Dahlia days: Autumn has come early this year, but there's one gloriously garish plant that's guaranteed to liven up even the drabbest of borders, says Emma Townshend

"Excuse me," says a lady visitor to Wisley, "can you show me the way to the dahlia test beds?" It's not your average Sunday afternoon out, but the idea of test beds is to see lots of different dahlias all in one place without the distractions of a garden to sway your decision-making. I was thinking of having a look myself, but got sidetracked enjoying the skill with which Wisley's gardeners have incorporated many of my favourite gaudy plants into their spectacular early autumn borders.

This is the time of year when subtropical plants come into their own. I stop to gawp at the absolutely scarlet canna Tchad because I have a passion for the big-leaved healthy greenness of tender plants. They always make me think of Eric Carle's children's classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and all the merits of a nice green leaf. As autumn seems to have started this year without asking permission, the plants' splendour is doubly welcome. Subtropical plants will still produce their tightly bound, optimistic flower spikes right into autumn, offering a real spiritual lift to those of us who feel low at the idea of the year ebbing away.

In my garden, the canna lilies are just getting going, and elsewhere huge hand-sized dahlias are showing off. I can't help it; I know I should like tasteful things but I just don't get any satisfaction out of them.

And so to the dahlias. In the continued absence of a What Dahlia? magazine, you have two choices for checking out plants. If you prefer the test-bed approach, you could start with Wisley. But those gluttons for whom Wisley is simply not enough should consider a trip to Aylett Nurseries's annual dahlia festival, which starts today and runs until 23 September. Aylett is near St Albans and the M25, and the festival is well worth a visit.

But many gardeners prefer to see how plants work in proper flowerbeds. And lots of us would confess privately not just to pinching ideas about single plants, but even whole groupings of colour and shape. Last weekend I made the trek to the south coast to visit Meon Orchard, a private garden whose few openings for the NGS each year are worthwhile enough to earn the garden almost two pages in the RHS Garden Finder. There were plenty of good ideas to steal. Meon Orchard's owners, Dr and Mrs Smith, have a national collection of eucalyptus, consisting of many different species of the tree growing for you to compare. They also grow plenty of canna, dahlias and hedychium, the so-called "hardy" gingers. Every corner is crammed with plants, rammed in their pots into flowerbeds straight out of the greenhouse, and perched on walls and stonework. There is lots of helpful labelling, and Dr Smith bounds up with the energy of a happy spaniel to answer queries.

Walking underneath the eucalyptus canopy and brushing against banana leaves, you could imagine you were thousands of miles away, though the garden is on a miniature scale and ends with views of some very English fields.

Meon Orchard also hosted a small rare plant sale, and I got into conversation with Julian Sutton of Desirable Plants in Devon about a plant I'd bought someone else. My rhizome of Hedychium gardnerianum came from a source I will not name at a May RHS fair, and it still hasn't sprouted. "Oh dear," says Sutton, "I don't think it should have been sold in that state. Without any roots? Sadly it was probably imported with thousands of others in a shipping container, dug up by some poor farmer in India. The plant's probably still in shock."

Julian Sutton manages to be scathing about the sales technique of his competitor and deeply informative about my plant, giving me careful cultivation instructions when I hadn't even bought anything from him. However, that was about to change, and I took home a healthy ginger lily with buds about to open. On the way back down the drive, I passed some other garden visitors on their way home. There's nothing like the wry smile you meet on the face of someone else taking home plants from a plant sale. "Ah, we've done it again," they seem to be saying, "and so have you. How will we ever find the room?"n

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks