Dahlia ‘Sir Alf Ramsay’

Giant decorative flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

Everyone should grow a really humungous giant decorative at some point in their life. My advice would be don’t leave it too long, as you’ll discover the unadulterated fun you’ve been missing and regret not doing it years earlier. If you’re up for giving it a go, then don’t shilly-shally around, grow the Big Daddy, Sir Alf. You can almost hear the plant groaning as it wrestles to build up those enormous buds. When they finally burst it can take a full week for a bloom to fully develop, changing colour as each layer of petal covers the next. Great fun.

Best for: impressing the neighbours

Dahlia ‘Honka Surprise’

Single orchid/star flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

Only a soupçon of scent as far as I can sniff, but the ‘Honka’ range do indeed have a pleasant fragrance. I rather like all of the range. ‘Honka White’ is particularly clean and crisp, but I like them more for their bucket-and-spade, seaside windmill-like blooms if I’m honest. Their faint fresh smell is more a Brucey bonus than a main selling point. This variety is by far the most fun, with honey yellow centres that bleed into rich vermillion wind-turbine petals.

Best for: scented, so place near the front of the border

Dahlia ‘Le Castel’

Waterlily flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

One of the purest ice-white varieties in my experience, and lovely long stems, so perfect for cutting. Rather wonderful in the border too.

On back-lit, late summer evenings, it’s as if a flock of elegant dahlia doves have alighted on your garden. Pretty average mid-green foliage, but that can be helped by placing the plants amongst grasses and textural leaves.

Best for: the cutting garden and planting in pure white mixed borders

Dahlia ‘L.A.T.E.’

Miniature ball flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

I adore balls and poms for their no-nonsense vintage chic. It’s true that their tightly packed blooms can be a little stiff and old-fashioned looking for a modern designer mixed border, but as flowers for cutting they are hard to beat.

My current colour obsession is coral, and this variety along with ‘Wootton Cupid’ and ‘Hamari Rose’ are all a rather delicious pink and orange blended dahlia smoothie. Delicious.

Best for: cutting and coral colour obsessives

Dahlia ‘Ann Breckenfelder’

Collerette flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

When it comes to smack-you-right-between-the-eyes (and sometimes around the face) colour, dahlias are clearly in a league of their own. ‘Ann Breckenfelder’ is their head cheerleader with hot red and canary yellow petaloids on overdrive. Glee’s Sue Slyvester would be suitably proud. She’s fabulous amongst big burly sub-tropical looking leaves for that hot Dixter jungle look. She’s the dahlia Superbowl Cheerio queen. Bumble bees go nuts for her.

Best for: sub-tropical hot jungle planting plans

Dahlia ‘Totally Tangerine’

Anemone flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

More of a subtle satsuma or an amorous apricot to my eyes, but a gorgeous orange anemone none the less. I find this variety particularly floriferous, and grow it in a large pot as it’s bang tidy. (Compact if you’re wondering what the devil I’m on about).

Best for: container planting or a ‘tidy’ border

Dahlia ‘Magenta Star’

Single flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

New Zealand’s Keith Hammett does it again. Amazing, almost gun-metal black foliage with wonderfully long lasting and well displayed single flowers in an almost day-glow vivid magenta. They positively zing against its dramatically dark leaves. A well-deserved RHS Award of Garden Merit winner.

Contrast with outrageously hot tangerine oranges if you dare. Grow in full sun to get the best colour from the foliage, and in rich free-draining soil that’s fed and watered regularly. She’s not to be trifled with, and given lots of rich compost or manure will grow over six feet tall, so be sure to give this Kiwi cultivar some room.

Best for: statement plant for a large container or mixed border

Dahlia ‘Inca’

Anemone flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

To me anemone dahlias bring to mind the catchphrase of 70s cross-dressing comedian Dick Emery “Oooh, you are awful….but I like you”. I’ll admit that some do exhibit car-crash colour combinations and blooms that would fit in only on the set of Sesame Street. However others are just the most intriguing bizarre floral powder-puffs and rather charming.

This dwarf terracotta red anemone is a new one to me, and I just love it. Only grows to about 20 cm, but sends up copious blooms like its little life depends on it.

Best for: small pots and containers

Dahlia ‘Impression Fortuna’

Collerette flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

I have to admit that yellow is my least favourite colour when it comes to dahlias. There are a huge number of varieties that are just too aggressive and hi-vis even for my vibrant colour-addicted taste in blooms. I’ve sort of made it a personal mission to find more gold, apricot and honey cultivars. This one I wholly recommend. One of the ‘Impression’ series of dwarf collerettes that are fabulous in pots. A more mellow dahlia yellow for me please.

