside-down so the water is able to drain out of the stems. As it was, I merely gave them a good brushing, which more than likely allowed the odd spot of soggy clay to cling on here and there.


These are fat tubers, probably three or four years old now, and ripe for splitting, ensuring that each new section has a little wart-like growth bud towards the top (quite hard to see when they're dry – ideally you’d rehydrate them first to get a better look, but that's a bit of a faff), which also provides the ideal opportunity to snip out last years ‘mother tuber’ – usually pretty central, usually pretty shrivelled. She’s done her job, bless her (best not to make human comparisons, it’s unflattering). 

Fat, firm and mostly  healthy. A bit of mould here on the right hand side which was cut out.

I’ve also been indulging in a fair bit of retail therapy – some for clients’ gardens, some for ‘stock plants’ which I’ll fatten up here, if the snails don’t get to them. Compared to the tubers of a decent vintage, these are pathetic looking things – three to five quid buys you a bag full of dust and an assemblage of tiny, desiccated objects bearing a greater resemblance to a squirrel’s wedding tackle than anything likely to result in a large and healthy plant.

I may have been doing some plant shopping...

I may have been doing some plant shopping...

The worst of these will be getting a good soak before planting in 2 litre pots, which will be kept in the greenhouse for the next few months where I can keep an eye on them. A band of copper tape around the rim, and a sprinkling of hedgehog-and-frog-friendly (non metaldehyde) slug pellets to guard against the beasts, though there’s no substitute for vigilance when it comes to the slimy ones.

And so we watch and wait, and dream of summer splendour, the very picture of optimism. There are worse ways to pass  the time. 

Dahlia 'Eveline'. Sigh...

The giant, tousled head of Dahlia 'Penhill Watermelon'

Dahlia 'Pink Diamond'

There are so many different forms of dahlia, it can be hard choosing what to grow! Do you have a favourite, and what are you growing this year? Let me know in the comments below, or on twitter