Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!

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Bedazzled by Dahlias

Everyone seems to be writing about dahlias right now so please forgive me for joining in! This time last year I wrote about being Dotty about Dahlias and talked about the dilemma – to lift or not to lift? So I thought it would be timely so share with you the success (or failure!) of what we did.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, we have dahlias but are these my originals? This gigantic Veronne’s Obsidian is a great example of a successful ‘leave in the ground’ strategy. Being in south-west London, we should by rights be able to over-winter our dahlias in the ground. In November we cosied them up under a thick layer of our best leaf mould. In less that 24 hours our mulch was scattered to the four winds courtesy of squirrels and squirrel-chasing cats! Clearly whoever recommended the mulching approach didn’t own cats and apparently wasn’t pestered by squirrels either! What were we supposed to do, rake it all up each day and re-mulch? I think not! As the winter progressed and remained relatively mild, I kept my fingers crossed and then the Beast from the East struck! Well that’s it, I thought to myself, and promptly placed an order for replacement tubers!

It seems I need not have feared as not only did the giant Obsidian’s reappear, but so too my red Honkas! In fact, I think all the tubers that were left in the ground eventually reappeared and are currently in flower. To me, flowering seems to have been late this year – a result of the Beast from the East or the drought? Take your pick! Throughout August I kept watching the buds carefully, particularly some plants where it was clear that they were going to be absolutely covered in blooms, but nothing seemed to be happening. Then as September arrived, so did the flowers and, as it turned out, the bees with them. Both the Obsidians and Honkas have literally been a hive of activity over the past few weeks.

There have, however, been some puzzles. We continued to over-winter five dahlias in pots – three yellow Honka, a Bishop of Canterbury (above) and another of York. I have fed both the dahlias in pots, as I always do, and also those in the ground. However, despite their cosseted existence, the potted dahlias have performed poorly. The yellow Honkas have yet to flower and the two Bishops have been rather circumspect which has been disappointing. Their cousin the Bishop of Oxford, however, was left in the border and is flowering beautifully (below).

The other puzzle has been my replacement red Honkas which clearly aren’t! Having resorted to Google, it would appear that these are ‘Honka Surprise’ – how apt! Fortunately I rather like them and so they are welcome to stay.

So as autumn progresses, I am again faced with the dilemma of what to do with my dahlias? I’m pretty convinced that I’m going to leave all the tubers in the ground that are planted in the main border. I will mulch with something, even if it does merely serve as a squirrel playground. As for my potted dahlias, I definitely need a re-think. I’m half hoping that having written about them, they will now prove me wrong and launch into an autumn fling but if not, I think it may be time to go back to the drawing board, or rather the plant catalogue!

So did you leave your dahlias in the ground last year? And regardless of where they were left, are you dahlias flowering later than usual?



The burnt garden

Confession time – I didn’t believe the weather forecasters when they predicted this summer’s heatwave … to my cost.  We headed off for almost two weeks holiday just as the bright yellow, glowing sunshine symbol was starting to wink away on the BBC weather app.  I didn’t entirely ignore the warnings as I did leave watering instructions for my cat-sitter but, unfortunately, I was far too focused on whether it was going to be 8 degrees or 18 in Iceland – it turned out to be both!  More of which another time.  However, there I was on a grey, slightly damp day in the East Fjords when a text pinged through.  London temperatures had soared, plants were scorching and it was clear that troops needed to be mustered if we were to return to anything alive.  Thank heavens for the wonders of hotel wifi and neighbours who responded admirably to my email pleading for help!  However, it was still a shock when we returned home to sights such as this!


This acuba started off life as a cutting from my mother’s garden.  Interestingly, in one previous hot summer, I remember her showing me the scorched leaves and us wondering if they really could just have been burnt by the sun.  This one is planted in full sun whilst its sibling is in a much shadier area and still has lovely shiny green leaves.  Neither wilt or show any other signs of stress, just these unsightly burnt areas on leaves that were in direct sun.

The bay tree in the front garden is another disaster area.

It’s in a large pot and, nestled up by the hedge, it is both sheltered but also easily forgotten if you don’t know it’s there.  The front garden faces west and consequently receives the full blast of the sun’s setting rays.  When the weather finally gets cool enough, clearly  we will need to give it a short back and sides.  Fortunately we have a second bay in a pot outside the back door which is in better shape should the need for bay arise, although curiously I do think of bay as being a winter herb when it comes to cooking.

There were also some scorched surprises.  I automatically think of dahlias as hot weather plants but it would seem that they too have their limits.  I fear that this Veronne’s Obsidian may not perform at its best this year.

My phlox was a brighter story but, look beneath the purple spray and, yes, there’s plenty of dead, drought ridden growth lurking there too.

But the plant that is worrying me most is our birch tree.  Regular readers will recall the sad tale of my flowering cherry tree, well the birch is right next door to it.  I have known it turn gold early and start dropping leaves when we’ve had previous dry summers but, as you can imagine, this time I am worried.  It has a number of dead branches on one side and the leaves were falling in their hundreds.  I’ve soaked a wide area where I believe its roots to be and I’ve mulched it over.  I’ve also called a tree specialist for advice – they are coming next week.  So please, all fingers crossed, I really can’t bear to loose another tree.



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Dotty about dahlias

Long gone is the era when dahlias were distinctly passé.  For the last ten years or more, dahlias have undergone a huge resurgence in popularity, mostly attributed to the incredibly successful ‘Bishop’ series with their dense dark red foliage.  The most popular of these is Bishop of Llandaff but, due to a number of mishaps, we don’t have any of these outside the back door.  We do, however, have some fellow Bishops – notably Oxford and Canterbury, the result of a newspaper offer on Bishop dahlias that we sent off for some years ago.

Initially we kept our dahlias in pots.  This was based on our bad experiences with the Bishop of Llandaff, one of which drowned on the patio in a very wet spring, and another of which was eaten to death in the border.  Pots seemed a safer option, added to which we could enjoy the flowers close to the house.  We also didn’t really have the right sort of space in the border for planting them out.  However, with the advent of my new hot / late summer border, that has all changed.

Much of the appeal of dahlias is their ability to extend the season.  For the first years that we lived here, I joined the ranks of frustrated gardeners who despair in August as the beautiful flower border of May and June is transformed into a rather desolate flower-less sight.  I know that there’s nothing wrong with green and I relish our evergreens in view in the depths of winter, but in July, August and September, I want something a bit more vibrant!  So, with the new border in place, our Bishops were released from the confinement of their pots and, goodness me, have they taken advantage!  At one point in the middle of August I counted no less than 19 flowers in full bloom on our Oxfords.

Having got into dahlias via the dark-leaved varieties, we have gradually become more adventurous in our choices, realising that it’s not so much about the leaf colour as the flower shape and that there are many, many different flower shapes, some of which will appeal more than others.  I cannot, for example, imagine us suddenly developing a liking for pom-pom dahlias!  They are just not our cup of tea.  Star-shaped dahlias, however, we love and are particularly pleased with ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ which produces extremely dark red flowers that are almost black and which beautifully complement the orange of the Oxfords.  The star-shaped flowers have much sharper, linear petals whereas the Bishops tend to have much smaller, rounded petals but both are very much single flowers with wide open centres which are a magnet for bees.

Verrone's Obsidian

Into this mix come our Honkas!  Another star dahlia, we have both red and yellow varieties.  The yellows are just such a happy flower, shining like sunrays even on the gloomiest summer day.  The reds are incredibly rich in colour.

I really felt that I had achieved what I set out to do when, on the August bank holiday weekend, a friend remarked on the amount of colour we had in the garden.  Although the main part of the border still had some pretty pink, purples and whites, it was the new hot border with the dahlias that was positively zinging and affirming that it wasn’t autumn just yet.  I am now keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have an early frost as it would be incredibly sad to see this display reduced to a heap of blackened leaves just yet.

Meanwhile we face the dilemma – to lift, or not to lift?  I would say that we live in a mild area and the gardening books and websites suggest that a thick layer of mulch is therefore all we need to keep our dahlias cosy until next Spring.  But we’ve not done that before and have preferred to lift them, dust down and dry off and we have still lost some tubers.  So it’s going to be a difficult decision but, one thing is for certain, I don’t intend to be without dahlias next summer!