The versatile Dahlia

March is the ideal time to buy and start off dahlia tubers, preferably under cool glass. Once the temperatures rise the tubers will sprout and grow on slowly, forming sturdier plants. Too much heat produces soft, leggy growth. If the temperatures look set to plunge at night, as they often can in spring, a triple layer of garden fleece should protect them. Serious gardeners will invest in a frost-breaking heater that cuts in and distributes the air. Cuttings can be taken once the new growth has reached three to four inches (up to 10cm). Using a sharp knife, cut above the tuber, leaving a section of stem to reshoot. You can also break pieces of tuber off with new growth to form a 'chicken leg' should you wish to produce more plants.

The main thing to remember is to never plant a dahlia outside until early June for these frost-tender Mexican beauties will be reduced to mush by the slightest frost. Cold nights also check their growth, so bide your time. Stake as you plant, either with a specialist support or with a trio of canes and a circle of string. Slugs can be a problem too, but despite that every gardener should aspire to grow some dahlias, for they will flower from July until the late frosts if deadheaded. They come in a rainbow of colours and a variety of showy shapes that include scrolled star, spiky cactus, soft waterlily, tight ball and the single bee pleaser. Double forms last longer than singles, so there's less deadheading. Regardless of type, they all make good cut flowers and they can be accommodated in a vegetable garden or woven through a border. Wherever you grow them, given good light, they will flower abundantly.

Dark dahlias in shades of red can add drama, depth and substance to border or vase. When yellow daisies begin to dominate autumn, as they always do, these sultry beauties add an ornate richness that makes the yellow daisies gleam like gold. 'Karma Choc' combines khaki-green foliage with velvet petals that hover between black and red. It's one the finest of the Karma Series, which were all bred for the cut flower market. Strong stems and lots of flowers are a feature in all Karmas.

'Summer Night' (usually known as 'Nuit D'ete') is a spikier red with green foliage and this taller dahlia will peep through herbaceous plants and still make an impact. The slightly taller 'Rip City' has fuller flowers with the same hint of black and the equally tall 'Arabian Night' has rounder, smaller flowers that morph between crimson and maroon. 'Chat Noir' is a robust dahlia with large heads of quilled petals, or you could use the pompom, magenta-red 'Downham Royal'. If you want a mixture, the Dark Dahlia Collection, on offer at three for the price of two, will provide you with nine tubers.

Pink and purple dahlias mix well with asters of every colour, as does the mauve-washed 'Eveline', which is mainly white with a purple wash and crisp purple edge. 'The Wizard of Oz', a pretty fondant-pink decorative type with a whirl of neatly arranged petals, is just a foot high, so it's suitable for the front of the border or in a container. It's sold separately and also included in the Pastel Dahlia Collection along with 'Karma Prospero' and 'Blue Boy'.

Paler colours are highly popular with flower arrangers and the large flowers of 'Café au Lait' have a warm coffee swirl at the centre of each large, ragged-petalled malted-milk flower. It is also part of the Antique Shades Collection, along with 'American Moon' and 'Zingaro'. Although the base colour is subtle cream there are shades of plum, pink and orange too, so these dahlias will blend with almost anything without fear of ever looking insipid.

Strong, radiant colours light up late-summer and autumn, helped along by the crystal clear light so all day-glo dahlias make perfect touch-papers for blues and purples. The butterscotch-orange 'David Howard', a top flight dahlia, is excellent with blue flowers such Agastache 'Blue Fortune' and the khaki dahlia foliage adds even more depth. 'Karma Fuchsiana' is much more vivid, shimmering in the sunlight and jumping between orange, pink and salmon. This smoulders in the garden. Or you could consider the asymmetrical, whirligig flowers of 'Waltzing Mathilda' in a mouthwatering colour that combines cherries and ripe peaches. 'Jescott Julie' is one of the new orchid-flowered forms, with mustard-yellow petals streaked and splashed with tomato-red. These are all shorter with neat flowers that flow backwards.

If there's a patio or balcony, some of the miniature dahlias containerise well and suitable candidates include the tiny-flowered Star Wars. Its dark foliage and masses of warmly toned flowers sit well in terracotta. The Happy Series contains some stunners and the dark-eyed bright pink 'Happy Single Wink' is one of the finest, with a dark middle ringed in orange stamens set in ox-blood red. Where the pink petals overlap there's a clear-red corolla of colour. The Dark Angel Series are also short, roughly a foot or so, and 'Pretty Woman' is aptly named. When the flowers open each sugar-pink flower, with a wine-red stain in the middle, gradually produces a ring of yellow stamens. Like all singles the flowers are worshipped by bees and butterflies and the Dark Angel Series all have dusky foliage.



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