For the first three or four years here we grew row upon row of dahlias in the old vegetable garden. They soaked up the light in the first half of summer and flung it back again in a riot of colour later. We grew upwards of fifty, with rejects making way for new varieties from one year to the next to test the best and the most favoured. The dahlias were completely out of character with what I knew I wanted to do here but, like children in a sweetshop, we had the space to play and so we indulged.
Three years of experimentation left us gorged and satiated, but a handful made it through to become keepers. All singles, and delicate enough to be worked into the naturalism of the new planting, we kept Dahlia coccinea ‘Dixter’ for sheer stamina of performance, Dahlia merckii ‘Alba’, the most delicate of all, and the demurely nodding Dahlia australis. Proving to be perfectly hardy with a straw mulch as insurance against the cold they have made good garden perennials. The exception is a scarlet cactus dahlia that outshone the blaze of competition in the trial. Originally bought as ‘Hillcrest Royal’, but mis-supplied, we grew it in our old garden in Peckham and loved it enough to bring it with us and, then again, to keep it in the cutting garden. Unable to identify it correctly after many years of sleuthing we named it ‘Talfourd Red’ after the south London road we lived on and I cannot imagine an autumn now without its flaring fingers.
I do like a new plant, and getting to know Tithonia rotundifolia for the first time this year is enabling me to see how it might be used to inject some late summer heat into a planting. We already have a handful of favourites here that are tried and trusted and loved for their intensity of colour, which builds as the growing season wanes. In the case of the Tropaeolum majus ‘Mahogany’, they are almost at their best sprawling and vibrant in the damp cooling days and allowed to climb into their neighbours. The seed originally came from the garden of Mien Ruys at least twenty years ago. I had gone with two friends on an inspirational trip to see what was happening in naturalistic gardens in Holland and Germany and we stopped to meet her in her wonderful garden. The seed was scattered on the pavement over which it was sprawling and a few found their way, with her consent, into my pocket.
This ‘Mahogany’ is not what you will get if you look for it in the seed catalogues. Indeed, it now seems to be unavailable apart from in the United States and ‘Mahogany Gleam’ is a different thing altogether. The leaves are a brighter more luminous green than usual and the flowers a jewel-like ruby red. I have been territorial ever since I started to grow it and winkle out any that come up with a darker leaf or paler flower. It self-seeds willingly every spring, letting you know when the soil is warm enough to sow and where the warmest parts of the vegetable garden are. The seedlings exhibit the same bright foliage so it is easy to weed out the occasional rogue, which might have reverted to the darker more typical green. We currently grow ‘Mahogany’ in the kitchen garden amongst the asparagus and use the leaves and flowers to garnish salad.
Close by, and growing this year in two old stoneware water filters, is Tagetes patula. This wild form will grow up to three or four feet with a little support or something to lean on and flowers from June until it is frosted. The colour is absolutely pure and as vibrant and saturated a saffron yellow as you can find. It is easily germinated from seed under cover in spring and fast, so best to wait until mid-April to sow. I harvest my own seed and keep it apart from the dark, velvety Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’ (main image), which it will taint. Seedlings that have crossed will no longer have the deep richness that makes this latter plant so remarkable. I was disappointed to find this spring that the mice had eaten all the seed I’d left out in the tool shed and was expecting to have the first of many years without it. However, as luck would have it and quite out of the blue, they somehow found their way some distance into the new herb garden. Maybe it was mice doing me a favour with the plants I left standing in the kitchen garden last winter. Another lesson learned.
My father was never afraid of colour and always commented on the brilliance of Pelargonium ‘Stadt Bern’, which is the best, most brilliant red I have ever come across. Purer for the flowers being properly single, with elegant tear-shaped petals and thrown into relief against darkly zoned foliage. I bought a tray of plants from Covent Garden Market twenty five years ago for my Bonnington Square roof garden and have managed to keep them going ever since. Given how archetypal it is for a pot geranium I have no idea why it is not more freely available, but there are always a handful of cuttings in the frame which are for giving away to friends, who are given these precious things on the understanding they are part of keeping a good thing going, and that they are my insurance for any unexpected losses.