Stretching out the growing season to its limits and filling your garden with color and something of interest for as long as possible takes meticulous planning. But if an autumnal swan song looks as arresting as Daisy Garnett’s spectacular pots, we’re willing to put in the work.
We’ve visited the writer’s south London garden before in mid-summer, but after seeing her towering late season blooms in an Instagram post, we revisited—mostly so that we can drool over her dahlias and get the lowdown on how she achieves this stunning display.
Photography by Beatrice Ross.
“I didn’t grow up with them,” says Daisy. “They were unfashionable then and my dad didn’t like them (or didn’t think he liked them), and so I love that unlike nearly everything else (so much of my gardening taste is informed by my dad) I ‘discovered’ them by myself. Though, of course, I was also just following the herd.”
As colors fade and foliage turns golden, the dahlias arrive with their intense colors and incredibly diverse forms. “They add such punctuation and sort of punk up what might otherwise be a bit tasteful or sober,” she adds. “Especially in early autumn when much of the other color has gone over.”
Pom pom dahlias are a favorite—the pale pink ‘Wizard of Oz’, the rich purple red ‘Downham Royal’, the pretty coral ‘Jowey Winnie’ and carmine red ‘Jesse’ which is a fantastic performer. “She grows super tall and is a great color. I love it as my sort of ‘base’ dahlia. Plus I always have loads as they split well.” Other favorites include dinner plate varieties such as ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Café au Lait’ and ‘Babylon Rose’.
The problem with growing dahlias in mixed borders is that the very time you plant them out in June is exactly when many gardens are in full swing. Daisy plants tubers in her own compost in recycled plastic pots in late spring before transferring them to their final terracotta pots later in the summer. A few still find their way into her borders, including the bushy, short ‘Twinings After Eight’, which has dramatic dark foliage and single white flowers.
Although they are easy to grow, they need full sun and plenty of nutrition if you want them to perform well. In pots these conditions are easier to control—in borders, especially in the intense growing of midsummer, dahlias can easily be overshadowed just as they are hitting their stride. And they’ll reward you if you can give them a regular feed, too; Daisy gives her pots a monthly dose of tomato feed throughout the growing season.
The success of her pots is everything else that’s in the mix, too. “I stuff the pots!” admits Daisy who adds cosmos, Phlox ‘Creme Brulee’, Mexican daisies, and convolvulus around the dahlias but also intersperses them with shrubs including a dwarf lilac, pittosporum, hydrangea and the prolific self-seeding lychnis.
While many growers will advise pinching out the tips of the plants to ensure the biggest blooms, Daisy largely leaves her so that they grow to towering heights—adding to their slightly clownish display. And, adds Daisy, allowing some to really grow tall helps create variety and rhythm amongst the pot display too.
Although in a London climate, dahlias would most probably survive in free-draining soil, Daisy prefers to lift the tubers as soon as the first frosts hit, storing them in plastic crates with perlite or vermiculite. When she repots them in May she will often divide the tubers to create more plants: “It’s a massive job. But I sort of love the changes in the pots and the terrace—summer’s riot of color, then quiet as everything gears up and gathers energy, and then I am amazed when everything is suddenly huge a few months later.”
For more on dahlias, see:
- Dahlia Days: Sam McKnight’s Spectacular September Garden
- Gardening 101: Dahlias
- DIY: How to Store Dahlia Tubers in Winter