Dahlias have had quite a rocky history when it comes to gardening trends. They so often fall all too easily into the ‘love em or hate em’ category; lumped into a single generalisation of taste that accounts for little by way of individual colour, shape, spread and most importantly, application. From their first boom in popularity around the 40s and 50s, all the way through to their much more recent return in the catalogues of Sarah Raven and J.Parkers, these multi-coloured and most striking of plants have endured an ever-fluctuating criticism unrivalled in the gardening world. Nevertheless, a passion for them remains, and the diversity of the retailed dahlia is now vast.
For me, dahlias have become a most dependable and rewarding ally, both as a cut flower and as that crucial lift in the mid Summer border. In fact here at the garden they are a crucial part of the design; printed boldly into the initial planting layout sheets themselves, long before I arrived. Their role is considered essential to the central garden concept in fact, acting to lighten the atmosphere and make fun of the stern and imposing brickwork of the house. Each year as the tulips die back, are removed from the cutting beds and dried out, the over-wintered dahlias are dug back in their rows, ready to continue the show on into Autumn. These offer a continuous supply of cut flowers for the house, while at the same time making large, conspicuous spectacles of colour and form.
However, as the late colour-planting wizard Christopher Lloyd recounts, their attraction ought not simply reside in seeing them lined-out in a designated, separate bed or border. They should instead be ‘assimilated into the garden’s fabric’, this being, as he notes, ‘by far the most appealing way to see them’. And I would agree. In the long border this year I decided to repeat a few particular dahlias; using them as structured colour first and foremost. Once established and kept as slug-free as possible, I’ve found that they form reliable, continuously flowering mounds, drawing together the otherwise scattered individuals within the planting. This effect is further pronounced when there are one or two other plants also repeated throughout the border. The picture below shows bronze ‘Babylon’ dahlias mixing with the blue of the geraniums, coupled along the bed. They’re just getting started now, but will soon make quite an impression.
Back in the cutting rows however, I’ve been lining out dahlias for picking. It’s a simple task, and a nice one on a decent, warm day. There are a few key points to remember when planting out dahlias however, and if put in place from the very start, they can save you a lot of time.
Dahlias have two main enemies; slugs and the wind. Being a plant that grows both very tall and very fleshy, it’s exposed to the perils of a heavy wind and to the inexhaustible appetite of night-creeping molluscs. If a dahlia is simply planted out and left to its own devices, chances of survival, let alone fruition, are pretty slim. Especially in a British climate.
A third danger comes in the form of soil compaction. Dahlias prefer a rich, free-draining soil and, much like their potato relatives, suffer badly from damp, saturated conditions, leading to rot. So the first thing to do is make sure that, once their position is decided, a large and deep hole is dug. If the soil isn’t free draining enough as it is, grit needs to be added to the bottom in order to improve drainage.
The roots then need to be teased out a little, as with ordinary practice when planting out, before firmly placing it into the hole and lightly filling in around. Lightly is the key, as this is another opportunity for compaction to take place.
Next comes staking. Staking is a necessary evil unfortunately, but depending on your method and material, the results needn’t be an eyesore. Like many gardeners, I usually prefer to use canes of hazel or birch to support herbaceous plants, as they’re generally much more aesthetically sympathetic to the planting. However when it comes to dahlias, a good, sturdy bamboo will do the job, and placed deep and indiscreetly within the foliage, you’d never know it was there. In this case it’s definitely function over beauty that matters. The swaying, flower-bearing shoots are then tied in, making sure to secure the knot on the cane, rather than the plant.
Lastly a thick mulch of gravel is layered around the base. This will act as a barrier for slugs and snails, making it difficult to access the plant. I usually combine this with removing some of the lowest leaves, so as to make the journey even more of a likely dead-end for them. From then on, the method of slug removal is down to the individual, and where you stand on slug pellets, inorganic or organic. I prefer to avoid them altogether, although this does result in a lot of hand removal, which isn’t much fun, but you get used to it!
Provided the plants remain regularly watered and tied in, that’s about it. And the reward will far outweigh the initial planting effort.
Some of the earlier flowering meadow species are beginning to set seed as their seasons are winding down. Of the more dominant players in the mix the most apparent are currently the ox-eyes (top), yellow rattle and the common vetch (above). All three began their blooms back in May and have more or less dictated the meadow colour scheme since.
With the sun low over the bottom meadow this evening Charlie and I made the most of the warm and went out to collect the vetch seeds, now ripe in their blackened legumus pods, to store and sow next year. Vetch plants have developed an ingenuous method of natural seed dispersal, allowing the pods to dry out under the sun on the stem until they literally burst open and twist, sending the seeds flying out in all directions. In his published diary, ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’, the late naturalist Roger Deakin described the sporadic ‘popping’ of vetch seed pods in numerous entries. One of them reads;
‘Standing in the home meadow in the long grass, listening to the vetch pods cracking open in the sunlight and warmth after a rainy night. The rain has softened them, then the sun has blackened and hardened them, causing the pods to snap open like little springs’.
As we collected them into paper envelopes this evening, every now and then one would suddenly explode either in the hand or from within the paper, making us jump. No nicer endeavour on a warm Summer evening.
It seems that the butterflies have all decided to give up hope of any welcoming, warm weather and are coming out to feed regardless. I was beginning to think they just weren’t around this year (other than the staple handful of speckled woods and orange tips) until this morning, under a brief spell of sun. Today I’ve counted numerous small skippers, red admirals, cabbage whites and this temporarily greenhouse-confined meadow brown.
2012 is undoubtedly going to be a bit of a disastrous year for British butterflies. But this does go hand in hand with an overly wet Spring and Summer, which in turn has had positive consequences for other ecological chains. The meadows, for example, have lasted much longer this year, enabling later wildflower species to develop and spread such as the knapweeds and wild carrots. In drier years these are usually only just getting going by the time it comes round to cutting, and subsequently have less of a chance to flower prolifically. Common knapweed, Centaurea scabiosa, is a huge favourite of bumble bees in the mid Summer, and is therefore an important plant to have flowering.
Actually getting round to cutting the meadows this year is another story. It’s a mammoth job and does rely on a decent stretch of dry weather, so I’m putting it on hold for a while..