Tag Archives: Dahlia

Finally the Dahlia Papers on dahlias

The perfect crimson dahlia ‘Doris Day’, 2017 dahlia trials, Parham, West Sussex

I track down Parham Head Gardener, Tom Brown, in his office where he is carefully stowing away a fat pile of seed packets into a battle-worn filing cabinet.  ‘Melon seeds’ he grins. The seeds have been brought back from Italy by the Barnard family, who live in this beautiful Elizabethan house in West Sussex, and one of the many challenges Tom will be cheerily taking on in the coming months will be to see how successfully he can get these new varieties of melon to grow.

Tom has invited me to Parham to see his 2017 Dahlia Trials. I am delighted to be returning to this atmospheric and constantly inventive garden (see my July 2016 post) and I am thrilled to have the chance at last, after four years of writing a blog called The Dahlia Papers, to consider this most uplifting plant.

I love pretty much everything about the dahlia. I love the sheer ballroom-dance-competition glee of each fluffier, more neatly sequinned variety:

Gorgeous salmon pink and cream dahlia above and Dahlia ‘Karma Yin Yang’ below spotted at the Chelsea Flower Show

And I love the neat pompom and ball dahlias for the impossible regularity of of their daintily sculpted, rounded heads – here in polka dot form at the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair  (7th and 8th October – go if you can!).  

There are single dahlias too, of subtle or dazzling shades, that can lift or add depth to a border over a long period in late summer. Dahlia ‘Poppy Scotland’ is a particularly clear bright red cultivar available as a rooted cutting from the National Dahlia Collection .

                                                                       Dahlia ‘Poppy Scotland’

Dahlias have, of course, become fashionable again in recent times. As has my part of London, Peckham, where exquisitely wrapped English dahlias are available alongside equally exquisite flat breads, pears and cheeses at the lovely General Store in Bellenden Road.

Exquisitely wrapped English dahlias, General Store, Peckham

Naturally, for the 21st birthday party of our twin sons at the beginning of this month, dahlias were the obvious cheerful choice:

Party preparation – rainbow candles, bunting and dahlias

21st birthday party – with dahlias – photo by Freddie Reed

21st birthday party – with dahlias – photo by Freddie Reed

But back to Parham where fifty glorious dahlias have been trialled this summer alongside swathes of gladiolus and a huge patchwork square of zinnias.



The 2017 dahlia trials at Parham, West Sussex

This is the third year of plant trials in the garden. They began as an ingenious solution to the question: how do you get rid of an infestation of bind weed in a tired border and simultaneously offer something for the visitor to look at? As an experiment, Tom Brown asked his team to see if they could come up with 100 varieties of sunflower. The team cleared the bed and covered the ground with plastic membrane to smother the regrowth, but at the same time  planted the sunflower seeds through small holes in the plastic. The result was a fantastic display and of course the chance to really get to know and compare the sunflowers so that future selections could be based on their own close observation and not just the persuasive description in a seed catalogue. This is gold dust research – for the record, favourites include ‘Alchemy’ , the creamy white ‘Vanilla Ice’ and ‘Munchkin’.

The ‘Munchkin’ sunflower has been a particular favourite of the Parham ‘flower ladies’ who use cut flowers from the garden throughout the spring and summer to create displays for the house. They like the smaller scale of the flower heads and its branching habit is helpful when creating relaxed arrangements. As we pass a particularly exuberant ‘Munchkin’ plant, Tom admits that he is unable to explain what happened to the supposedly ‘dwarf’ characteristic on this one:

An inexplicably tall  ‘Munchkin’ sunflower

In 2016 there was an equally seductive allium trial and for 2017 Tom enlisted the help of dahlia expert Richard Ramsey (of nearby specialist dahlia nursery Withypitts ) to come up with a list of fifty favourite dahlias for the Parham gardeners and visitors alike to get to know better. The dahlias are arranged in long rows, supported with a grid of string, and have been picked continuously so that their vase performance can be tested too.

The sumptuous pink Dahlia ‘Prefet Demange’, Parham dahlia trials

Each of the six Parham gardeners has had their say in the ultimate list of top ten favourites and some tubers  will be immediately reordered for use around the garden next year.

The perky orange and yellow ‘Charlie Dimmock’ has made the top ten and will be used in the about-to-be-revamped Gold Border. Again the flower ladies liked its lightly spreading, smaller flowered form when left to its own devices. To get a larger flower on a long straight stem, the trick with a dahlia is to remove the two side buds and leave the terminal bud to develop into a champion flower.

Dahlia ‘Charlie Dimmock’ – a long stemmed champion flower

Dahlia Charlie Dimmock – left to grow as more relaxed sprays

The substantial semi-cactus Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ has also confirmed its place as an absolute favourite (I particularly love the energy of ‘Black Jack’ as a just opening bud).

Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ – open and in bud

And Dahlia ‘Small World’ – a free flowering crisp white pompom dahlia did not in fact get to the Top Ten (it was pipped tot the post by ‘Snowflake’ but has been selected by one of the gardeners, Reese, to be used next year as a sort of small mounding shrub at the front of the White Border.

Dahlia ‘Small World’

There is a gorgeous, waxy salmon pink dahlia ‘Aljo’ which also made the top ten.

Dahlia ‘Aljo’

And two of my favourites which are looking particularly good on the day I visit (not such a reliable approach, clearly) are featured below: The cheerful, ‘Dutch Carnival with its super neat circles of red and yellow petals and the delicate, almost transparent ‘Brother Josh’.

Dahlia ‘Dutch Carnival’ (above) and ‘Brother Josh’ (below)

The trial bed is buzzing midweek in September with visitors examining and selecting their own preferred blooms.  The next stage, of course – if you are not growing dahlias on their own as cut flowers –  is to work out how to combine them in the border.

Dahlias are always used with exhilarating panache at Great Dixter . Visitors to the Autumn Plant Fair will be able to catch the late autumn garden there in full swing.

I love the sugar pink Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’ here soaring to the sky with a backdrop of arching miscanthus.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’, Great Dixter

In the Barn Garden, the fiery red Dahlia ‘Wittermans superba’ is used with brilliant simplicity against a plain green foil of a fan trained fig. 

Dahlia ‘Witterman’s Superba’ against the magnificent fan trained fig, Barn Garden, Great Dixter

And here a deep pink dahlia – possibly ‘Hillcrest Royal’ – is a rich accent in a celebratory dance of a border with spiky cardoons, the burnt orange Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ and the crazily tall Persicaria orientalist – kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Royal’ adds a deep accent to a border, Great Dixter

One of my favourite Great Dixter combinations is Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ – a single flowered dahlia which is actually a cross with the chocolate scented Cosmos atrosanguineus  – used as a covetable bobbing partner for the rhythmic, deep purple Salvia ‘Amistad’.

Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ with Salvia ‘Amistad’

I cannot leave Parham, of course, without endless other aspects of the garden catching my eye.

The Entrance Border is looking spectacularly bruised and moody.

Entrance Border, Parham

I am smitten by Dicentra scandens – a pale yellow, climbing bleeding heart I have not met before that lightly clambers over and through the bed which Tom assures me can be grown as an annual if planted in June.

Dicentra scandens clambering over sedum in the Entrance Border, Parham

I like the subtle combination of both pale pink and coral pink persicaria with feathery calamagrostis:

Persicaria amplixicaulis ‘Rosea’ and ‘Firetail’ with feathery calamagrostis, Entrance Border, Parham

There is a slightly more silvery version of this palette in the Prairie Border. I love the use of pale yellow Bidens heterophylla to lighten the mood and the way the silky tassels of miscanthus and the dull pink of Eupatoreum work so well with the mottled brick of the wall behind them.

The Prairie Border, Parham with pale yellow widens lighting up the border

There are simple, strong effects such as this stand of white Japanese anemone against an open garden gate

Japanese anemone against garden gate, Parham

And the zinnia trials introduce me to the delicious antique looking  ‘Queen Red Lime’ (which did indeed make the Parham 2017 top ten):

Zinnia elegans ‘Queen Red Lime’

Of the many exciting projects at Parham, I am particularly intrigued by a new planting of lilac and Iris sibirica .

New planting of Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ and Iris sibirica

Landscape designer,  Todd Longstaffe-Gowan comes to Parham a couple of times a year to act as an advisor and sounding board. A plan was developed to do away with a tired looking lavender cross and fill the space with romantic and traditional lilac shrubs emerging from pools of slender Iris sibirica. The gorgeous ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ was selected for the lilac: Ashridge Trees describes it as is a scented, double flowered lilac with ‘an elusive colour that ranges from lavender pink to mauvey blue depending on the time of day and  the intensity of the light’.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’

100 each of 12 different cultivars of Iris sibirica were planted, as a sort of fast track on-the-job  trial. ln fact Iris sibirica ‘Silver edge’ is already outstripping its neighbours as ‘by far the best blue’. This part of the garden is looking young and quiet at the moment and Tom and his team are making sure that the iris are given a couple of years of pampering, removing any competing grass and mulching generously to get them established. I can imagine a visit in late May in a year or two’s time when the groups of iris with their fine mauve-blue flowers and slim sword shaped leaves form a wonderful graceful understory to the clouds of lilac in full flower.

