February is a cruel month. More often than not (and I have a feeling that this year will be no exception) it taunts us with promise – buds bursting, early bulbs poking through the soil, a few sunny Sundays. We think that spring is finally underway – only to have a week of snow flung in our hopeful faces.
Time then to banish winter blues, retreat to the fireside with a sloe gin and a gardening catalogue or two and let the month grind on outside at its own pace. This year I’m planning on growing lots more flowers on my allotment. There were definitely a few moments last summer when I was sick of courgettes and could’ve just done with a bit of colour to perk up the relentless greenness.
Dahlias thrive in similar conditions to most vegetables, loving rich soil and plenty of sun, so they’re an ideal flower for the allotment or veg patch. You can even, according to the ethnobotanist James Wong, eat the tubers. It makes sense, I suppose, as they’re related to edibles such as Jerusalem artichokes and sunflowers. Apparently the cactus-flowered types make the best eating, and of these, the yellow and red-flowered ones are the best. I’m intrigued to try, although it won’t stop me from putting in a few spuds!
There are literally thousands of cultivars, in all shapes and sizes, from huge doubles the size of a football to diminuitive, elegant singles and everything in between. They truly are joyful plants; I love them for their richness of colour, and their generosity of bloom. I’ll be growing ‘Arabian Night’ and ‘Noordwijks Glorie’ – the former is a sultry dark maroon, the latter is a deep, warm orange not found in many other flowers.
Remember though, that dahlias are a little on the tender side. Pot the tubers up in spring in a greenhouse or on a windowsill, and plant out in mid-May, once the risk of frost has passed. They’ll richly reward you with flowers from July until the first hard frosts take them down.