Hartley Magazine

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Dahlia days

Sow no harm: if you grow insect-attracting flowers from seed, you will reap nothing but delight.

butterfly on red flower
‘The first pristine peacock butterfly… alighting on one of your swaying jewels.’

I love you, my dearest dahlias – I really do. And it’s on hot, comforting days like this, when we’re lulled by echoes of ebbing summer, that I adore you more than ever. Today you brought an airborne frenzy of life skittering into the garden: bees and hoverflies of all hues and, just now, the first pristine peacock butterfly I’ve seen, alighting on one of your swaying jewels (the moths move in from twilight on). Butterflies have been saddeningly elusive here this topsy-turvy, stop-start, soggy-then-scorching summer, so here’s to your unrivalled, weatherproof allure. It’s reassuring to know you’ll be faithfully by our side, night and day, until Jack Frost nips us hard.

Gazing on you now, beguiled by your chintzy blooms that bow under a fat bumblebee’s landing, I drift away in sketchy memories of other dahlia-filled days: a little lad in shorts, peering at huge, spiky heads in pink, orange and red (and other shades betwixt), all neatly staked and tied, in my grandad’s garden. His dahlias were prized and primped; he stuck clay pots stuffed with straw among them to entrap petal-nibbling earwigs, and reached for the puffer packs when greenfly called. There wasn’t much buzz back then – but that’s what happens when you’re all puffed-up with petals and don’t reveal your heart. In winter, he kept clumps of dry, stubby fingers safe from frost, ready to bloom afresh another sunny day.

red, yellow and orange flowers
‘I plumped for you, my glorious, riotous band of ‘Bishop’s Children’.’

This bigger lad’s learnt a lot since (he’s swapped poisons for hoverflies) and nowadays I only want to grow you if you have more to give, not just to me, but to the wild and fragile world around us. So, dear dahlias, if you’ve a big, open heart, brimful with hankered-after pollen and nectar, and if you’ll stick with me, bursting with flower after flower after flower for month after month, I’ll wrap you in my gardening embrace. And if you can wear some dark, brooding bronze foliage too, to flaunt your chintziness to a tee, you’re the blooms for me. That’s why, this time around, I plumped for you, my glorious, riotous band of ‘Bishop’s Children’.

I’ve loved you since the moment I tore open your seed packet, anticipation unleashed, imagining the gems I might eventually get. You’ve been nurtured tenderly since you saw first light, sown as you were, with nature in mind, in my favourite peat-free compost, then stirred to life by the benign warmth of springtime sun. From your birth, through your rearing, to your departure, you will do no harm. You weren’t doused in any poisons along the way, meaning the bumbles are safe now that you’ve finally revealed your bedazzling hearts; no hidden toxic sips for your buzzing band. Today it’s mostly common carders, and a few garden bumblebees too, hurrying between your red, orange and pink discs, fresh and fading, egged on by these warm rays falling between summer and autumn. So that’s another reason, my dear dahlias, to treasure you, for you lift the bees up close, on petalled pedestals, where I can watch them at work and at rest, and learn, slowly, to tell one sort from another.

bees collecting pollen from pink flower
‘You lift the bees up close, on petalled pedestals, where I can watch them at work and at rest.’

Another thing you helped me learn – or rather relearn – in the brooding days of a depressing June, was the recuperative power of simply growing things – and how gardening is always looking ahead. All you had then was your fast-growing, dark and glossy garb, and your greedy roots, which craved bigger and bigger pots. I didn’t know exactly which of your glitzy shades I’d get, but I knew they would come, rain and slugs be damned. I potted you up, pampered you – I even treated you to pricey new terracotta pots in which to show you off – and drew hope from the certainty that your promised ebullience was only weeks away. You became my talisman (talisplant?) for brighter, better days and – oh gosh – today is one of the most flower-lit yet. Thank you, my cherished children, for helping shoo away those summertime blues. I’m glad I gave some of your siblings away; they’re lighting up other gardens that I’ll never see.

yellow flower
‘Here’s to your unrivalled, weatherproof allure.’

You’re growing now with gusto: hungry, thirsty, unstoppable, replacing each of your faded, snipped-off blooms with vying successors. I don’t know quite how you do it, but I love it. Your generous abundance means I don’t feel bad about cutting a bunch of stems topped with just-breaking buds to light up the indoors as much as the out. You do it with utter panache, stealing the show from cosmos and other fresh-cut supporting acts, and you go on and on and on. You give so much, for so long, and all for so little; I reckon the seed for each one of you chunky beauties cost me just pennies. Buying just a single bishop’s child (carrying who knows what nasties) would have set me back nigh on a tenner. Your value, like your beauty, my beloved, taint-free dahlias, is unsurpassed.

But it must fade, soon, when autumn pulls us in. It’ll then be time, after that semi-fatal, blackening frost that kills your tops, for tougher love: which of you to keep, and which to compost (when deep down I’ll want to hold on to you all). You’ll know if it’s you when I tie a ‘keep’ label among your frost-charred stems. All being well – if I keep your slumbers safe from winter’s freeze and from tiny, gnawing teeth – you’ll sprout and grow and dazzle and delight all over again, a year from now.

And what a year that might be, my dearest dahlias. Pots will be scrubbed and ready, but a new bed will be readied, too. Just for you.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener