Dahlias: Dazzling late summer colour; wonderful flowers for cutting

By Andy McIndoe

The nursery just down the road from where I live specialises in Dahlias. In late summer and autumn jewel like colours sparkle through the hedge attracting passers by to take a look. In fact folks come from all over to admire, evaluate, select and simply drool over Nick Gilbert’s dahlias. The range he grows is quite extraordinary and I defy anyone to resist finding at least one to fall in love with. Some love them some think they loathe them. So how do I feel about these exotic perennials?

Gilbert's Dahlia Field

I have to admit I once expressed a complete loathing of Dahlias; unreasonable, unfounded totally unqualified. There is of course a reason, a deep psychological root to this flaw in my personality. From the earliest age I can remember my mother’s protestations at the neighbours growing these unfortunate plants, at florists selling their colourful blooms and at enthusiasts exhibiting them at the local flower show. The reason: earwigs! For some reason she believed that these floral wonders were the home to myriads of creepy crawlies just waiting to pounce on any passer by that came near them. To grow them was to attract their potential inhabitants and offenders should be ostracised without further investigation.

Admiring the dahlias

I suppose this attitude towards dahlias rubbed off, although I do remember secretly admiring them and wondering at their variety. How could those green button buds explode into such massive rosettes of colour? I worked weekends and school holidays in a large florist shop in Leamington Spa. Dahlias were a favourite for marquee decorations at late summer weddings. Massive balls of multi-coloured blooms, cut flowers, were hoisted into the roof of marquees and wrought iron pedestals were crowned with triangular creations of dahlias reinforced with gladioli.


Oddly the thing I liked about them most was their fragrance: bitter, sharp, rather dandelion-like; so distinctive. It is such an evocative reminder of the onset of autumn days and the return to school after the summer holidays. That was undoubtedly another reason that did not endear me to them.


Over the years I have gradually come round to dahlias and I now realise just what wonderful and versatile plants they are. It’s now cool to like Dahlias. If they were good enough for Vita Sackville-West and Christopher Lloyd then they are good enough for me. But which ones do I like best?

This is a difficult question when there is such variety to choose from, and as with all plants my tastes change over the years. These are “mood” plants and you too will find yourself growing and cherishing a variety that you have totally disregarded the previous year.

 Joyce Green

Pom Poms, for example could be regarded as stiff, impersonal plants, however they are so wonderfully “60s” if you are into the retro look indoors you must have these in your garden. As sleek simple and tidy as the “shift” the blooms cut brilliantly and a few stems in a plain glass vase could not be more the look of today!

Decoratives, especially the larger more flamboyant bloomers, resemble those wonderful floral bathing hats. I always feel comfortable with these and feel they deserve soft tissue paper colours: apricot, lilac, rose-pink and palest lemon.

Apricot decorative

 Lilac Decorative

Cactus Dahlias, are perhaps the showiest of all. Their bold shape and wax-like quality make a strong statement in any mixed planting. They stand up to and exclaim alongside the soft spires of the late summer herbaceous.

Kenora Sunset

Chat noir

Then there are single, anemone, collerette, ball, waterlily and a host of other flower forms; tall and dwarf, with green leaves and purple-bronze foliage. Flowers come in nearly every hue apart from true blue.

 Anemone form

I recent years more compact forms are available that make excellent pot subjects. They flower over a long period right into the autumn when so many of the summer bedding plants have packed up. One plant is sufficient in a 35cm (14inch) pot filled with any good quality multi-purpose compost with a small handful of controlled release fertiliser added at the time of planting.

Dahlias are not frost hardy, beware of late frosts that nip back tender shoots at the beginning of the season. In the open ground Dahlias grow best in an open sunny position but like shelter from wind which can damage their fleshy stems. They enjoy well-drained soil but like a reasonable organic content in the soil. Again a slow release fertiliser applied at the beginning of the growing season ensures best results.

 Blackberry Ripple

Some lift dahlia tubers and store them frost free over winter, others in milder areas leave them in the ground. If soil is well drained and frost does not penetrate then they usually come through the winter unscathed. You can grow dahlias in a number of ways. You can plant the dormant tubers in spring, or pot grown plants in summer all ready to flower. Alternatively you can order rooted cuttings that will be delivered in spring that will grow and develop into fine flowering plants later the same summer. This is an economical way to get the varieties you want and ensure a spectacular display of late summer colour.

Perfect Pompom

So coming back to the original question: which do I like best? I have to confess my favourites are the simple singles; the Bishops take some beating.

 Bishop of York

I like their dark chocolate foliage and I love the simple strength of their flowers and their gem colours. At the moment ‘Bishop of Auckland’, with its small garnet blooms is my ultimate dahlia.

Bishop of Auckland

I can see this with the slender stems and bright purple blooms of Verbena bonariensis and glowing flame crocosmias. Maybe next year it will be a different dahlia desire, but that’s the magic of the flower: there’s a dahlia for everyone, eventually.

Take a look at Nick Gilbert’s Dahlias at www.gilbertsdahlias.co.uk – you can order online.

Andy McIndoe

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