Growbag Blog

Dahlias: too dire to dare?


Still not sure about dahlias…..they were originally brought into the country as a food source, their tubers to be cooked as a culinary root vegetable and there are still times when I feel this might be their finest use. James Wong has an interesting recipe for dahlia fritters but the thought of grating the Bishop of Llandaff with some onions and frying him up in a pan is akin to the discovery that spit roast guinea pigs are a barbecue delicacy in Peru.

Pretty sure D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff looks better than he tastes.

So what is the problem with dahlias as a garden plant? Is it their awkward outline and gangly sappy stems ? Is it their inability to integrate and weave amongst other plants? Is it that their flower colours always seem to clash with their own foliage, let alone other garden plants?

Commercial breeders are working to address these shortcomings and are indeed coming up with some varieties that are, well, less dahlia like, but I wonder if dahlias are not best celebrated for the brash, over the top creatures they are; I’m so glad that we still have the underworld mafia of showbench fanatics, totally oblivious to the trendy new wave of garden designers, who still apply clandestine techniques to produce the most geometrically perfect gargantuan blooms, for that febrile battleground….. the village horticultural show.

dahlia merckii
Dahlia merckii

However, some do have good foliage, and that’s important at this time of year as Louise points out in her Great Plants this Month and I am trying a few select dahlias each summer in a quest to find ones that fit in with the gentle washed out colours of a late summer English garden. Last year Louise gave me Dahlia merckii  whose quiet presence I can cope with, and this spring I bought Dahlia ‘Hadrian’s Midnight’ (featured above) from a  dahlia society stand, which is actually providing a shot of late summer opulence that perhaps I have been too quick to dismiss.


Same here, I am definitely not one for the pom-pons, the collarettes and the giant cacti. I would go so far as to say that they leave me cold, exuding as they do, a smug exactness of form and demeanour that sticks out in a mixed border like Theresa May at the Ladies Mud-Wrestling Final.

But Laura’s right – the breeders have brought out some varieties that work a bit harder to fit in with the gang; and the much-loved Bishop of Llandaff has been leading the charge.

Dahlia ‘blue bayou’ – a favourite of Sarah Raven’s

So why don’t I grow any?  Well, I’ve tried.  I even had a three-year long flirtation with the venerable Bishop himself but oh, how the slugs, snails, aphids and earwigs loved him!  His red flowers and purple foliage came at such a cost that I gave up the battle, and actually didn’t miss the fuss of all that dead-heading (remember, pointy buds are the finished ones, fat buds distressingly like dogs’ bottoms are flowers-to-come), and the staking, and whether to lift the tubers, or mulch the tubers blah, blah – in the end, I just gave the wretched tubers away.

Dahlia ‘Claire de Lune’

Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter said of them ‘Nothing insuperable that will not be taken in their stride by young enthusiasts’.  Well it’s a different story for a grumpy, ageing lady-gardener I can tell you.

I recently went round a private garden with Ed Flint, a well-known tutor at the English Gardening School, and he was certainly excited about some of the many dahlias he grows in a huge and beautiful mixed border: ‘Clair de Lune’ (pale yellow) ‘Duddon Grace’ (apricot), ‘Blue Bayou’ (mauve – big fave of Sarah Raven’s) and ‘Cameo’ (tall, strong yellow). So perhaps one day I will have another go – maybe a little dabble with ‘Bishop’s Children’ (clearly someone’s dalliance with the gentleman was more successful than mine). Or maybe I’ll just get a life.


Some years ago – and I’m talking over 50 of them, Elaine and Laura left me tied to a telegraph pole in our garden so they could watch Dr Who on their own. This won’t surprise you. Apart from Dr Who’s gender nothing much has changed but the point is, they were acting on orders from our brother. They are both very easily influenced. Just because dahlias are considered a little outré by the horticultural ‘fast set’, they find 101 things not to like about them.

I love dahlias. They’re so easy! Rather than the ‘almost bound to fail’ gamble of germinating seeds, or optimistically buying a pot of labelled foliage from a nursery, you can buy packets of dahlia tubers almost anywhere and they come with a PHOTO. Like ordering an omelette when overseas – the whole venture is de-risked immediately when you see a picture of something that looks comfortingly like what you wanted.

Dahlias ‘totally tangerine’ and the lobelia tupa – why do my sisters have such a problem?

To me, Laura’s Dahlia merckii looks in need of a saucer of milk, I don’t know why she opts for something quite so feeble when there are so many daring, brilliant dahlias now available.

I have acid yellow ones (fully photographed by B & Q at the point of purchase) with my russet coloured achillea to achieve a Jackson Pollock look to the side bed, and some D. ‘Totally Tangerine’  in the front border with my sexy Lobelia tupa (or Devils’ Tobacco) in the front border.

The dahlias just get on and do their stuff and when they’ve finished I dig them up and put them in the shed. In December I get out the Christmas lights and in May I get out the dahlias. Not for the first time I’m afraid, my sisters are being hopelessly faint-hearted and over-complicating  gardening for you, although to be fair, the dog’s bottom tip was useful.

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By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

4 replies on “Dahlias: too dire to dare?”

Phew – thanks Caroline. I was wondering if I might have to leave your blog as I can’t believe Laura and Elaine’s opinions on the oh so wonderful and accommodating dahlia. Fancy the exception being dahlia Merkii – a dismal little person. I think they are great and fantastic to pick.
The exception to the above are those horrid dwarf ones – bedding out, I think, is the technical term. I see them in our local Countrywide store and my heart sinks but perhaps it does with all ‘miniature’ or half size stuff. PS. I am in this store purchasing pig food for my two kune kunes who are way more interesting to the punters than my garden, on our opening days!

Yes hands up Jane – i’d be straight over to look at the pigs. They have a grunt feature that your average dahlia just can’t match. We’d be happy to give your garden open days a plug on our Twitter feed – you never know, it might get some more folk along. Just send the details to: Kind regards, Caroline

I have a little red dahlia, don’t know its name but its a simple little thing, only about 20 cm high, but a reliable patch of red which I don’t treat, doesn’t get gobbled by anyone, I never move it, and its been there for years, though possibly its getting smaller rather than spreading, which is ominous … it’s quietly unobtrusive and utterly unadventurous of me.(when you look at the dahlia world) Cant say I love it or hate it. Dogs bottom clue is a definite help, I sometimes stand there with my basket and pull gaily at the lumps that may or may not contain a delightful little bloom, they both come off just as easily/ Looking at google it could well be a Bishop of a Auckland, which makes me feel decidedly trendy, after all.

You’re lucky with the little red job/Bish of Auckland, Caroline. My ‘totally tangerine’ is crawling with bugs again today, and needs regular spraying. L and I have just been over to see E in Cherbourg, She showed us the wonderful photos you took of her garden. It was still looking marvellous despite the heavy downpours. Hopefully we’ll feature some of the pics in our next blog. It would be lovely, if possible, to meet next time we venture over to see the third (and most senior) growbag in her summer retreat! kind regards,Caroline

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