For years, I’ve kept my love of dahlias safely contained. Trying to grow them in borders proved impossible as plants disappeared overnight thanks to the resident slugs and snails. Instead, I had just a few in pots – more successful but high maintenance and deeply frustrating as time, cash and space limited my choice. This year, the temptation – fuelled by seeing dahlias in almost every garden I visited – proved too great and I decided to have another go at growing them free range.
The excuse was starting a cutting garden – what better than dahlias for that late summer vase of flowers? With that in mind, I chose colours that would work together and with the rooms I planned to put them in.
There are many ways to judge a dahlia: shape, colour, number of flowers and, if you’re planning to cut them, length of stem.
Two of my choices scored highly in every category: ‘Furka’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’. ‘Furka’ is a beautiful white cactus-type dahlia. It produced dozens of flowers with long, straight stems.
‘Totally Tangerine’ was the best for length of stem and I loved the dazzling colour and crinkled centre to the anemone blooms. Possibly the only drawback was that it didn’t seem to last as long once cut.
‘Blanc y Verde’ is another beauty with white flowers tinged with a hint of green. However, it didn’t have as long a flowering season as ‘Furka’. Perhaps it will be better next year.
I also liked ‘Zundert Mystery Fox’, which had neat dark orange flowers and long, straight stems. It was not as prolific as some of the others but well worth growing.
The most disappointing dahlia was ‘Nicholas’, which produced only a couple of flowers before the first frosts. The large, somewhat loose, blooms were also difficult to use with another flowers. A shame because I did like the colour.
The very best colourwise was ‘Henriette’ a beautiful creamy ivory with hints of peach. Her downfall was the stem. The semi cactus flowers are large and need a reasonable length of stem as a counterbalance. All too often the only way to achieve this was by sacrificing another bud slightly lower down.
There was a similar problem with ‘Labyrinth’, a mad whirl of pinky-orangey petals that reminded me of an exploding Catherine Wheel. Again, the head size didn’t match the length of stem I could cut, meaning the flowers easily tipped in a vase. Perhaps it was my lack of skill at growing, or my lack of nerve when faced with cutting off yet-to-develop flowers.
The dahlias never actually made it to the cutting bed, as I hadn’t the heart to dig up sweet Williams that were still flowering to make room. Instead, the dahlias gradually took over the cold frame, getting ever bigger in the pots that I had started the tubers off in and sending roots out into the ground.
Realising the sweet Williams were not willing to budge, I decided to use some spare corners of the veg beds for the dahlias and they spent the rest of the summer season alongside the brassicas and carrots.
This late entry into their final beds was, I think, the reason why they fought off predators. By the time they were finally planted out, the dahlias were strapping plants – ‘Furka’ and ‘Henriette’ eventually stood around 4ft tall and needed careful staking. Quite simply, I think they frightened the slugs.
Of course, having broken out there is no way the dahlias will be contained again. This year’s tubers have been dug up and are now spending the winter in the greenhouse in pots of sand, while I’m starting to work my way through the dahlia catalogues and websites. Having started with creams, oranges and white, the pinks and purples are looking very tempting.