Iris sibirica ‘Katherine Havemeyer’

A quick peak into one of the new glasshouses reveals that Tom has, despite his initial modesty, already succeeded in growing some perfect specimens of melon. The glass house is heady with their scent and I feel very stupid not to have known before that melons are supported in string bags.

Melons in the glass house at Parham

My contribution is to recommend the passionate Amy Goldman’s book on melons  (I have written about Amy Goldman in my post A Gardener’s Letter to Paris ).

As I am leaving Parham a magnificent stone trough catches my eye. Airy rich yellow bidens, scarlet salvia and gorgeous trails of the purple bell vine, Rhodochiton atrosanguineus. The planting is one hundred percent Parham: exuberant, delicate and slightly unexpected. Thank you Tom for another inspiring visit.

Stone trough with widens, salvia and purple bell vine, Parham, West Sussex




The last day of September and Great Dixter (http://www.greatdixter.co.uk) is still comfortably pumping out rushes of sheer happiness all over the garden. I am part of a monthly study group led by the tirelessly enthusiastic Kemal Mehdi – friend of the late Christopher Lloyd and Dixter Trustee. It is always the same – as we turn the corner from the Front Meadow and get the first dancing glimpse of the Barn Garden beyond the dark yew entrance – no one can help that moony Dixter smile wash over their faces. The rest of the world stops for a day as we get looking, hungrily.

salvia confertiflora

Salvia confertiflora

This wonderful – tender – sage has tall spires of glowing crimson flowers on soft, felted calyces with bold corrugated green leaves. It has the perfect common name – ‘red velvet sage’ – and is dangerously irrisistable here against the rich reddish brown of the wonderful barn roof tiles. The daisy in the background here is the tall Erigeron annuus which is one of the late summer leitmotiv plants at Dixter. It works especially well when used lightly as it can look a bit marooned and leggy when there is too much of it in one go. The elegant arching foliage belongs to the compact and surprisingly elegant pampass grass – Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumilla’. Time to throw out all prejudice about pampass grass perhaps and enjoy instead the elegant, slender evergreen foliage and soft white upright plumes?

cyperus 1

Cyperus eragrostis

Growing near the pond at the centre of the Barn Garden – but introducing itself with style up the steps and into the barn itself – the yellow greens and bronzes of this supposed bog sedge glow vividly against the brilliant red of Cotoneaster horizantalis behind it.

kniphofia rooperi

Kniphofia rooperi

At the top of the steps is a stand of fantastically robust and brilliantly coloured red hot pokers. Evergreen architectural foliage and a reliable offering of orange-red torches every October. All this against irridescent dashes of magenta – the incredibly long flowering Salvia microphylla ‘Cerro Potosi’, the rich purply blue of even longer flowering Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and the intense coral red of Hesperantha coccinea Major (Hesperantha the new name for Schizostylis). Every member of the happy club muttering quietly to themselves already.

For really trying to understand the impact of certain plants and how they work together there is nothing to compare with looking closely at any garden again and again throughout the year. At Dixter – famous for a density of successional planting that few other gardens could even begin to emulate – visiting and revisiting is relentlessly rewarding. What is even more energising is the tone of happy and constant experimentation that Head Gardener, Fergus Garrett now sets for his wonderful team. There are many moments at Dixter that are beyond the manpower and skill of most gardens but there are also plenty of ideas that will work really effectively elsewhere.


Taking the time to track down a particular variety and then giving it space and growing it well.

nb best white mophead

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mme Emile Mouillere’

Christopher Lloyd always declared this to be the best pure white mophead hydrangea – a clear white rounded flower head with faint pink markings which gradually fade to a soft speckled pale greeny- pink. It needs to be given space away from brighter more magenta toned pinks or it will appear to be almost salmony in colour which might irritate – well it would irritate me. On its own or amongst green foliage, this late summer colour is gorgeously subtle and happy to be occasionally illuminated by the occasional freshly emergent white flowerhead.


