There was a time when I didn’t really know what a dahlia was. Now I think of little else

·9-min read
‘A three-metre wide and two-metre deep riot of colour, explosions of bright pink and deep purple, offset with pale cream and serene lemon’  (Tom Peck)
‘A three-metre wide and two-metre deep riot of colour, explosions of bright pink and deep purple, offset with pale cream and serene lemon’ (Tom Peck)

I was on one of my daily, government-mandated walks last summer when I first saw it. It was planted in a little bed next to a neighbour’s front door. I was so startled I stopped pushing the pram just to stare at it.

It didn’t really seem to look like anything I’d seen before, which is ridiculous, because I now realise they’re absolutely everywhere, but not quite like this one. It was about four feet tall, and jabbing their way up from the foliage were these large and mesmerising flowers. They were coral in colour, with purple centres, but formed with such geometrical perfection as to look like the work of a set designer.

I went back the next day with one of those plant identifier apps on my phone and took a picture of it. When it turned out to be a dahlia, I was even more surprised.

I’d heard of a dahlia, of course I had, but I can’t say I had a clue what one actually was. Now, to a certain extent, they have taken over my life. They’ve certainly taken over my garden, and also my Google Drive, where I now have several spreadsheets, detailing the heights, colours and styles of the 36 different varieties I have planted out according to a precise schematic in a large section of the border, which I very much consider to be an an extension of myself.

Back then, when first contact occurred, I was not especially into gardening. I’m not that old, and for most of my life I’ve had better things to do, like going out, which recently stopped happening. I also, until fairly recently, haven’t had a garden.

I got into gardening in much the same way and around about the same time as I got into parenting, which is to say by necessity. If you find yourself the new owner of a garden/child, what choice do you have? And in very many ways, a garden and a small child are the same. You think you want one. It’s what most people aspire to, isn’t it? So then you get one and suddenly you’re signed up for a lifetime’s care and maintenance.

Neglect isn’t really an option – people will start talking. For 95 per cent of the time, it is an arduous, repetitive and infuriating burden. The other 5 per cent are moments of pure transcendental joy that, now you’re committed, you don’t have the courage to admit to yourself are probably not worth it. And though on occasion the temptation can be overwhelming, you really can’t just pave over it.

Anyway. There was a large border behind the shed that needed filling, and from that point on, dahlias it would be.

‘There was a large border behind the shed that needed filling’ (Tom Peck)
‘There was a large border behind the shed that needed filling’ (Tom Peck)

As with all things in very recent life, the deadly combination of free time and the internet is a menace to those with an increasingly obsessive personality. There is no pursuit out there that is too niche for there not to exist a sizeable rabbit hole down which to descend to madness. Everything I learned about them was precisely what I wanted to hear. They’re bright, garish even; they’re reliable; once they’ve flowered they go on for months; and there is an almost infinite variety to choose from, in every height and style.

I would also, on occasion, realise I had spent upwards of 40 minutes watching YouTube videos of the Zundert Dahlia Parade, in which giant carnival floats made entirely from dahlia blooms pass down the non-descript streets of a suburban town in Holland.

One of the first things I learned is that the start of summer is too late to get cracking with a proper dahlia project, so it was not until this year that the madness truly began. Dahlias grow from tubers, which are essentially potatoes, and the very finest kind need to be ordered in the winter, from specialist stockists, such as Halls of Heddon, for delivery in spring.

By summer, your local garden centre will still have plenty to sell, but these are of low standard. (They can also be bought as small plants, which have no tuber and have been grown from cuttings, which you plant out in late spring, and by the end of autumn will have produced their own.)

I also became deeply obsessed with a man called Geoff Hoyle, who describes himself as a “dahliaholic” and is occasionally featured on Gardeners’ World. For more than 20 years, he has transformed his very ordinary back garden in Cheshire into, without question, the most incredible garden I’ve ever seen, not that I’ve ever actually seen it. He has occasionally troubled the newspapers.

As it happens, it is open to the public this weekend, as part of the National Garden Scheme. In previous years, it’s been known to attract almost 1,000 visitors, though tragically this year one of them won’t be me.

‘One of the first things I learned is that the start of summer is too late to get cracking with a proper dahlia project, so it was not until this year that the madness truly began’ (Tom Peck)
‘One of the first things I learned is that the start of summer is too late to get cracking with a proper dahlia project, so it was not until this year that the madness truly began’ (Tom Peck)

I considered trying to get in touch for the purposes of this article, but I found myself too intimidated, and I dare say he might have been too. In a reasonably long journalistic career, I have spoken at fairly reasonable length to David Attenborough, Pele, Lionel Messi and Donald Trump but when it came to Geoff, retired IT manager and undisputed champion of the amateur dahlia world, I found I just didn’t have the nerve. Never meet your heroes and all that.

