Great balls of fire: Dahlias are weird, wonderful and well worth the wait


Look, I love digging and pruning as much as the next horticulturalist, but there are some things I find very irritating about gardening. For instance, seeing a plant growing in a garden, looking stupendous, and then getting on the internet and finding I have to wait until next year to get hold of it. Someone more Zen-like and philosophical than myself might then ponder life's changing cycle, the beauty of the turning leaves, mumbling "for everything there is a season", etc. Me, it just leaves tetchy and irritated. I want it now. Now, I tell you.

So, dahlias. I'm loving them, I'm seeing them flowering, but I can't actually order any to plant until, er, next year. Withypitts, a top specialist dahlia nursery in Sussex, will be sending out small plants in 9cm pots after Easter. Easter! You can put your order in now just fine, they will take your money efficiently and log your preference, but nothing will turn up until well into spring 2013. This isn't actually their fault. It's a tuber thing.

I suppose during this endless wait, I could spend some time researching which dahlias other people recommend. I start with James Alexander-Sinclair, who gives a massive thumbs up to "Chat Noir", a rather outrageous burgundy spiky flower, with petals which have a slightly snowboardy curve to them. Others dig it too: Sarah Raven likens it to a sea urchin.

Alexander-Sinclair also recommends "David Howard", as does Carol Klein. This is much shorter, growing to only about mid-thigh, and it has dark-bronze leaves with pale-orange flowers floating above. I tend to think "David Howard" looks a bit like a marigold, and not in a good way; they've got that tight, ruched, purse-mouth thing in common. But it does go to show that where dahlias are concerned, it's each to his own.

Then there are the weirder ones that some people can't quite resist. You know how it happens. You're reading the catalogue online and all of sudden you find your hand reaching out and clicking on the delightful oddball. Carol Klein's dahlia curve-ball is "Alva's Doris", a huge, bright-red cactus variety. Sarah Raven stocks one called "Tahoma Moonshot" which is an abstracted star in fine Japanese mauve and pale yellow; Christopher Lloyd had a soft spot for gaudy lemon "Davar Donna". And visitors to RHS Wisley have been filling in voting forms all summer that favour "Jessica", a crazy orange-and-red spider that looks like it's fallen off a mariachi band uniform.

Hopefully, they will all be worth the wait. Dahlias are wonderful growers, producing flowers for months at a stretch. And if you just can't wait I suggest you proceed to that cheat's paradise, This week they'll send you out a plant of "David Howard" actually in flower, post haste, for just £4.99. Instant gratification, oh yes please.

The dahlia trials field at RHS Wisley, Surrey, daily, until first frosts; see

Hello, Dahlia

'Jescot Julie' This totally fabulous thing has kind of tequila-sunrise-striped petals. Exuberant, grand, vivid: what more could you want to fight off autumn? £4.99,

'Ambition' Suitably named if your ambition is to grow flowers about the size of a baby's head that are a sort of fluorescent fuchsia. £4.99,

'Chat Noir' That much-recognised star of the autumn garden, with perfect starry shape and long petals fading to velvet red. £4.99,

All can also be ordered as tubers in spring from specialists such as Halls of Heddon ( and Withypitts (

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