Actaea simplex Atropurpurpurea Group

Looking through a stepped yew arch from the High Garden down into the orchard garden a group of Actaea simplex are planted, brilliantly, by themselves. The slender white bottle brush flowerheads catch the early evening sun – dancing afternoon fireworks leaning and fizzing in every direction.

pandanifolium close up

Eryngium pandanifolium ‘Physic Purple’

Well admittedly this monumental plant – situated at the bench end of the Long Border is hardly on its own – but it is a fantastic year round architectural presence with a rosette stiff grey green leaves and wonderful towering – 6 or 7 feet high – branched heads of tight wine coloured flowers from October to December. I am on a mission to find a place for this plant.

figs and figs

Ficus carica ‘Brunswick’

A wonderful fig grown against the South facing wall on the Lower Terrace. Worth stopping to admire the rhythmic patterns formed by the overlapping deeply cut leaves. Even better to discover it is a reliable and heavy fruiting fig in the UK with greeny-yellow skinned fruit with sweet tasting pink flesh.


cotoneaster horizontalis and Rubus cockburnianus 'Goldenvale'

Cotoneaster horizontalis and Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’

Cotoneaster horizontalis is hardly a fashionable plant but is used brilliantly at Great Dixter – clothing the base of walls and flights of steps with its dynamic fans of branches, tiny glossy green leaves and at this time of the year generous beading of glossy red berries. Here in the Walled Garden, the combination with the lime green leaves and chalky white stems of the white stemmed bramble, Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’ is exquisite.

simple achievable combo

Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Dazzler’ and Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’

Not an earth shattering combination but easy to recreate – the rich colour of the Cosmos and the airy texture of the grass working so well together.

hydrangea macrophylla 'Sea Foam' Fuchsia magellanica 'Aurea'

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Sea Foam’ and Fuchsia magellanica ‘Aurea’

An absolutely classic combination of Hydrangea and Fuchsia – one of my favourite pairings which lasts so well in late summer through to autumn. Great Dixter is brilliant at bringing a person round to certain types of plant. I have always been slightly reluctant to pick golden leaved forms of any plant, but as with the Rubus this Fuchsia is the best of its kind with yellow green leaves veined in beetroot with dark red stems and fantastically desirable glowing pink pendant flowers.

heuchera a nd paris

Paris polyphylla and Heuchera villosa

The comparatively rare Himalayan woodland perennial, Paris polyphylla has elegant layers of leaves and fine whiskery petals on upright stems. Even before the arrival of the wonderful surprise of the bright orange seed heads that is yet to come, this combination with the graceful Heuchara with its spires of tiny greenish white is graceful and covetable.


salvia indigo spires plus buxton

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires and Geranium wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’

The elegant violet blue spires of the Salvia in a gentle combination with the paler blue of the Geranium billowing beneath.

indigo spores and mexican black

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ and Cosmos x Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’

The depth of red in the Cosmos x Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ brings out the richness of the the Salvia – a very different, velvety effect.
salvia indigo spires and dahlia 'Hillcrest Candy'

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ and Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’

Suddenly a more playful, sweet shop effect with the clear pink and white of the Dahlia energising the colour of the darker Salvia.


pyschadelic salvia and mexican black

Salvia ‘Amistad’ with Cosmos X Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ and Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group

I am finding this Salvia dangerously enticing. There is something about the glowing purple of the flower, the black-purple of the calyces and the horizontal spread of the bright green leaves that creates a particularly tantalising, slightly drunken, fluttering tapestry. The rich red of the Dahlia x Cosmos and the way the flower heads pop up and look out in every direction like dainty periscopes adds to the dancing mood and then the laid back softness of the Hydrangea adds a smokey haze which deepens the mood.

psychadalia 3

Persicaria orientalis, Amaranthus ‘Autumn Palette’, Aster thompsonii Canna ‘Phasion’, Aster laterifolius var. horizontalis – plus a white Cosmos and an orange Crocosmia.

This is an amazing combination. The Amaranthus is completely wild – outrageous cinnamon suede flower heads and completely mismatching jack-and- the-beanstalk fresh green leaves. The bright pink arcs of the Persicaria orientalis – which are repeated wonderfully all over the garden – frame the scene which is enriched with the soft mauve of the aster, the crazy stripiness of the Canna (the RHS description of the Canna reads “bronze-purple leaves striped with pink, ageing to shades of pink and orange and large deep orange flowers in summer) and dashes of white cosmos and orange crocosmia complete this utterly celebratory planting.
psychadelic photo 2

Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’, Yew, Persicaria orientalis, Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Kelmscott’ and Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’

Crateagus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’is a wonderful hawthorn with glossy leaves, white flowers and deep red fruits. Known for its dramatic autumn colour it is worth noting just how early and how vivd this colour is. The Aconitum is vivid and compelling (at Dixter apparently Aconitum is divided pretty much every year to maintain this kind of flower power) and the stripy red and gold of the marigold keeps the energy going – as ever the broad stretch of flat green provided by the yew pulls everything together.

just do it (now and then?

Zinnia ‘Aztec Sunset’

At the beginning of the Lower Terrace there is a stone trough which always has something pretty seductive going on. At the end of September the trough is bursting with these neatly kaleidoscopic Zinnia – so cheerily stripy and circular that you can only smile and persuade yourself that every additional moment like this is worth going for.