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This Flowering Garden is a Paradise of Colourful Dahlias

Dahlias are known for their plethora of blooming colours and having some of the sturdiest stems

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By House & Garden | October 30, 2023 | Gardens

You can take an Englishwoman out of England, but you can’t change a deeply ingrained English garden aesthetic. Pom Shillingford has lived in America for 26 years, but she still yearns for the garden she knew as a child - her grandmother’s beloved Arts & Crafts garden in Hampshire, which she remembers always being filled with seasonal flowers. She and her husband David and their three young children moved from Manhattan to the small town of Salisbury in Connecticut in 2013. ‘I had always loved Manhattan, but suddenly I didn’t love it any more and needed to go back to green fields and the outdoors,’ says Pom.

They had always vowed not to buy a house that needed renovating, but when they first saw the run-down 1830s farmhouse and its three-and-a-half acres, it was the garden that sealed the deal for Pom - and the old barn for husband David. ‘The house was a wreck but it was the garden I really wanted,’ says Pom. ‘I could see what it could become.’ Ten years on, she has designed and created her own version of her grandmother’s garden. Set out behind the elegant white clapboard house, this English-style garden seems entirely in character with the genteel environment of northwest Connecticut, complete with yew-hedged garden rooms, lawns, herbaceous borders, potager and most recently an expanding cutting garden.

Some Dahlias are so easy to grow and cute, whereas some are such divas or absolute thugs. Some are really reliable workhorses and others will give maybe two blooms in a season. Image cia Pexels.

Cut flowers have become an increasing focus for Pom as her children have grown older and she has more time to devote to the garden. In 2020 she enrolled on a six-week online flower farming course with the well known Floret Farm, and the following spring launched her own seasonal flower business, English Garden Grown. Now she cuts early spring bulbs, tulips, sweet peas and dahlias from her garden to sell to subscribers, and arranges year-round seasonal flowers for a local restaurant, Stissing House in nearby Pine Plains. The original decorative cutting garden with its pretty brick paths and a central circular planter is now way too small, so Pom has extended her growing space outwards, creating new fenced areas with long, narrow beds for functional rows of tulips and dahlias. ‘My husband’s vegetable patch will be the next thing to be taken over by flowers,’ she laughs.

Dahlias are perhaps Pom’s biggest love, an ever-increasing obsession. ‘There are just so many of them! I originally got hooked on dahlias with the dinner plates, and I’ve found that the reds and yellows like ‘Nick Sr’, ‘Show n Tell’ and ‘Bodacious’ give out the best blooms on the sturdiest stems. I love how unsubtle and in-your-face they are.’ As time has gone on, her tastes have changed, and she fell in love with the ball dahlias like ‘Tartan’ which has incredible purple and white striped blooms, and recently the anemone types.

‘The anemones didn’t sing to me at all when I first started growing dahlias, but now I can’t get enough of them. ‘Mambo’ is a new discovery. It’s not so good for my cut flower subscriptions as the stems are too bendy, but that makes them dance beautifully in arrangements.’ She gets many of her new varieties from Kristine Albrecht of Santa Cruz Dahlias, whose legendary own-breed dahlias are like gold dust. ‘Her website crashes every time she starts selling each season,’ says Pom.

Around the end of June, (or early summer) pampered dahlias will be fed every 10 days with compost tea and fish fertiliser to produce the monster blooms. Image via Pexels.

Single-handedly Pom grows hundreds of dahlia tubers every year, lifting them every autumn to store them inside because the winters are so hard in Connecticut. ‘It literally turns into the Arctic around the end of November every year, and then things don’t really start to get going again until May. It’s a really short season’. After the first real frost, when the stems are blackened, she will systematically dig the tubers up, wash them and leave them to dry, before storing them in a cool place all winter in vermiculite. Some of these will come out of storage in early spring to be planted up in pots indoors while others will be planted out again directly into the ground in mid to late May. Around the end of June, these pampered dahlias will be fed every 10 days with compost tea and fish fertiliser to produce the monster blooms that beckon to Pom from her kitchen window. ‘There is nothing quite as satisfying as looking out across the garden at them when the whole plot is in flower,’ she says.

‘Growing dahlias is not like growing any other flower,’ concludes Pom. ‘Because of the amount of work involved you have to really love them to do this! Every bloom has its own personality. Some are so easy, some are such divas, some are really shy, some are absolute thugs. Some are really reliable workhorses and others will give maybe two blooms in a season but are so incredible that they are forgiven. It feels a bit like having a classroom of children and it’s my job to get the best out of them.’