Book Review – The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias

The Plant Lover's Guide to Dahlias, Andy Vernon, Timber Press

“I don’t just like dahlias: I love them” asserts Andy Vernon on the opening page of his new book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias. Even had he not spelt it out so explicitly, readers would have been left in no doubt of his passion for this most exuberant of garden flowers. Andy’s tone is chipper and informal, making every page eminently readable; yet there is no scrimping on the expert guidance. The first chapter begins by describing the recent fall and rise of the dahlia’s popularity, noting the great movers and shakers – Christopher Lloyd, Sarah Raven, Michael Mann, Jon Wheatley and Mark Twyning – who have championed the flower’s unique beauty and variety.

A small gardener himself, Andy constantly recognises that luxuries such as allotments and polytunnels are not available to all of us, pointing out varieties that will perform well in pots and containers. There are also helpful lists of hybrids suitable for attracting bees, cutting and growing in borders. The front section of the book covers flower forms, planting ‘pals’ and a little on the fascinating tale of the dahlia’s introduction to Europe from Central and South America.

Pink perfection, a fine cactus-flowered hybrid
A fine cactus-flowered hybrid growing at The Salutation in Kent

The bulk of this hardback gem is occupied by a shortlist of 200 varieties which Andy has commendably whittled down from the 20,000 or so believed to exist in cultivation. They are organised by colour rather than flower shape, although, such is the diversity of this flower, some blurring of the boundaries is required. Tantalising images are used throughout, many of which were taken by the author. Andy’s descriptions are no less colourful than the blooms he loves and are a joy to read. For myself I singled out D. ‘Jitterbug’ from the front cover; D. ‘Le Castel’, a freestyle white waterlily type and D. ‘The Phantom’, with plum-coloured anemone-shaped blooms. They’re all on my shopping list for next year.

That many of the cultivars we grow today were created relatively recently is evidenced by the often ridiculous names they have been saddled with – ‘Junkyard Dog’ (‘day-glo cherry pink with white streaking’), ‘Sonic Bloom’ (‘a fabulous coral pink fizz’), ‘E Z Duzzit’ (‘a mellow orange collerette’) and ‘Poodle Skirt’ (‘magenta and berry colours combine in a pincushion poof’). Dahlia haters will be reaching for the smelling salts if they make it as far as the section entitled ‘Extraterrestrials’, where Andy describes those crazily shaped and coloured cultivars that defy normal classification.

I would commend Dahlia 'Firepot' to Andy for its compact habit and incredibly vibrant flowers
I would recommend Dahlia ‘Firepot’ to Andy for its compact habit and incredibly vibrant flowers

Those of a delicate disposition should skip on to the chapter on growing and propagating, which I found exceptionally useful and easy to read. It taught me some new tricks and affirmed some of my own, in tones that suggest nothing is really too tricky when it comes to growing dahlias. The books ends, all too soon, with some suggestions on cutting and arranging dahlias which, Andy implores, ‘long to be picked and adored in a vase’. I could not agree more.

I have very little time for reading books (hence the scarcity of reviews on this blog) but Andy Vernon’s perky prose and illuminating images kept me hooked for days. His empathy for gardeners with limited space makes his book all the more relevant in an age when many of us have to make do with balconies, window boxes and pots on the doorstep: Andy provides inspiration and solutions for all.

The title is part of a series published in association with Kew Gardens which, randomly, comprises only Dahlias, Salvias, Sedums and Snowdrops so far. The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias is a fantastic books for absolute beginners or any gardener wishing to indulge themselves further in the bright, extrovert, sometimes eccentric world of dahlias.

Dahlia 'Rebecca's World' is a curiosity, displaying random combinations of red and white in its blooms
Dahlia ‘Rebecca’s World’ is a curiosity, displaying random combinations of red and white in its blooms

The Plant Lover’s Guide to Dahlias by Andy Vernon is published by Timber Press