Saturday, 22 September 2012

Dahlia envy

Mid September, and once again I’m struck by the knowledge that I’ve failed to plant enough dahlias this year.

There’s nothing subtle about a dahlia. Subtlety, after all, is not what you really want in the garden towards the end of summer, when everything’s been madly growing all year, when the beds and borders are jam-packed with plants that are either just reaching their best, or just gone over, or long past their best and sprouting crazily from every bud because it’s what they do and they can feel the days are getting shorter and want to make the most of every sun-kissed photon before winter robs them of the warmth and the light they need to grow. Against this crazed backdrop you need something that will stand out.

Dahlias stand out.

Exuberant, unabashed, garish, uncouth. I love them; the colours, the shapes – some like giant daisies, a child’s drawing of a flower – some, the cactus flowered varieties, more like a spiny sea creature, or the pompoms and spheres whose incurved petals make the blooms resemble paper Christmas decorations. Most of the foliage is unremarkable – although I do like the purple-black leaves of 'After Eight' or 'Bishop of Llandaff' – but you don’t grow dahlias for their foliage. And yes, they can be tricky customers to keep going year after year, digging up the tubers, draining the stems and drying them out and then dusting them with fungicidal powders before putting them in a box filled with dry soil to overwinter in the shed, giving them the best chance of making it through the darker months without rotting. Some people have luck leaving them in the ground and covering them in a deep mulch – I don’t. I imagine you’d need a pretty free draining soil for that to succeed, not my Kentish clay anyway, although I might give it another go. But surely it’s worth the effort...for the flowers. And a great tip for getting bigger flowers is to pinch out the side shoots immediately below the leading bud, while to prolong flowering till the first frosts, remember to deadhead regularly.

But for the next week or so, I’ll carry on glancing enviously at what other people are growing. I’m already making my list for next year.