Dahlia tubers are unfortunate looking things. Shrivelled and deformed, they bear more of a resemblance to fossilised goats’ testicles or a bunch of salami than anything remotely horticultural. It’s only when the bulbs are in the ground that their inner beauty begins to unfurl: the sturdy, glossy foliage unleashing dozens of ripe buds that, come August, burst open into a firework display of colour that lasts well into autumn.
When I first started gardening, I dismissed dahlias as old-fashioned and gaudy – a favourite with the old ladies at my local garden centre, but certainly not suited to the informal, wild-looking garden I was hoping to create. Yet, like so many retro things, they’re enjoying a resurgence and shrugging off their fusty image to take a starring role in cutting-edge gardens and funky bridal bouquets.
I’ve been growing them for a few summers now and I’m well and truly converted. Not only are they one of the best performers in my plot, but they’re also a doddle to grow (just make sure you plant the tubers with the ‘testicles’ hanging downwards, not pointing skywards as I did on my first attempt!). And the brilliant thing is the variety on offer: whether you like your flowers dainty and daisy-like or big and brassy, there’s a encyclopedic list to choose from! (I find the dahlia section on Sarah Raven’s site the most useful when choosing bulbs, as she gives a good description of each variety without using any scary horticultural terms).
This year, I chose a mixture of pink, deep red and yellow varieties, incuding Purple Haze, Blue Bayou, Rosamunda and Summertime (some from Sarah Raven; the others from Rose Cottage Plants). I gave them an early start by potting them up in April and growing on inside until the last frost had passed.
Once in the ground, I tend to soak the growing plants generously once a week rather than watering lightly every day, as they seem to prefer this. You’ll also need to give them a sturdy stake for support, as well as waging war on slugs and snails (the little buggers absolutely adore fresh dahlia leaves, so sprinkle pellets or grit to deter them).
Dahlias also make brilliant cut flowers, with one or two healthy plants providing enough blooms for a fresh weekly display throughout the summer. And the more you cut, the more healthy flowers will unfurl to replace them. Brilliant.