It’s 1.30pm on a warm, wet Wednesday in August. In the dining room at Peter Beale’s near Attleborough in Norfolk, I’m finishing my lunch. In 37 minutes, my life will change.
We take a turn around the garden, inhaling roses under the grand metal arches. And then I see it. It’s yellow, blushed; prickly-looking; a plate-sized pointed pom-pom. It’s the first time I’ve seen (really seen) a dahlia, and I’m in love. The gardener tells me it’s from the Netherlands, but he doesn’t know the name. I’ve never fallen so hard for a bloom.
A year later (can it only be last spring?) I received my first tubers through the post. Three-litre pots were purchased, the precious tubers were tucked in (but not too tucked in), tuber eyes were fussed over, and the wait began. When the first shoots announced themselves, my triumph was immense. That year, they stayed in the glasshouse a little late, but I finally planted them in the front garden, underneath my little office window. Café au Lait, Henriette, and Labyrinth, Waltzing Matilda and Honka Fragile, Dakarin and Watermelon, I could not get enough of them. For all the staking and the lifting, the constant dead-heading and the petting, the earnest discussions about fleecing, the slug monitoring, they repay me with hours of beauty and pleasure.
When I got sick in August, and spent many weeks in bed, I had these gaudy darlings on my dressing table. We began to devise the Future Garden plan from my sick bed (you can see our plan below). During this extended bed rest, deep into a rabbit-hole of a google search, I discovered the chigiri-e firework pieces of Kiyoshi Yamashita. I looked at these chemical flowers, and I looked at my dahlias in their jam-jar and I wondered if I could recreate the glamour and the magic of these torn up pieces of paper with plants. So the Firework Border was born. Between the pond and the starry magnolia tree, I have designed a border of dahlias based on three of Yamashita’s works on paper.
I was well enough to get out of bed in time to hastily lift my beloveds before the first frost on November 5th. Cleaned, dried, trimmed, labelled, they were stored safely in sharp sand until the winter was past and they could be returned to their prime spot in the glasshouse. Or so I thought.
Spring came, cold and wet and a bit rubbish. Undeterred, I trooped out to the glasshouse, keen to rouse the slumbering tubers before my Easter holiday. My husband came running out of the house in response to my screams. Every last one was liquefied. Somehow, water had got into the boxes and they had rotted to a foul stinking sludge.
A new batch was put on urgent order, but I was unable to replace the frilly peach Labyrinth. Their arrival was delayed, my perfect planning imploded, and it felt like only moments from potting up to that long, hot, waterless summer in which the dahlias failed to thrive. They remained small, with few flower heads, except one, a gift from a naturalist friend. Hidden in a brown packet, it turned out there were three plants (the very best kind of surprise) of Karma Chocolate, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It has a delicious scent of chocolate that lasts on a dead-headed dahlia (accidentally tucked in your handbag) for at least a week.
Frost has come earlier this year, and harder. I lifted the (stressed, sulky, underperforming) dahlias a week ago, and they are soon to be tucked into boxes. I have a new plan for storing them to prevent a repetition of the events of March.
Work on the hard landscaping has ground to a halt: a rather large bill for installing our central heating means a wait for the concrete pour that must come next: it forms the basis of the wheelchair-friendly path that you can see on the drawing.
While I wait I’ve replanted my EU garden in a large pot (grape hyacinths and daffodils that rise militantly every March) ready for next spring, and made a huge pot of Pheasant’s Eye narcissi in case Persephone pops by. I’ve given the lavender border a haircut, and tied in the wisteria. There’s plenty still to do, barrowing earth where we are creating height behind the lavender border, fixing up the decked area (wood is currently soaking in water, waiting to be bent for the circular seat) and clearing the bed under the apple trees. Work goes on: sweet peas are popped into seed trays, tulips are potted instead of trenched, peonies are divided and replanted, frost does its magic on them all.
Next time: The Holly and The Ivy, tales of the Christmas Garden.
Isabella Streffen is an artist. She has illuminated Hadrian’s Wall from end to end, flown prototype drones inside the Library of Congress, camouflaged tourists in Monet’s garden, performed in cabaret en unicorne and gifted golden fairy-tale fruit to the deserving. She lectures in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. She is a keen gardener with an obsession for dahlias.