Blooming Times: A Fine Romance With Dahlias
by Flo Whitaker
Some plants are selfish and fickle characters with expensive tastes. Fall in love with them at your peril – but a dahlia will never break your heart.
A quick trawl through the plant catalogues will find dahlia tubers offered for as little as £3 each. It’s hard to think of another plant that’s so inexpensive, flowers non-stop for up to four months and, given frost protection, will last pretty much forever. They come in every colour, shape and size imaginable and are convivial by nature; keen to please and happy to mingle with other plants in the border. If you think you could never fall in love with a dahlia – think again. You simply haven’t found ‘the one’ yet.
Dahlias first arrived in Europe in the 1790’s, but originate from South America. They’ll cope with light shade, but full sun and warmth is what they really crave. Dahlias have a lot of work to do in a short space of time to incorporate well-rotted manure or slow-release food into the planting hole which should be 20-30 cms deep. If the weather is unkind, tubers can be started off in pots in the greenhouse and planted outside in May. Dahlias produce mats of fibrous roots close to the soil surface. A thick mulch will help prevent them becoming dehydrated. Vigorous and quick-growing; they require staking to prevent wind-rock.
Some dahlias produce flowers in deepest red that appear almost black in certain light conditions. These beauties may seem oppressive when viewed alone, but do not rule them out. In a mixed border they compliment other colours so well. The sober tones of dark dahlias gently quieten a riotous display of hot pinks and purples that might otherwise be in danger of spiralling out of control. Alternatively, when placed with gold or orange hues, dark dahlias add punch and drama; particularly when gardens ditch their summer clothes and change into autumnal outfits.
The variety ‘Chat Noir’ comes in deep beetroot hues with mad curved petals that look spiky, yet are velvety to the touch. One of the tallest dahlias, it can reach 1.5 metres high. ‘Karma Choc’; a beautiful flower with a horrible name, (who dreams up these things? Tsk!) is similar in colour to Chat Noir, but has softly rounded flowers with strong stems in matching deep red. Originally bred for the floristry market, Karma Choc will last a week as a cut flower and grows approximately 90 cms high. For a sultry, exotic look, try combining it with the tangerinered shades of ‘Indian Summer’, (also 90 cms).
Dahlia ‘Mambo’, (60-80 cms) looks like a sumptuous Ascot hat worn by a high-maintenance wife. Her flowers are pinky-lilac and have wide flattened petals at the edges with small, frilly petals at the centres. ‘Hillcrest Royal’ is a good planting partner for Mambo. Growing 80-100 cms high, it is extremely floriferous and bears sumptuous deep pink blooms that have an iridescent quality. ‘Henriette’ (1 metre) has spiky petals, yet manages to look gentle and refined on account of her soft apricot-blush hues. Team her with white cosmos and gold/bronze ornamental grasses to create a tapestry in gentle shades.
Dahlias thrive in patio pots, providing they are well fed and the soil remains moist. Use a large pot and peat-free compost with added fertiliser and leaf mould. Leaf mould offers little in the way of nutrition, but holds moisture like a dream. No leaf mould? No problem! Scrunch up a few sheets of newspaper, half fill your pot with soil, add the newspaper then top up with more soil. The newspaper layer will act like a sponge and help prevent that all-too familiar sight of water gushing straight through a pot of dry compost. The paper will harmlessly degrade over time – if it doesn’t, that’s an indication that you haven’t watered sufficiently.
Dahlia ‘Scura’ (40-50 cms) has dainty peach-coloured flowers that are easily swamped in a border, making it ideal for a pot. Another contender for a patio planter is ‘Roxy’ (50-60 cms). Beloved by bees; Roxy bears shocking magenta flowers enhanced by dark foliage that looks good until mid-October.
Dahlias have just one flaw – they’re scentless. Oh, well – you can’t have everything.