But I have watched all of his YouTube videos and that’s the main thing. And I have also, in my garden, built what can only be described as a shrine to him. He regularly tours his garden, making videos in which he details his favourite varieties. I have purchased them all. He plants more than 400 dahlias each year. I have about a tenth of that number. He keeps detailed notebooks of the heights of all his dahlias to assist with next year’s planting schematic. I have done the same.

Geoff stakes up his dahlias with 12mm thick rebar rods that are ordinarily used to reinforce concrete in buildings, so now so do I. When the man from the builders merchants arrived to drop them off, he actually asked me what work I was having done, to which I could only reply “none”, and to leave them over there by the flower beds. He thought I was mad and he was not wrong.

Geoff likes plants with blue flowers at the front of his borders, to serve as a contrast to dahlias, which do not come in blue. I have done the same, using verbena, aster and salvias.

Geoff was not my only source of information, however. Dahlias are at their best in late August and September. By this point, in many stately homes and gardens, dahlias are all that is left. Anglesey Abbey, near Cambridge, has a truly incredible dahlia border that is just coming into its own now. Am I ashamed to admit that this time last year, I was walking back and forth along it several times, making actual notes of which varieties I would be acquiring to add to my own? Yes, of course I am.

There is another problem too. The impulse buying of dahlias can go on all winter, but they are not dispatched for months. You simply add to the order you have already made, to the point where, in early June of this year, fully 31 plants, all having cost a good £6 to £10 each, arrived at my house in one go.

‘Though some will appear in mid-July, they are at their best in September, which if you are an impatient person, can mean you find yourself wishing away the entire summer’ (Tom Peck)
‘Though some will appear in mid-July, they are at their best in September, which if you are an impatient person, can mean you find yourself wishing away the entire summer’ (Tom Peck)

By this point, naturally, the spreadsheet was already made, so it was only a case of chucking them in the ground, liberally applying slug repellent (slugs LOVE dahlias) and waiting. And waiting. Really waiting.

It can’t have escaped many people’s attention that 2021 has been the most miserable year quite possibly of all time. There were 15 frosts in April, the coldest April on record. There were 160 hours of sunshine in May, fully 100 hours less than May last year. All this misery affects plants too. There has surely never been a worse year for gardeners. Even the insane heat of 2018 can be used to the gardener’s advantage, with enough water.

In the dahlia-obsessed corners of the internet, most of June, July and half of August were spent moaning. Everything was weeks if not months behind. When I filled out the border in early June, I was expecting epic results by mid-July. This did not happen. They all grew, slowly (though a few failed entirely), but it is only now that things are approaching where they should be.

This, arguably, is the biggest downside of the dahlia. Though some will appear in mid-July, they are at their best in September, which if you are an impatient person, can mean you find yourself wishing away the entire summer. Thankfully, this year, that’s not been an issue.

For me, there was no special “wow” moment. It all happened too slowly. But there’s no disputing its wonder now. It is a three-metre wide and two-metre deep riot of colour, explosions of bright pink and deep purple, offset with pale cream and serene lemon. There’s giant purple blooms like the “Jocondo”, and tiny pompoms like the “Zippity Do Da”. There are round ones, cactus-like ones, and softer ones that open out like a water lily. One or two, the giant ones mainly, are still yet to show their face.

As for my favourites, there’s no doubt about the magnificence of a “Cafe au Lait”, a famous creamy flower that is often part of bridal bouquets, and which is said to have been behind the dahlia’s return to fashion. In the Seventies, when everything else was impossibly garish, the dahlia was apparently scorned. At least that’s what Monty Don says. It beggars belief.

‘For me, there was no special “wow” moment. It all happened too slowly. But there’s no disputing its wonder now’ (Tom Peck)
‘For me, there was no special “wow” moment. It all happened too slowly. But there’s no disputing its wonder now’ (Tom Peck)

“Parkland Rave” is a true winner, as is “Mary’s Jomanda”. The soft white and lilac ones are also a favourite, such as “Westerton Ella Grace” and “Carolina Moon”. The bright red ones are incredibly eye catching too, like “Blyton Lady in Red”. Next year I’ll certainly have more red ones. I’ve got my eye on a “Wittemans Superba”.

I have since learned, via Gardeners’ World, that dahlias grown from cuttings are slightly more spectacular than those grown from tubers. This being my first year, the vast majority of mine are cuttings, whereas next year they will be tubers, so there is a fair chance it will never be this good again. I also have to broach the true challenge of the dahlia game, which is lifting the tubers out of the ground in November, and finding somewhere warm-ish and frost-free to store them over winter, ready to be planted out again.

Last week, I happened to walk past that house again and there it was. I can’t say it didn’t occur to me that if I’d just been staring at my phone that day, I’d be several hundred quid better off and significantly less odd. But overall, on balance, though not by much, I think I’d be poorer for it.

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