A couple of weeks ago, I tagged along with my friend as he made the long journey down from Fife, in Scotland, to enter some of his dahlias in the National Dahlia Society competition at the Harrogate Flower Show in Yorkshire.
He had been up since six that morning cutting in excess of 100 blooms that he required to take with him for the 'classes' he was entering. As he is looking for blooms that have to be at their best in 24 hours time, selecting them requires a great deal of experience, and a keen eye.
I was picked up en route, and almost struggled to find space to sit, as his estate car was full to overflowing with dahlias, all tied into various Heath Robinson containers made both to stop the flowers from wilting and the stems from snapping on the journey south. These 'contraptions' ranged from plastic buckets filled with scrunched up chicken wire and with garden canes wired to the bucket, to old milk bottle crates with cut off drinks bottles in the compartments and yet more canes. And, arriving at the show, it was obvious that everyone had their own particular way of transporting their flowers in tip top condition as there were as many different types of frames as there were competitors.
In the show there were 107 classes ranging from miniature pompoms through to 'the giants', large pompoms and large spiky cactus cultivars, and any combination of flowers in between. My friend had entered three main classes, with each class requiring three vases of either five or six blooms. We spent seven hours 'staging' the entries, finishing just after midnight and, I guess, it wouldn't have been right to rush this final stage, after all the time and care that had been put into getting here in the first place - the hours spent taking more than 700 cuttings, the potting on and the planting out, the weeding and feeding, the watering, the staking, the dis-budding. The level of commitment and attention to detail is incredible!
The Harrogate show attracts entries from all over the UK, and alongside the Wisley Flower Show, it is the largest dahlia show in the country. When we arrived, the hall was already busy with competitors and as the evening progressed there was a steady stream of dahlias being unloaded from cars, vans and trucks. This would continue right through the night until the hall had to be emptied at 7.30am to allow the judging to start.
Later that morning, as we returned to a hall abuzz with excitement and chatter we made our way to the classes that we had entered. A first place and two seconds. 'Well chuffed!' was my friend's reaction. However, there was no real time to revel in the success. After a couple of hours taking in the rest of the show, we were then back off up the road to Fife to cut and stage more flowers for a local show in Perth that evening. It's a fine line between dedication and madness!
Although it was a long, tiring couple of days, it was a delight to be in the midst of such high levels of expertise and perfection. I had a feeling that, although we have witnessed such a strong resurgence in the grow your own movement for fruit and vegetables, the traditions and practices of growing flowers for showing were slowly dying out . However on the evidence of the Harrogate Show, this part of our gardening heritage is in rude health.
It was also a joy to just wander around the hall and experience the panoply of colours, sizes and forms of this wonderful plant. The vibrancy of colour for this time of the year makes it a worthwhile addition to any garden, adding strong, rich colours as other perennials are starting to fade and look a little washed out, and they will carrying on doing this right until the first heavy frosts of the year.
They do require some extra work, as most will have to be lifted and stored for the winter, but, whether you are growing them as a decorative plant for the garden or the house table or indeed for showing, that effort pays itself off in spades.