Late last winter my garden club hosted a talk by a local dahlia grower. It was a very good talk, full of useful practical advice from somebody who had actually done all the things he was talking about, and coming at the right time of year for people to order dahlia plants. And it was pleasant in the short cold days of winter to be reminded of the bright, confident flowers of late summer. Now that they are flowering in reality as well as memory the garden club staged a follow on visit to the grower's dahlia field, so that we could see them in the flesh.
The grower and his wife moved over to Suffolk from Worcestershire in 2012 and have crammed a truly exhausting amount of activity into the subsequent four and a half years, for two people who are nominally retired. They have restored and converted a traditional barn into a house, cleared and fenced a six acre site, turned part of it into a garden, demolished a concrete barn, relocated the entrance and driveway to the property, rebuilt two large derelict polytunnels and installed a thirty-five foot greenhouse, constructed a large fruit cage, kept up to fifty chickens (and lost the last of them to the fox), run a tea room until their daughter presented them with several grandchildren, survived four floods and two storms that took out several mature trees and a cart shed, built a new cart shed, planted hundreds more trees, and planted an acre or so of dahlias.
The dahlia field was great. I took my notebook with me, but rapidly gave up on the idea of writing down the names of any varieties I particularly liked, since odds were they wouldn't be available for sale anyway, and just enjoyed walking about looking at them. Red, orange, soft pink, white, purple, simple singles and huge shaggy doubles, tiny pompoms, two tone petals shading from flame to yellow, strange bicolours, every kind of dahlia you can imagine. The grower and his wife sell them as cut flowers, at the gate and to local florists, and out in the field there is no attempt to arrange them artistically. They are in rows for ease of cultivation, and some clash violently with their neighbours when viewed close up and in detail.
The massed effect was stunning, like a painting out of the RA's exhibition Painting the Modern Garden. Indeed, looking at them I realised how true the Impressionist paintings of massed dahlias actually were. I ended up making a little frame out of my fingers through which to view them, so that there would be no background of fence and grass and trees, just serried ranks of dahlias, their flowers dots of bright colour above dark green foliage. And the foliage was dark green. The dahlia field was on heavy Suffolk clay, and clay is a fertile soil. I realised I must feed my dahlias much more than I had been doing.
After the tour of the field came the refreshments, and wine and cheese turned out to be a sit down do with a plate each of a selection of cheese and crackers and a retro piece of celery and some Branston pickle. I'd been expecting to stand about nibbling a few bits off circulating platters, or else take a little sliver of cheese from a buffet like we do at the music society's AGM. This was supper, and gratefully eaten with great rapidity by somebody I know from our Writtle college days who had barely had any lunch. I declined the offer of wine on the grounds that I was driving, and was promptly given a glass of water followed up by the rest of the bottle. I bet they did good teas when they had the tea room.
Addendum I discovered that the garden in Lavenham I visited on Sunday with a different Writtle friend had over four hundred visitors, the most of any garden opening this year in Suffolk for the NGS.