Dahlias, Back in Fashion Again – I Feel So Old.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' one of the most popular of dahlias and, perhaps, the one responsible for bringing dahlias back to popularity.
Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ one of the most popular of dahlias and, perhaps, the one responsible for bringing dahlias back to popularity.

My wife and I started gardening together almost forty years ago and dahlias were the height of fashion at that time. That was also the era of azaleas under planted with heathers and interspersed with dwarf conifers – oh, how misplaced was that “dwarf” description. We had a border where azaleas and dahlias were – now, put on your mental sunglasses before reading any further – yes, azaleas and dahlias planted alternatively along a narrow border. Oh, what a riotous clashing of colours.

Another wonderful dahlia - Dahlia 'Arabian Night' which is a wonderfully rich red colour
Another wonderful dahlia – Dahlia ‘Arabian Night’ which is a wonderfully rich red colour

We moved to our present house while the azalea, dwarf conifer and heather craze was still in full swing and planted an area in that style again. Fortunately, our dog, a corgi, Timmy, found the heathers made a very comfortable bed and they quickly went into decline and into the compost bin. Some of the azaleas still remain as do some of the dwarf conifers – some actually remained dwarf after thirty years while a few others have grown to nuisance size and a Thuja ‘Rheingold’ is presently being revamped as a possible candidate as a “cloud-pruned” feature. If it looks well after reshaping it will remain in the garden and, if not, it will be removed. It’s worth a try and a bit of fun before the final decision has to be made though there is always the danger that after investing time and effort into reshaping this plant I may be reluctant to dump it even if it is not really a success.

Dahlia 'Bloodstone' again showing this colour that I like, a deep dark red.
Dahlia ‘Bloodstone’, a wonderfully strong red.

As to the dahlias, well they make me feel old as they are having a resurgence of popularity. It all reflects the saying that if you live long enough everything will come back into fashion again. Yes, it does make me feel old but I am very happy that the dahlias are once again popular. They are great garden plants which give us a wonderful display of colour from July onwards and they are easy to grow – yes, after the scare of the severely cold winter here of 2010 – ’11 we now feel it is wiser to lift and store them in frost-free situation for the winter, bring them into growth under glass in spring before planting out again in late May. For so many years we enjoyed mild winters and left our dahlias in the ground, covering them with some garden compost for protection from light frosts. Lifting, storing overwinter, and bringing into growth under glass in spring does offer the opportunity to take cuttings early in the year to increase stock.

I have been taken by this beautiful dahlia this year, Dahlia 'Danseuse'
I have been taken by this beautiful dahlia this year, Dahlia ‘Danseuse’

As with any plant which has enjoyed periods of high fashion there is a plethora of cultivars available, some more tasteful than others but, surely, something to suit all tastes and even to suit those who lack all taste. I find myself most attracted to the rich and darker reds but not exclusively so. Here is a selection of some which I particularly like at the moment.

Now, a picture parade of beauties which have caught my eye this last week and which might tempt you to try a few in your own garden.

Dahlia 'David Howard' has rich orange flowers against dark foliage.
Dahlia ‘David Howard’ has rich orange flowers against dark foliage.
Dahlia 'Glorie van Noordwijk'  with a rich orange flower on green foliage. This one has performed fabulously this year and is great garden plant.
Dahlia ‘Glorie van Noordwijk’ with a rich orange flower on green foliage. This one has performed fabulously this year and is great garden plant.
Dahlia 'Evening Glow'  - perfectly  named, I think.
Dahlia ‘Evening Glow’ – perfectly named, I think.
Dahlia 'Show n' Tell'  - a very striking red, certainly an eye-catcher.
Dahlia ‘Show n’ Tell’ – a very striking red, certainly an eye-catcher.
Dahlia 'Danseuse'  - One I hadn't taken much note of until this year but I like it very much.
Dahlia ‘Danseuse’ – One I hadn’t taken much note of until this year but I like it very much.
Dahlia 'My Love'  - I think few dahlias grow as well. It holds its flowers very strongly and they last for ages. Also, I like a perfectly clean white flower.
Dahlia ‘My Love’ – I think few dahlias grow as well. It holds its flowers very strongly and they last for ages. Also, I like a perfectly clean white flower.
Dahlia 'Regalia'  - a change of colours, rich!
Dahlia ‘Regalia’ – a change of colours, rich!
The delightful and deservedly popular Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'
The delightful and deservedly popular Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’
Dahlia 'Arabian Night'  - so deeply coloured!
Dahlia ‘Arabian Night’ – so deeply coloured!
Dahlia 'Jersey Beauty'  - I'm not sure I could live too long with this "beauty". It is big, brash, blousy and a shocking pink.
Dahlia ‘Jersey Beauty’ – I’m not sure I could live too long with this “beauty”. It is big, brash, blousy and a shocking pink.
Dahlia 'Kelvin Floodlight' - to prove that dahlias are not all demur but the name should have told you that. This is big, huge, and glaringly lemon-yellow. Sunglasses, please!
Dahlia ‘Kelvin Floodlight’ – to prove that dahlias are not all demur but the name should have told you that. This is big, huge, and glaringly lemon-yellow. Sunglasses, please!

