I'm no dahlia expert, but I wanted to sing the praises of big red dahlias, and particularly 'The Bishop'. When I started gardening I detected a certain amount of 'horticultural snobbery' associated with dahlias, but they seem to be regaining their popularity.

Gaudy glory

Perhaps the reason for the snobbery about dahlias was because of the way every colour available was often packed in a bed together. (This is sometimes termed 'a riot of colour', and is supposed to be cheering I think. But personally I find that - rather like actual riots when you're a mere bystander - it's not.)

Despite being aware of the apparent aversion to dahlias felt by many gardeners, I was drawn to certain dahlia types in glossy photos in gardening books, where some of the white or red forms seemed like the most interesting feature of many a traditional summer border. I now realise that the dahlias in question were carefully planted in mixed borders, with other flowers. If I see a photo of a bed full of multi-coloured dahlias all stuffed in together, it still makes me feel a bit queasy.

In need of summer colour

Enough of my opinions, and back to the plot. My plot, a small garden that seemed in need of some zingy lift, to save it from its rather pink and blue tastefulness. In the first few years here I did seem to have collected a lot of blue, pink and white plants, which created a soothing picture, but the scene became quite boring after about June.

I noticed I kept drifting towards the dahlias in the garden centre, when the packets of tubers were on sale. Display racks held these fascinating combinations of a dead-looking dried up thing in an aerated plastic bag, attached to a piece of card carrying a fantastically garish colour picture of big brash blooms. You looked at the mean little dried-up tubers and couldn't believe that they would ever look like the photos on the cards. With some of them - the massive, really garish ones - I thought it might be better if they didn't. But a few of them looked really good, and kind of jolly, and they seemed to bring back memories.

I was worried about this dahlia attraction, as I thought it must mean I had no horticultural taste. I was slightly reassured when I learned that one of the dahlias I liked the look of - 'Bishop of Llandaff' - wasn't frowned upon as much as the others. It's best to grow what you like anyway, of course, and not care about fashions, but when you first start gardening you can find yourself too easily led by popular prejudice. Being led by prejudice is of course never a good thing, in whatever area of life, and it's best to find out for yourself. So I bought a few varieties of dahlias over the years.

'The Bishop', Helga, and the others

I started with the venerable 'Bishop of Llandaff', and still grow it. I also have another big red dahlia, this time a cactus type, called 'Helga'. These two brighten up the garden from around July until the autumn.

Photos of 'Helga'
Photos of 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Regular visitors to this site between summer and autumn probably get tired of my constant references to my dahlias, and particularly 'Bishop of Llandaff'. Or 'The Bishop' as I will henceforth call it, to save struggling with those Ls and Fs.

This plant flowers for so many months through the summer, and looks so good for so long, I can't help but keep mentioning it. It changes as its flowers open, with a ring of bright golden-yellow appearing around the centre of the fully-opened flowers (see photos, right). The foliage is a dramatic bronze colour.

For a year or two I grew the orange 'Ellen Houston', and a yellow and orange variety called, if I remember rightly, 'Firebird', but no longer grow them, as I prefer the tall bright red ones.

The scent of squashed dahlias

Once I grew dahlias, I felt such familiarity with them that I assumed they had been a part of the garden in the home I grew up in. The smell of the foliage seemed so familiar, the rather rank smell that dahlia leaves and stems produce when cut for flowers or cut down at the end of the season (or accidentally trodden on whilst attempting to re-stake - see below).

When I asked my father, I discovered that he didn't grow dahlias when I was small. So whatever old memory is conjured by the smell of crushed dahlia leaves, it's not connected with our garden. Perhaps, in the 1970s, I rode my bike into a neighbour's flowerbed and squashed their dahlias. (This did tend to be a danger with those open-plan gardens we had in our street.)

Wondrous tubers

Another thing I like about dahlias is that they grow from tubers. I love it when you dig them up in autumn and find these big hefty clumps under the earth, reassuringly solid and robust. The feeble little tuber that you buy in a packet, all dried up and shrivelled, looks like it's never going to grow (and in my experience, some of them don't). But when dahlias are happy and thriving, I've seen how they increase over the years, underground as well as above ground, so that each autumn when you lift them they seem heartier.

It's not necessary, many say, to lift your dahlia tubers. But in my soil it seems to be, as tuberous roots tend to rot over the winter in the heavy soil. So usually in November I carefully dig them up, clean off the soil and put them in the shed, where I hope they will be frost-free. I've read that you should put them in damp sand, damp peat, etc, but I'm not sure that I created optimum conditions for mine. Still, 'The Bishop' and 'Helga' have survived through a couple of winters, stored as tubers in the shed.

Support required

The taller-growing varieties - like the two I grow - need to be supported with stakes of a strong variety, as those large flowers tend to be heavy, and if properly supported they can grow upright and stately, as they should be. It's best to stake them properly with big thick sticks when you plant them out, rather than trying to grapple with a large plant. I write that in full knowledge that I still underestimate how big and tall they grow, and that part of summer gardening fun usually involves balancing in a flowerbed grappling with sticks and twine, trying to get the dahlias back into their allotted space.

Dahlia 'Helga' in bud

Above: Dahlia 'Helga' in bud

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' in bud

Above: Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' in bud

Dahlia 'Helga' in flower

Above: Dahlia 'Helga' in flower

Close-up of 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Above: Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Dahlia tuber

And the amazing thing is, that all the flowers pictured above come from lumpy brown things that look like this. Dahlia tuber, overwintered in the shed.