Carol Klein ex­plains why vivid dahlias are the stars of au­tumn

They’re a gay and gaudy bunch, but that’s their strength as mel­low au­tumn hues start to creep in

Garden News (UK) - - Contents -

‘New va­ri­eties are pub­li­cised with panache and much sought after by those in the know’

The bright­est stars in the gar­den at Glebe Cot­tage are our dahlias. They’ve been glow­ing for weeks now and will prob­a­bly con­tinue their vivid show right through to late au­tumn. Had they been grown here by some of our pre­de­ces­sors in the 1930s and 1940s they would prob­a­bly have been con­fined to the veg­etable patch, their flow­ers cut for the house or primped and per­fected for the vil­lage flower show.

Times change and the dahlia’s im­age has un­der­gone a re­brand­ing. They have to be one of the most fash­ion­able flow­ers around now and new va­ri­eties are pub­li­cised with panache and much sought after by those in the know.

On their colour­ful stands at var­i­ous flower shows, the Na­tional Dahlia So­ci­ety in­clude new va­ri­eties as well as tried and trusted ones.

At one time the dahlia might have been con­sid­ered vul­gar; it’s cer­tainly not shy and re­tir­ing. There are a few sub­tle dahlias but for the most part, they’re a gay and gaudy bunch. That’s their strength: As mel­low au­tum­nal hues start to creep in to soften the bright pal­ette of sum­mer’s flow­ers, dahlias pro­vide a reprise.

The bril­liant red of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, not to men­tion the burnt or­anges and soft apri­cots of some of his chil­dren to­gether with the vi­brant pur­ples and retina-sear­ing ma­gen­tas of big cac­tus show va­ri­eties, stand out against the soft bis­cuits and olive-green of fad­ing peren­ni­als and grasses.

Dahlias come orig­i­nally from Mex­ico where they had other uses than their con­sid­er­able or­na­men­tal charms. In com­mon with other Cen­tral and South Amer­i­can plants, in­clud­ing the potato, dahlias have tu­bers which al­low them to store en­ergy, starch and sugar un­der­ground through the cold win­ters, often high up in the moun­tains.

The con­ti­nen­tal cli­mate with cold win­ters and hot sum­mers means they’re able to grow rapidly, flow­er­ing and set­ting seed be­fore with­draw­ing un­der­ground to rest un­til the fol­low­ing year.

Our mar­itime cli­mate is dif­fer­ent – al­though we can grow dahlias suc­cess­fully, we need to

give them spe­cial treat­ment. Al­though many gar­den­ers are now ex­per­i­ment­ing with leav­ing their dahlias in the ground, usu­ally cov­ered with mounds of soil to pro­tect the tu­bers from frost, the safest way to safe­guard tu­bers is to lift them, prefer­ably when the first frost has black­ened their stems.

Cut any re­main­ing stems down to a few inches, shake off ex­cess soil – if it’s wet and/ or your soil is heavy, turn the tu­bers up­side down to al­low any ex­cess mois­ture to drain away. When they’re dry, but be­fore they start to shrivel, store them in dry com­post or bark.

Make more plants

They’ll be happy in any frost-free place, the garage, in a shed or un­der the green­house bench. Check them from time to time and re­move any that may be rot­ting. Pot them up if there’s space and bring them into growth by wa­ter­ing gen­tly.

It’s at this stage you can make more by tak­ing basal cut­tings. On big­ger plants with sev­eral basal shoots, slide a sharp knife into the base of the shoot as close to the tu­bers as you can without dam­ag­ing them. Re­move a leaf or two and nip out the top of the shoot.

The other way to make more plants is to grow from seed. The most pro­lific seed set­ters will al­ways be sin­gle. Even­tu­ally seed heads turn brown and pa­pery and when they’re thor­oughly dry they can be sev­ered from the plant and the slen­der black seeds can be sep­a­rated from their cases.

Left, spiky drama from cac­tus dahlia ‘Yel­low Star’ and, right, the daddy of them all, ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

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