25 Jul 2018

Dahlias - Café au Lait and a book review

For the first time, this year I've introduced dahlias to the garden. I've always liked the look of them but a childhood dread has deterred me before now.

In the past I've resisted growing dahlias as I thought they attracted earwigs.  As a teenager living in the Yorkshire countryside, I regularly found earwigs in my bed in the summer. (All part of life's rich tapestry at the time.) I've no idea how they got there but my bed was by the open window in our large old house so perhaps that was it. (An alternative option involving my siblings has not been ruled out.) The upshot was that I developed a lifelong aversion to the fleet footed, pincer tailed beasties.

Dahlias and upturned flowerpot
Upturned flowerpots are a ploy to keep the dahlias in top condition - stuff them with straw and the story goes that earwigs will nest in there during the day and are thus easily despatched moved away from your prize blooms.

And I was right, earwigs are drawn to dahlias as well as other flowers; they like to nibble on the leaves and flowers. Even so they (dahlias) remain a gardener's favourite - a brilliant cut flower for the house and a stunning plant in the border. Apparently they were considered rather vulgar and not fit for the curated border until recently. Now every garden worth its salt has borders jazzed up by a few blooms in summer.

Cheerful dahlias in the walled gardens at West Dean near Chichester, Sussex. 

Growing dahlia tubers 

Inspired by Instagram, this year I caved in at the sight of a box of 'Café au Lait' tubers at the supermarket. They weren't expensive and I knew nothing about growing them but I put them in large-ish tubs with bulb compost and they've done well, although not yet flowering.  They're still in the tubs and should have been need to be planted out, but I wasn't sure how tall Café au Lait grows ... a problem quickly solved by a very beautiful book I was recently asked to review.

A gorgeous new book about Dahlias

As you can see, that book is Dahlias, Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden by Naomi Slade. There are allegedly over 20,000 dahlia cultivars but, thankfully, Naomi has selected just over five dozen to present her readers with a smorgasbord of what's available.  An introduction plus two detailed sections on 'The History and Botany of Dahlias' and 'Growing and Care' sandwich a delicious filling of four categories of dahlias with sumptuous photographs by Georgianna Lane.  I can highly recommend that you read the book with a pad of Post-It notes to hand - you'll need them to mark the pages of your favourites although the book may bear a passing resemblance to a hedgehog when you're done.

Naomi throws her spotlight onto 67 of the most garden-worthy dahlias, grouping them into four categories of 'Romantic', 'Fabulous and Funky', Dramatic and Daring', Classic and Elegant'. Some of these are already familiar - the Bishop series particularly so, but I'm thrilled to now know about the Happy Singles, Karma and Gallery series of smaller dahlias.  Readers may find that their favourite dahlia is missing from this collection, but that's not the point. I learned how to identify the different flower forms of dahlias - pompom, decorative, double, cactus, etc - and how to care for them, with the result that I now feel confident in pursuing dahlia favourites of my own.

Honeybee on red and cream collarette dahlia
Chimborazo, a Collarette dahlia, as seen at Ulting Wick in Essex in 2016.
So dramatic - named after an Ecuadorian volcano, no less - how could you not love this!
Well worth a visit, Ulting Wick is open for the National Gardens Scheme on Bank Holiday Monday, 27th August 2018.

Stunning photographs made me stop and look but it was Naomi's perky prose that kept me absorbed - sometimes a back story to the name, a verbal illustration of the bud, suggestions of pairings or use in the garden, or the character of the flower.  Every named cultivar has a breakdown of its type, height, spread, foliage, flower size, vase life, garden life and alternative varieties.

This book holds a mountain of information in its narrative - as a newbie to dahlia growing I particularly appreciated the 13 pages on growing and care, including pertinent advice on containers, pinching out, propagating, feeding and pests and diseases.  (Dahlias are thirsty and hungry plants, I'll add them to my weekly tomato feeding rota.)

Thanks to the wealth of tips in this book, I now know that my Café au Lait dahlia (a Romantic) will grow to around 4ft tall, hopefully with large 8 inch wide blooms, and will benefit from being staked.  I've also earmarked 'Park Princess' for next year's shopping list because, as Naomi writes, "Not all plants are suited to ultra-urban living, hordes of passing humanity and benign neglect, but Park Princess copes, excels evens, bravely throwing out showy, weather resistant flowers while she may." And it's pink. What could be better?

