It’s time to disinter some muddy lumps from their polystyrene trays in the garage. The corpses of humans who have displeased me will have to stay on the shelves until they’re ready for composting or the rozzers arrive; the dahlias require immediate action. The plants went into storage with name tags, colours and approximate heights attached with elastic bands. These have perished over winter, to leave a drift of plastic at the bottom of the box and no clue as to their owner. More seat of the pants horticulture is thus required.
I have a dedicated patch for late blooming tender tubers so that they may spend the summer undisturbed by a manic gardener furtling around with their roots. I used to fiddle about with cannas, interspersing them in the plot. I found that they needed more water than I was prepared to tote to their rescue or they died horribly in storage with audible groans. I don’t care for plants that make me feel like a mass murderer; if they don’t thrive under my regime of benign neglect, then to hell with them. I find that there is enough variety in Dahlias to satisfy any craving. All of them have petals of jewel bright intensity. I like the Fibonacci strictness of the pom-pom types and the louche crazy laxness of the cactus forms. The dinner plate varieties need some sort of staking for their magnificent and heavy heads and the decorative class burst out of fat buds in impressive style. They all make notable cut flowers; not opening further once gathered but long lasting in a vase. I pinch out growing shoots to make the plants more bushy and use the prunings for cuttings, which root easily. I overwinter them under cover in their plastic pots, from whence I can lose their tickets with impunity.
The planting plan started out with pinks and plums drifting towards orange and yellow, separated from shouting at each other by white and dark burgundy. After several years of ineffective labelling, the arrangement is screwed completely and the whole show is a haphazard mix of colour, size and shape. I consider it no less lovely for my lack of organization, indeed, the occasional outstanding success of an unplotted pairing is part of the pleasure. I do the weeding and turn the soil first, then excavate huge holes and partially fill them with homemade compost, rotted horse manure and handfuls of fish, blood and bone meal. If the silly sods don’t dazzle, it won’t be for a lack of fertiliser.
While the main event gets under way underground, I spread the seeds of annuals over their heads. Every year Atriplex hortensis (purple orach) seeds itself and marks the start of the season with milky violet shoots. I love this plant and so do my gardening friends. Attila hates it but he’s a mathematician. This time I’ve added Papaver paeoniflorum “Black Paeony” (dark double poppy), Centaurea cyanus (black ball cornflower) and Pennisetum glaucum “Purple Majesty” (ornamental millet). Coriandrum sativum (coriander) adds perfume. This way I get a show going early, reducing the brown bare earth motif before the big reveal. When the annuals finish, I am able to pull them out without damaging the tubers beneath.
Since I shall have no pretty pictures to go with my subject until August, I propose to continue with my practice of appending snaps of something that is performing well at the time of going to press. Photographs of Dahlias will follow; if it turns out to be a poor year, I’ll post images of their twisted, blighted, and probably stamped upon carcasses.