The Independent Archive: A pink pom-pom like the cheek of an angel

2 September 1989 Growing dahlias is a male preserve. Anna Pavord eavesdrops to find out why

I FEEL that, like George Eliot, I should adopt a pseudonym to write this piece about dahlias, plant of the month for September. Dahlia- growing is a male preserve, as you will discover if you lurk around the edges of any show, such as the National Dahlia Society Show which was held this week in London. I have eavesdropped on a hundred esoteric male conversations on these occasions trying to find an answer to this conundrum, but it eludes me.

Proponents of the power theory would say that it is the sheer bulk that attracts: massive meaty tubers, hugh fleshy leaves, stalks like drainpipes, flowers as big as punchballs. But this is too simple an explanation. There are plenty of growers, particularly in the South-West, whose passion is the pom-poms - tight-lipped little flowers, round and hard as a piece of porcelain, no more than two inches across, balanced perfectly on long, thin stems. I have seen veterans handling blooms of "Hallmark", a deep lavender-pink pom-pom of symmetrical perfection, as though they were touching the cheek of an angel.

There are plenty, of course, who loathe dahlias; they usually know very little about them, but are conditioned to give a little shudder, to wince sensitively, if the word comes up in polite conversation. In these circumstances, the best thing is to say, "Oh, but Gertrude Jekyll loved them", which that renowned landscape architect did.

Because they have such a high profile as exhibition flowers, dahlias are surrounded with a great deal of mumbo-jumbo. They are actually extremely willing plants, not difficult to grow adequately; adequately enough, that is, to please you in the garden even if not to meet the stricter requirements of judges at the show bench.

Raising from seed is not the usual way to get hold of dahlias; it is more likely that you will buy tubers, or cuttings; or well-grown plants. Tubers are sent out by specialist growers between November and March. Plants raised from cuttings are dispatched between late April and June. Ken Aplin, a Dorset postman, who grows superb dahlias - more than 300 of them on his allotment by the River Frome - says that good stock is vital. Nothing worthy will ever come from a wizened, pre- packaged tuber that has been hanging round longer than it ought in a garden centre, he says firmly. If you go for rooted plants, these can go straight in the ground at the end of May.

They need good ground, a position where they will get sun for at least half the day. Mr Aplin rotovates plenty of muck into his ground before planting, and he top-dresses with Vitax Q4. He does no extra feeding, but plenty of watering. At the rate they grow, dahlias lap up water faster than dehydrated dingoes.

Staking is vital. There is a lot of wind resistance in a dahlia dressed overall. Three canes and plenty of soft twine is the usual answer. Through June and most of July, all you will have to do is watch them grow. Then comes the fiddly bit: disbudding. For show dahlias this is essential, but a little population control is good for garden plants as well. Without your intervention, too many flowers will be produced and the bush will become a muddle.

On most growths, there is a boss bud and two lesser outriders. Although it runs counter to all one's natural sympathy for the underdog, the subsidiary buds, rather like the sideshoots of tomatoes, must be nipped out before they get too big. The remaining bud will then have unlimited resources to develop into a fine long-stemmed bloom.

The giant decoratives are the dahlias that hypnotise me, like a rabbit in front of a blazing headlamp. They are not the easiest varieties to keep on their feet. Some grow more than five feet high and need not so much staking as buttressing. But who, having seen "Trelawny" in fighting form - whirling wheels of bronze, almost a foot across - could fail to be transfixed? Who could pass by the sumptuous magenta purple globes of "Night Editor" without a second glance?

Mr Aplin could. He is not a giant-decorative man. He is, as he put it, "more of a pom-pom and ball man". His champion this year is "Catherine's Cupid", a miniature ball of slightly salmony pink. "It'll be a pleasure to cut those," he said.

From the Gardening page of `The Independent', Saturday 2 September 1989

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape