Thursday, February 22, 2007

The little darlings - dahlias

Taratahi Lilac

As the summer heat comes to its apex (in theory at least) our choice of bedding plants for garden display is going to come under severe pressure. Those of us who planted petunias will probably not be too happy this year as they have not really thrived. Most of the “warm” annuals, such as geraniums and zinnias, have struggled with the intermittent weather and the cool evenings.
Some bedding plants relish this sort of weather though, and I have noticed that some types seem to have flourished – the Impatiens in some local body gardens seem to be doing very well for example.
One planting that I have been taken with is on a sloping bed in a local park. There is a mixed planting of yellow and red bedding dahlias, backed by some bush Nasturtiums. The dahlias have been planted in separate blocks of yellow and red, and they look marvellous.
I am a great fan of dahlias for the summer garden as I believe they provide a long period of flowers for both the garden and the house. The bedding sorts have been so improved over the past few years as to be almost unrecognisable. In the past they were not uniform as to size, and the colours were at best variable. They were only available in open pollinated varieties and there were some awful colours in the mix.
That has all changed with the introduction of the F1 hybrids like ‘Sunny’, first brought into New Zealand by their Japanese breeders in the early 1990s. There have since been a number of new strains, including what is probably the best dwarf form, ‘Figaro.’ This is an improved form of the old ‘Rigoletto’, being both more reliably double and also smaller.
The wholesale buyers of seed will be able to buy this in single colours, but I don’t think any local seed companies offer it in this manner. Early in the planting season you will probably find that some of the larger bedding plant suppliers have grown punnets of single colours for your bedding schemes.
I have noticed that the yellow form seems to be a lot more consistent that the red and orange forms, with the reds in particular showing a few rogue types with shades that tend more or less towards orange.
Many of you will remember the old ‘Redskin’ variety, with, of course, purple foliage. There is an attractive update on that form too, with the ‘Diablo’ range. The dark foliage works particularly well with lighter coloured flowers – yellow, orange, white and light pink in particular – but the darker red forms do not work so well.
Over the past few years I have been growing a few of Keith Hammett’s new garden dahlia introductions in my ‘dark bed’. This is a bed that has a lot of dark foliaged plants in it so Hammett’s new series with its near-black fern-like foliage fits in brilliantly. I especially like ‘Knockout,’ which has bright yellow flowers most of the summer, making a wonderful contrast. I think my next favourite is the startling ‘Scarlet Fern,’ as bright a red as the name suggests. In the next little while two further varieties will come available – I’ve had a sneak preview and they look great. ‘Best Bett” has lovely soft apricot flowers while ‘New Horizons’ has red flowers with bright yellow highlights. Another new one was released late last year.
Despite my best efforts I failed to make it to the Ellerslie Flower Show last year but friends who made it to the show all tell me they were most taken with Hammett’s latest introduction ‘Kapow.’ This is another in the dark foliaged series but in this case has white, or perhaps light pink, flowers that have a strong magenta stripe down each petal. The effect is every bit as stunning as the name suggests.
It is not going to be an easy task to find this variety but keep your eye out for it – it may be more available next year – as it is going to be a star of the garden in the future.
It is not well known but some of the world’s most popular dahlias have been bred in Masterton, where the Fraters have a successful breeding programme. They have been responsible for a number of varieties that have done very well in Australia – three of their ‘Taratahi’ varieties are in the top 100 varieties as judged by the members of the American Dahlia Society. The most popular of these is a lovely lilac pink cactus variety, ‘Taratahi Lilac.’ I must say that flowers in this range are not really my go, so I prefer the scarlet ‘Taratahi Ruby’ or the beautifully subtle yellow and orange blended ‘Taratahi Sunrise.’ The latter two are both of water lily form.
There are also an increasing number of very dwarf forms grown nowadays and they are perfect for growing in containers or in very small gardens. These varieties only grow about 40 cm high and are available in a wide range of colours. I like the ‘Dahl’ series, with a number of different named forms around, all with the second name ‘Dahl.’ These are all semi-double to double forms and are reliable flowering types.
The ‘Little Dahlings’ range is slightly smaller and has single flowers.
I grow a number of small forms, and have noticed that they drop seedlings. Being ever the optimistic gardener that I am I generally leave them to grow on and flower. At first they were dwarf varieties, mainly in the red/orange range, but this year one has sprung up to be about two metres tall, with moderate flowers on very elongated stems. The flower is nothing to write home about so I think it is probably time I started taking the seedlings out, and bought some new dahlia varieties for next summer.

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