Best for: golden dahlia gorgeousness in a pot.

Dahlia ‘Inglebrook Jill’

Collerette flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

Single and collerette dahlias are perfect for pollinators. In my garden hoverflies, butterflies, and all shapes and sizes of bumble bees become temporarily deranged and seem to go slightly doolally for them, this variety is particularly popular. I’ve been told that dahlias can supply overwintering insect pollinators with an important rich hit of nectar late in the season. So do the right thing and plant an ‘Inglebrook Jill’. Simples.

Best for: driving bumble bees wild

Dahlia ‘Nuit D'Ete’

Semi-cactus flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

I think we have the lovely Sarah Raven to thank for reinventing darkest cranberry, claret and damson dahlias and placing them so very deep in vogue.

There are so many marvellous and sumptuous varieties to take you back in black: ‘Chat Noir’, ‘Arabian Night’, ‘Jescot Nubia’, ‘Karma Choc’, and ‘Black Monarch’. All amazing and totally worth the effort, but ‘Summer Night’/'Nuit D’Ete’ is the tippety tops for me.

Best for: a ‘black dahlia’ murder-mystery themed soirée.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Peony flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

Part of me would like to tell you all to stop being so boring and for goodness sake, grow a different bloody red dahlia. Go on, be a devil and try ‘Tally Ho’, ‘Grenadier’, ‘Preston Park’ or even ‘Japanese Bishop’. I’d like to say that any of these are better than ‘the Bishop’, but really I’d be telling porky pies. I do love all the alternatives listed but the red welsh dahlia dragon is just the best. Damn it.

Best for: dark filigree foliage

Dahlia ‘Englehardt’s Matador’

Medium decorative flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

If you want the attitude and riotous colour of a busty intense magenta pink exhibition dahlia but with the compact form and fabulous dark foliage of the Bishops and other currently de rigueur varieties, then this one is probably for you.

Feed often with lots of liquid tomato fertiliser as cultivars with dark foliage and particularly vibalacious blooms need it to keep their depth of colour.

Best for: borders and containers

Dahlia ‘Giraffe’

Double orchid flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

This dahlia is definitely ‘Marmite’ for many, but I rather like it. Fabulous for growing in pots, quite lax in habit, so more a sleek stripy and slightly drunk baby giraffe than a tall stately adult one. It’s green foliage isn’t bad either: mid green but rather well divided and filigree. I love its candy-floss coloured sister ‘Pink Giraffe’ too, so there. Spread that on your toast you haters.

Best for: growing in containers and looking a bit freaky.

Dahlia ‘Oreti Stacey’

Fimbriated flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

A few years ago I overdosed on a range of rather tall, freaky and slightly slutty hot pink and white disco dahlias. Both blends and bi-colours, and mostly cactus and semi-cactus forms. Yes, I know, I lost some good friends, I’m not proud of myself. It was wrong, and the hedonistic evenings in the garden with a bottle each of lambrini and a straw were never going to end well. Finally I had to hang up my white stilettos and fuchsia pink ra-ra skirt, and leave well alone. In private I still look at photos of the good times I had with ‘Marlene Joy’, ‘Hayley Jane’ and ‘Oreti Stacey’ and secretly long to be back in the garden with the girls, wearing pineapple lipgloss and a boob tube.

Best for: Le Freak, C’est Chic.

Dahlia ‘Etheral’

Single flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

Ever so slightly upset that this delectable damsel is indeed called ‘Etheral’ and not ‘Ethereal’, which would have suited it splendidly. This is one of many marvelous modern singles raised by international dahlia guru Keith Hammett in New Zealand. I could break into the Haka just thinking about his dahlia breeding prowess.

‘Etheral’ has pleasant deep-green coarse foliage and grows tall and slightly gangly in my garden. A mass of tiny, pale, button-like buds burst into bright, starry-white, daisy-like flowers, with attractive dark eyes. Like a gaggle of uniformed school girls with naughtiness on their minds.

Best for: planting amongst tall herbaceous and grasses in a mixed border

Dahlia ‘Jill Day’

Small cactus flower form

Words & Pictures: Andy Vernon

I think pink will always be my favourite colour to obsess about. Last summer I came across an unusual shade of sort of antique cherry-rose that I’ve never encountered before. This small cactus could be a sport of the fabulous red cactus ‘Doris Day’. If true it means I shall have to love it even more and skip around singing ‘Que sera sera’ in full Doris Dahlia drag. Amazing red brown straight stems, tight well formed cactus blooms. A brilliant cut flower and border dahlia.

Best for: be sure to plant by the light of a silvery moon.