When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…
“Dahlias are now at their full growth. To make a choice for one’s own garden, one must see the whole plant growing. As with many another kind of flower, nothing is more misleading than the evidence of the show-table, for many that there look the best, and are indeed lovely in form and colour as individual blooms, come from plants that are of no garden value.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden
Dahlias are unabashedly brash. For many years, so-called serious gardeners were happy to leave them on the show-table, where Jekyll implied many belong. But gardeners cannot help but indulge our most basic instincts; we sneak one here and another one there. Before long the sophisticated schemes have gone, and in spite of ourselves, we allow the triumphant tuber to take over the whole patch.
Dahlias must not be apologetic. Their job is to bounce into the garden as big and as loud as possible; a reminder that gardens like ours are meant to make you smile as well as to think. Not only this, but they are also incredibly useful. Arriving late in the summer, a well placed dahlia can retrieve an ailing border from autumn’s grasp, and lift the fading flowers around it with relentless cheer.
Throughout August and September, whole vases can be kept filled with nothing but dahlias, and without ever depleting the inexhaustible plants from which they are cut. Cactus types fade with little grace. Almost as soon as they open they begin to brown, from back to front, steadily shedding petals from the off. Pompons fare much better. Properly cut with an angled stem to aid the uptake of water, a pompon will last for 4 or 5 days without tiring.
“Careful and strong staking they must always have, not forgetting one central stake to secure the main growth at first. It is best to drive this into the hole made for the plant before placing the root, to avoid the danger of sending the point of the stake through the tender tubers.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden
The thrill is not as cheap as it first appears. Dahlias need staking, yes, but also lifting and storing at the end of the season. They need wrapping in fleece when a late frost conspires to ruin a good night’s sleep, and feeding all summer long. They must be coddled, cajoled and positively forced to perform before you can sit back and admire their enormous blooms. But then there’s the deadheading, and earwigs too, which seem to derive pleasure from munching through the petals of your most highly-prized plant.
“As soon as may be in November… the Dahlias are now dug up from the border, and others collected from different parts of the garden. The labels are tied on to the short stumps that remain, and the roots are laid for a time on the floor of a shed. If the weather has been rainy just before taking them up, it is well to lay them upside down, so that any wet there may be about the bases of the large hollow stalks may drain out.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden
The dahlias we grow in the Walled Garden are left in the ground all winter to save some of this labour. Here with a heavy mulch and shelter from the surrounding walls, they happily survive now typically agreeable winter conditions. The pots we use on the Terrace, however, are moved under glass when frost finishes the display. Here, we grow D. ‘Bishop of Auckland’, a shade deeper (burgundy) than the better known D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ (crimson). It could be lost if grown alone but we pair it with Verbena bonariensis whose popping-candy purple flowers brighten the whole thing up.
Next year, plans are afoot to give the Red and Yellow Border a boost with some full blooded red dahlias. This could prove the most natural home for D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’. There are also some excellent pink forms. Perhaps we could squeeze a few into the Pink and Blue Border whilst we’re at it. And the end of the Pergola with that lovely purple beech hedge to contrast against. Of course, they originate from Mexico so we really ought to have them represented in the Geographical Beds as well. What about the Top Lawn? We don’t really need all that grass do we?