DAHLIAS vs CHRYSANTHEMUMS
My father grew dahlias and chrysanthemums.
He didn’t just grow them. He showed them, by which I mean he entered competitions.
Always a keen gardener, he announced one evening that he was going out to see a man called Tom.
Tom, I knew, kept a good garden, filled with colourful flowers, particularly in the summer and autumn months. I did not know at the time that these were dahlias and chrysanthemums. Tom encouraged my father to join the local society and, before long, my father was pottering in the garden nursing along his plants.
I was at an age where children are sponges, soaking up information and I was keen to learn. I learned that dahlias are grown from rhizomatous roots called tubers but that chrysanthemums are flowering plants, grown from cuttings. I learned how to stop chrysanthemum plants (pinching out the growing points to encourage more branches) and to disbud dahlias to encourage larger flowers. My favourite job was coating the stems of dahlia plants with Vaseline, to stop insects crawling up into the petals.
I went along to competitions with my father, helping him stage his blooms. I learned the tricks some growers use, such as threading thin wire up the stems to make the flowers stand up straight. But my father wouldn’t stoop to such tricks. He preferred to win (or not) by fair means, rather than foul.
Over time, I came to prefer dahlias. They were larger and flashier than chrysanthemums and, frankly, more straightforward. They bloomed from mid-summer to early winter, when the tubers were lifted and stored over the colder months. Chrysanthemums, on the other hand, varied widely in their care. There were Earlies, Mid-seasons and Lates, all with different cultivation and stopping dates. And the flowers themselves were either Spray (daisy-like) or Bloom (with mop heads). There was just too much to remember.
And so, when I had my first garden, it was dahlias I cultivated. They were so easy. Plant the tubers under cover in February and wait for them to sprout. Enjoy the flowers and lift the tubers again in November, after the first frost has blackened the foliage.
And then, a couple of years ago, I decided to give chrysanthemums a second chance. Why not, I thought. The smell of the foliage — peculiar to chrysanthemums — transported me back to my childhood and I began warming to them. I forgot to stop the growth, of course, so they weren’t the textbook shape, but the blooms came and were glorious. Not as showy as the dahlias in the next bed but lovely all the same.
It was mild today. Warm, for February. I went out to the garden and took a hoe to the two beds. The dahlia bed was empty, save for a covering of small weeds. I unearthed the odd bit of left-over tuber, rotten from the cold and damp. But the chrysanthemum bed was springing into life. Not only had the plants survived the winter without being lifted but, already, there is healthy growth. In the otherwise bare February earth it was a welcome sight.
I wonder if I might prefer chrysanthemums after all …