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

A Treasure Shared – Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’

For a gardener a plant is the perfect memento. We visited Glenveagh Castle Gardens in May of this year where we held our Annual General Meeting and enjoyed guided walks of the garden afterwards.

Dahlia 'Matt Armour'
Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’

There are two plants which are particularly associated with the gardens at Glenveagh. One is “Rhododendron ‘Mulroy Vanguard’ which was raised at Mulroy House in the garden of Lady Anne Leitrim around 1960 and planted at Glenveagh.” The second is Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ and, once again, I will quote from the Head Gardener at Glenveagh, Seán O Gaoithin, from the article he wrote for the journal of the Irish Garden Plant Society, Moorea, Volume 16:

“The conservation of the Glenveagh raised Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ is a major consideration for the garden staff. This unique clone was first raised from seed given to young under-gardener Matt Armour in 1930 by Lucy Porter. The variety has been in cultivation in the walled garden ever since. A stock of 100 plants is maintained; the tubers over-wintered in storage and planted out in the walled garden in May. The cultivar name Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ was registered with the RHS in 1996 by Seán O Gaoithin (head gardener sice 1995). The first published description of the cultivar appeared in The Irish Garden magazine in 1996. A botanical portrait by Wendy Walsh was commissioned by the OPW(Office of Public Works) in 1996 and published in “A Lifetime of Painting”, a book celebrating her life’s work in 2007. Currently we are in the process of raining 500 clones of Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ that are virus-free  material by micro-propagation with the aid of the Department of Agricultures’s Potato Research Station at Raphoe, Co. Donegal.”

Dahlia 'Matt Armour'
Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’

On the occasion of our visit to Glenveagh in May, Seán very kindly had a young plant of Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ for each person in our group and I am sure each of these plants went to a very appreciative home and will be treasured for many years to come.

I had an e-mail from Victor and Roz Henry last week with an attached photograph of their Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ in flower; the first reported flowering. Well done to Victor and Roz for in their success with this plant. It is wonderful to see our Irish heritage plants being so well cared for in the hands of our members.

Well done, Victor and Roz!

Dahlia 'Matt Armour'
Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’

Paddy Tobin

  • To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

Will We Let the Garden Go Wild?

What would happen if we allowed plants have their own way and to grow as and where nature decides? Would it be chaos or just another facet of our gardens?

The thought of allowing plants to have their unbridled way in the garden is, perhaps, too much for most gardeners who see their creation and control as being at the essence of their gardens.  A space without their control might not be considered a garden at all but simply a wild patch but, perhaps, this wild patch can be managed and then considered a thing of beauty.

The annual opium poppies which are an delight in the garden.
The annual opium poppies which are an delight in the garden.

There is a range of plants which delight us each year by their random habits. They pop up here and there where it suits them and we must take them as they come or remove and do without them. They are whimsical and self-willed; they are in charge and grow on their conditions so that if we love them we must also tolerate their ways. My garden would certainly be the poorer without the annual flush of opium poppies with their richly coloured and fluffy flower heads, followed by their architectural seed heads. Dieramas are in flower here as I write and most are not the same as the original plants we introduced some twenty years ago; they have crossed with each other, scattered their seed and have produced some beautiful colour variants. I would not be without their random beauty though it is largely outside my control.

Dieramas - willing self-seeders in the garden
Dieramas – willing self-seeders in the garden

Dierama bed  (1)

Ammi majus and Nigella damacena ‘Miss Jekyll White’ seed about in profuse numbers a white garden here. They are light and airy plants which fill in between the main planting of the area and give a fluffy display which is simply wonderful each year. While we collect seed of the Ammi to be sure we will have more plants to place where we would like them those scattered by nature always seem to give just the right effect. Verbena bonariensis and Verbena hastata behave in a similar manner and add that beautiful purple haze to a bed. It is always a delight when Tulipa sprengeri spreads about by seed and I have failed to grow Corydalis wilsonii or Corydalis ochroleuca where I have wished it to be but am never without them as they seeded many years ago into cracks at the base of the house and around the glasshouse and have persisted there without any help from me. And, who would be without “Miss Willmott’s Ghost”!