Not pink but a deep peachy-orange ... Ariko Zsaza in West Dean's kitchen garden last summer.
Looks to me like a Waterlily dahlia.

To summarise: I love this book; it's one to read from cover to cover and then to dip back into when you feel like it - or vice versa.  Every page is a visual delight, it's both entertaining, instructive and rewarding in its clear and accessible information. As a newbie to growing dahlias, I appreciated the clean layout and depth of information (history/botany/care) without being overwhelmed by the science or reams of heavy text. Personally, I feel quite excited about which dahlias to grow next year - short, tall, dinner plate or pompom blooms, cut flower or garden loveliness - as I'm now armed with information without being swamped by too much choice. The top-notch blooms in Naomi's book might just have set me off on a new gardening obsession.

As Naomi writes in the introductory paragraph of 'Growing and Care':
"Given the right conditions, dahlias are easy to grow - the trick is knowing what those conditions are and then choosing the plants that suit you best. There are trials and tribulations in all gardening endeavours; the very best gardeners have plants that get nibbled by pests or snapped by frost. What is important is learning as you go, and enjoying the process every step of the way."
I so agree. 

Dahlias in the kitchen garden at Winston Churchill's home, Chartwell in Kent. Love the colour, forgot to get the name. 

Dahlias, beautiful varieties for home and garden is published by Pavilion Books on 2nd August 2018. Retail price is £25.  The Amazon link is here with a pre-order 22% saving on the cover price.

My thanks to Pavilion Books for gifting me a copy of the book for review. 


  1. I hate earwigs too but they don’t seem to cause us much trouble with the dahlias.

    1. I guess I'll find out if the same is true here - although they'll have to get in line behind all the other garden pests!

  2. Looks like a wonderful read - informative and feast for the eyes! I grew dahlias for the first time last year and loved it! This year, I added another variety to the list - lured in by a sale at a garden centre ;) - and they are growing, but not as quickly as I would have liked, likely due to our oppressive heat and lack of rain (until recently). I'm a bit worried they may not flower in time. Fingers crossed!

    1. I'm all for a bargain and looks like you got lucky with spotting dahlias in the sale! I hope you get to see flowers from yours this year. Mine aren't growing quickly enough compared to other dahlias growing in a neighbour's garden; I'm hoping mine will gather strength over the winter and be Absolutely Glorious next year! :D

  3. Thanks for your thorough review Caro. It sounds as if this book is written in the same style as Naomi's excellent book on snowdrops. I will definitely treat myself to a copy. I've been a dahlia fan for a good few years now. I usually try out a couple of new to me varieties each year and have also grown from seed. 'Bishops Children' are worth a go. I've noticed the odd earwig or two but they have never been a big issue. Nothing like childhood sibling fun and games :)

    1. Hi Anna, I haven't read Snowdrops (ssshhh, don't tell Naomi!) but it would seem likely. This book could be a contender for the christmas list, then! I tried growing Bishops Children last year but didn't get the plants potted on in time - a casualty of my busy year. I might have to revisit them next year. Thanks for the tip! xx

  4. What a beautiful book! Lucky you having a copy! Oh....earwigs in your bed would put you off the beasties for life, so glad you are giving these delightful flowers a go. I find earwigs in most flowers, even roses. Daughter has a fear of spiders as she always slept next to an open window and awoke one night finding her bed covered in spiders.xxx

    1. Oh I shuddered when I read of your daughter's spider experience! I'm sure that would keep me awake at nights afterwards. The book is so beautiful, I'm inspired to take a look at adding to my one flower next year - some of the veg might have to go. ;) xx

  5. Replies
    1. Hi Endah, Aren't they gorgeous! Do you have anything similar in your country?

  6. That looks a wonderful book, dahlias do grow on you, I seem to grow more and more each year. I was surprised that some even managed to survive our cold winter spell. They seem to add so much colour to the garden when many flowers have gone over. Sarah x

    1. Hi Sarah, that's amazing that your dahlias survived the cold - you must have mulched them really well; I've heard that can work in milder climates and will probably be doing the same myself. There's been very little colour in the garden here this year so I'll be looking at growing more dahlias next year. They're good late summer flowers, I think. xx


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