Dazzling dahlias

No other flower offers more high-kicking action, colour and thrills in a summer garden
Dahlias - pink
© Gap Photos/Geoff de Feu
Vibrant pink dahlia Fascination mixes well with yellow rudbeckia
Those who prefer quiet good taste to reign in their containers and borders should give dahlias a wide berth. But if you like high-kicking action, colour and thrills, then dahlias are guaranteed to deliver - every time.

'Dahlias offer vibrant flowers with storybook charm that keep on coming, not just for weeks but for months'

The original good-time girls, they have been pulled from summer stock where they were languishing for years, to become the main attraction in all the best gardens, town and country.

What they offer, at a time when many borders have peaked and container displays have worn themselves to a frazzle, is vibrant flowers with storybook charm that keep on coming, not just for weeks but for months. They're low-maintenance and resilient, too, provided you give them frequent doses of water and tomato feed to fuel their high-octane habit. And they make the best cut flowers, that is if you can bear to cut them in the first place.

Many dahlias have the bonus of deep, dark, ferny foliage in bronze and chocolate tones that make a striking contrast to flowers of burgundy, shocking pink, scarlet, orange, apricot, yellow and even stark white.

The choice of varieties is overwhelming - there are 10 classifications of flower, from pompon to waterlily - but newcomers to this fabulous family could not do better than to start with the luscious pink Roxy. The blooms, hot pink with golden centres, resemble simple, beautiful anemone flowers and are backed by handsome greeny-black leaves and stems. The plant stays low and bushy enough to need no staking and is ideal for containers.

Fascination is similar, but the flowers are a lighter, more sugary pink. On my terrace, Excentrique is right next to Roxy - not for nothing do these names sound like exotic dancers - and has fuller flowers of such an electrifying magenta that they look almost luminous. The foliage is near-black and tinged with purple.

This year I've grown newcomer Tahoma Moonshot to see if she lives up to her glorious rock-chick name and though she is quietly stunning, the skinny flowers of fluted mauve and lemon petals could get lost in a crowd. Subtlety, after all, isn't a key trait in dahlias; they're meant to be loud, flamboyant and flirty.

Dahlias - Tahoma Moonshot
© Gap Photos/Visions
New star Tahoma Moonshot, with two-tone fluted petals, is quietly stunning
For some, the cactus dahlias with full blooms like retro swimming caps might be a petal too far, especially in the lemon and pink shades, but the sultry burgundies and near-black clarets of Summer Night, Chat Noir and Rip City could win anybody over.

In this month's Which? Gardening, Great Dixter's head gardener Fergus Garrett cites apricot-flowered, bronze-leaved David Howard as the dahlia that for many is the best of all time. Right now and through until autumn, Great Dixter is worth a visit just for the dahlias, not only to note the varieties but to look at their border companions.

Dahlias need worthy partners that make strong contrasts in colour and shape, such as purple salvias and mauve Verbena bonariensis. They look fantastic with late summer's plum-tinted banana and canna foliage, as well as growing among simple annuals such as zinnias, sunflowers and all kinds of vegetables. When they're in containers, you can create your own dynamic border: my claret Rip City dahlias look sensational next to the huge trumpets of apricot lily African Queen.

Dead-heading is easy, but the stems are so sturdy that you will need to use scissors, cutting the spent stem cleanly down at the join. Tall dahlias need staking so the stems don't snap. You can buy dahlias in bud at garden centres and nurseries now, but for the best choices, buy tubers in spring and bury them in pots of compost until they start to push up a leaf or two. Come early summer, you can pot them up or plant them out, and before the first frosts, dry off the tubers and overwinter them in compost before kick-starting them all over again the following spring. Few other flowers offer such great value.

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