Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Dahlias - seeing summer through to its close

Sun loving and vibrant, dahlias are back in fashion in a big way and they are at their best in late summer right through to until late autumn when frosts arrives.

Dahlias are back!

One of the great plant revivals of recent years has been the comeback of these wonderful garden plants which have been getting better and better for some time now.

With their dazzling colours, dahlias are vibrant in the border and dramatic in the vase.

Dahlias appear again in the garden in April and May to flower until November and need very little looking after. What can compete with that?

They also bring drama to late summer borders right up to the arrived of the first frosts.

Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter, where Christopher Lloyd did so much to revive dahlias’ fortunes, agrees: “The dahlia has come back with a vengeance,” he says. “Colour is considered cool and all of a sudden gardeners have become more adventurous. Single dahlias, elegant in flower and with graceful foliage, seem to be the most acceptable of all, especially to the fainthearted good-taste brigade. Single-flowered dahlias are graceful and are good blenders, integrating well into most borders, giving colour from midsummer until the first frost.”

dahlia knockout.jpgThirty years ago the dahlia was highly unfashionable. Its reputation for being big and brash made it a victim of its own success and was grown for exhibitions only and new varieties were disappointing and fading with alarming speed.

Over the past few years the emphasis from breeders is to go back to creating lovely garden varieties a not just the exhibition show giants which damaged their reputation so badly.

Handsome foliage, saturated colours, and a large number of single and semi-double forms are back and we're moving away from the huge-flowered, many-coloured, over-frilly monsters that have dominated the field over the past 20 or 30 years. Subtlety and style are winning the day.

All this, combined with our generally milder winters over the past decade, is good news for gardeners. Many gardeners don't lift dahlias at all and choose to protect rather than lift.

The dahlia is a member of the botanical family called the Compositae. The epitomy of this family is the daisy. The family differs from other families in that the flower is made up from a number of units called florets, each of which is a botanical flower in its own right. The florets are of two types. Disc florets are the yellow tubes in the centre of the 'flower', forming the eye, and ray florets are the flatter 'petals' surrounding the mass of the hillcrest jessica.jpgdisc to form the outline of the flower. Modifications to the structure and colour of these floret combinations provide the enormous variety of shapes and sizes of flowers of the Compositae family which also includes Michaelmas Daisies and Chrysanthemums.

The original species of dahlias were all made up of an eye of disc florets and a single row of ray florets to provide the outline. There are several recorded species, and these provide clues to the present day variation and limitations of the flower. Dahlia arborea and Dahlia scapigera both have white flowers; Dahlia excelsa has purple flowers; Dahlia coccinea (also known as Dahlia Zimpanii) and Dahlia Juaerzii have scarlet flowers; Dahlia imperialis has white and rose flowers; Dahlia Merckii has lilac and white flowers while Dahlia gracilis has various shades of red , orange and yellow

'Bishop of Llandaff’, first raised back in 1924, began to swing enthusiasts for perennial plants in the direction of dahlias. Essentially a single-flowered dahlia, albeit with a few extra rows of petals providing more impact, and reaching a very manageable 3ft-4ft the flowers are not too big, the colour has a rich subtlety to its scarlet, and all set – unusually for a dahlia, at least in 1924 – against sharply toothed leaves in dark bronze.

Bishop of Llandaff’ became extraordinarily fashionable, partly because it makes great associations Recent years have seen the appearance of a number of new “bishops” to choose.There are now seven, all similar in style to their progenitor.

dahlia-bishop-of-llandaff-flower1.jpgFew plants flower so generously, and dahlia cultivars have been bred into a wide range of growth habits suiting any garden condition—as long as there is plenty of sun. Though most dahlias make superlative border plants—flowering from mid-June until the frosts knock them down—if you have space for only a few pots, you still can enjoy them. If cut flowers are your passion, numerous dahlias have been bred to produce the quint­essential cut flower. Dahlias are beautiful, versatile, and able to deliver plentiful flowers to any garden scheme.

Among the thousands of cultivars available, there is a wealth of variety in form and colour. As all gardeners know, nothing worth doing is completely effortless, but with a small amount of well-timed labour, dahlias will always deliver. The favourite varie­ties tend to be those are based upon abundance of bloom, quality of colour, and reliable performance year after year.

Try growing dahlias from seed

Fill a pot or seed tray with moist multi-purpose compost and firm the surface. Sow dahlia seeds on the surface and push them gently into the compost. Cover pots with an inflated clear polythene bag, held in place with a rubber band. If sown in seed trays, cover with a propagator lid. The seedlings are ready to pot up singly when the second pair of leaves appear .By mid May the young plants will be ready to go outside. Harden them off for a week by standing them outdoors during the day and bringing them indoors at night. They can then be planted out in their flowering positions in the garden

Allow a few dahlia flowers to set seed for collection at the end of September. Save them in an envelope over winter to sow in February. You'll get a wonderful mixture of different flower shapes and colours from the resulting plants.

Where to see dahlias

In a garden setting, you can see wonderful dahlias at Great Dixter in East Sussex (01797 252878).

The National Dahlia Collection in Cornwall features thousands of varieties with cuttings available to Varfell Farm, Long Rock, Penzance. TR20 8AQ Tel:01962844307

RHS Wisley- spectacular dahlias on trial to study. Woking, Surrey .GU 23 6QB


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