Ammi majus, a beautiful umbellifer which adds lightness to a border
Ammi majus, a beautiful umbellifer which adds lightness to a border
Nigella damascena 'Miss Jekyll White' which seeds about very generously but can be kept in check very easily.
Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll White’ which seeds about very generously but can be kept in check very easily.

So, though my first impressions on reading this latest book to come my way, “Cultivating Chaos” were that it was a style or approach to gardening which was not for me I found, on consideration, that there are many suggestions outlined in the book which I already employ in the garden and that they add greatly to the spontaneity and enjoyment of the garden.  While I might immediately baulk at the thought of “cultivating” chaos, on reading this book, I realised that I actually enjoy a certain degree of chaos, freedom of plants, spontaneity and allowing nature to have its way. The subtitle, “How to enrich landscapes with self-seeding plants” more accurately describes this approach to gardening. It is not simply allowing the garden to run to seed, go wild and out of control but an approach which welcomes a certain level of leaving plants do their own thing while keeping an eye on this and selecting and refining the results.

Verbena bonariensis, a very popular self-seeding plant in our gardens at present.
Verbena bonariensis, a very popular self-seeding plant in our gardens at present.
Verbena hastata, another pretty self-seeder in the garden.
Verbena hastata, another pretty self-seeder in the garden.

The book covers all the practicalities from which plants to use, how to prepare soil, where to plant them, plant lists and descriptions, how to manage the plants as the years go on and how to care for one’s meadow – an essential requisite these days! However, along with the necessary and information practical aspects of the book there are those delightful sections which describe the projects of others and give us beautiful photographs to inspire us to do likewise. There is an in-depth examination of nature at work at Dungeness in Kent and a peep into Derek Jarmin’s garden there. There is an extensive description of Het Vlackeland, the two acre garden of landscape designer Madelien Hasselt and her partner Willy Oorthuijsen in the Netherlands and also the work of Piet Oudolf, Henk Gerritsen and Ton ter Linden. The chapter on Waltham Place, the home of Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer, is fabulously interesting as it shows how a formal garden has been transformed into a naturalistic one over the last fifteen years, chaos within a framework so to speak.

Tulipa sprengeri which increases in the garden thought its own self-seeding.
Tulipa sprengeri which increases in the garden thought its own self-seeding.

Tulipa sprengeri  (6)

There is much in this book to recommend it; it is well written and beautifully illustrated and it may well, if not change your approach to gardening entirely, lead you to allow some level of freedom to your plants and you will enjoy the design and spontaneity of  nature which results.

An aside: Reading this book about self-seeding plants in the garden brought several amusing comments to mind. I have heard a gardener, boasting of their latest rare and unusual plant, brought back to earth with the comment, “Oh, that old thing; it seeds everywhere on me; a nuisance!” Gardeners, in general I think, dislike the pompous or the boastful.  A painful back, sore knees and dirty hands will generally knock that guff out of the practical gardener.  Of similar vein, I recall Helen Dillon’s recounting of Christopher Lloyd comments on how good the maintenance was in her garden as though this was the best he could find to say about the garden, a gentle put-down in effect. It was said only to tease, of course, as he could not but admire the garden.

I had friends in the garden some weeks back and one commented so many times on how impressed he was with the imposing structure of the new bridge which is in the background, what wonderful “borrowed landscape” it was, “striking piece of sculpture/architecture” etc that I began to wonder if it was a case that he could find nothing to compliment within the garden and, wishing to be polite and positive, complimented me on the garden background and setting instead. I will listen ever so carefully when next he comes around and, if he continues in like vein, I will spare us both by not asking him to come again. Good setting and background! Pffff! I will also give him a packet of one of those horrible grasses which seeds everywhere and delight in the chaos and nuisance it will cause him.

[Cultivating Chaos, How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-seeding Plants, Jonas Reif, Christian Kress and Jurgen Becker, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2015, HB, 189pp, £25,ISBN: 978-1-60469-652-3]

Paddy Tobin

An area where dieramas are allowed free (almost) rein.
An area where dieramas are allowed free (almost) rein.
Opium poppies making an impact in a bed in the garden.
Opium poppies making an impact in a bed in the garden.
  • To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook.