Best in show: Irish dahlia growers compete in the UK

For competitive Irish growers, it’s all about size, shape, fullness, freshness, symmetry, colour and petal distribution

When not in flower, it’s fair to say dahlia plants rarely command a second glance. In fact, to the uninitiated, they could be easily mistaken for potatoes, not that surprising when you consider that these two fast-growing, frost-tender tuberous species share a surprising amount of common ground regarding their geographical range in the wild and their fondness for a certain set of growing conditions that includes a rich, moist but free-draining soil in full sun or light shade. But the comparison ends there. Unlike potatoes, which are valued solely as a tasty food crop, dahlias are generally prized for the otherworldly beauty of their often large and vividly colourful flowers.

For the average home gardener, that’s enough of a reason to grow these impressively decorative, labour-intensive, floriferous tuberous perennials, whose exotic, edible blooms dramatically transform the autumn garden. But for competitive Irish dahlia growers cultivating flowers to exhibition standard, it’s a whole different ball game where the size, shape, fullness, freshness, symmetry, colour, petal distribution and angle of the flower in relation to its stem (no less than 45 degrees for most types) all matter. So too does the particular variety, something that the competitive grower and dahlia judge Martin Lawlor was at pains to emphasise last week, when he gave me a tour of the exquisite dahlias that he grows for competition. A hugely seasoned exhibitor and highly respected judge at flower shows countrywide, his horticultural skills were fostered by his centenarian father Harold Lawlor, a remarkable gardener whose own skills as a competitive vegetable grower and dahlia expert are legendary.

Martin exclusively grows what he calls “exhibition dahlias”, varieties that can be relied upon to meet stringent show-bench standards. In a normal year, his dahlia patch to the rear of the family-owned florist shop on the edges of Durrow village in Co Laois might be home to more than 400 plants. But an injury early this spring forced him to temporarily reduce that to a quarter the number, all grown by him from cuttings taken in early spring from parent tubers that he forced into early growth under cover and in gentle heat.

To truly appreciate what constitutes the perfect exhibition-standard dahlia flower, you must first consider the many months of work, knowledge and skill that goes into growing it. Notoriously thirsty, hungry, heat-loving and demanding of careful protection against frost, strong winds, slug and snail damage, the dahlia is a genus that for better or worse reflects the quality of care it receives. To grow these plants well requires very careful site selection and preparation, with the addition of lots of well-rotted organic matter and some slow-release organic fertiliser worked into the soil before planting in late spring. It also requires expert plant husbandry. Plants must be kept very well-watered, protected against pests and diseases, deadheaded, and painstakingly staked to prevent them toppling or snapping in a stiff summer gale. Regular liquid feeding is also recommended, especially later in the growing season, when the plants need plenty of potash to ensure a plentiful supply of blooms.


To produce flowers to competition standard, you must also “stop” the plants in early summer and disbud the stems, removing unwanted side-buds to encourage plants to pour all their energy into producing fewer, larger, perfect blooms with a decent stem length. Last but not least, you need to grow the right varieties, a job made difficult by the consequences of Brexit, which has denied Irish growers access to suppliers such as Halls of Heddon in the UK, renowned worldwide for the quality and range of their dahlias. Yet despite the hard work and many challenges (or perhaps because of them), competitive dahlia growing is an addictive hobby and one that encourages a great sense of camaraderie among its enthusiasts.

For many of the country’s most competitive dahlia growers, the Irish National Dahlia Society’s annual show earlier this week in Wexford is a highlight of the growing year and an opportunity to meet fellow growers as well as to exhibit their exquisite blooms. Among those who gathered at the show last Tuesday were Martin Lawlor, as well as David Moloney from Clonmel; Niall and Catherine Coveney from Wicklow; Trevor Stevenson from Shankill; and Christopher White from the Naul in north Co Dublin. All are also heading off next week to the annual Harrogate Autumn Flower Show in the UK, a big international highlight of the season for dahlia lovers. Unfazed by a journey of several hundred miles, they’ll be painstakingly selecting their very best blooms and then lovingly transporting them to the showgrounds in Newby Hall, where they’ll be ruthlessly judged by their peers.

Impeccable standards are fastidiously upheld by the judges of these competitive shows, from the size, quality and number of the blooms to the exact cultivar and class. For growers who have poured their heart and soul into growing the perfect dahlias, it can be nail-biting stuff, especially after a cool, sunless summer like this year’s, which has slowed plants’ growth and flowering time by 2-3 weeks.

For David Moloney, one of Ireland’s top-rated growers and a regular winner over the years of the Irish National Dahlia Society’s prestigious silver medal, it’s as much a social occasion as a competitive one. He has been growing dahlias for competition since the late 1980s, following in his father’s footsteps before him. But it’s only in recent years that he feels he’s finally almost mastered the art. “One of the things I’ve learned to appreciate is how much water the plants need to really do well ... on my free-draining soil, I could be watering them almost every day. They just drink it up.”

Moloney recommends that beginners start off with a great show-bench variety such as ‘Jomanda’ (a burnt orange variety classed as a miniature ball), or ‘Mary’s Jomanda’ (a magenta-pink variety classed as a miniature ball). Both varieties are also great favourites of Niall Coveney, who shares his passion for dahlias with his wife Catherine. For the Harrogate show, the couple are also bringing flowers of the miniature cactus variety known as ‘Ryecroft Pixie’ (peachy-pink) and ‘Hamari Rose’ (rose-pink miniature ball), grown in their large country garden in Wicklow, where the division of labour has been very cordially arranged (Niall looks after the rear garden, and Catherine the front garden). “I reckon she got the better deal”, laughs Niall, whose love of dahlias was fostered by the late John Markham, a brilliant grower of dahlias and sweet pea, who nurtured the talents of many of today’s generation of Irish growers.

For Trevor Stevenson, who grows several hundred dahlia varieties in his garden in Shankhill, his favourite show-bench varieties include ‘Kiwi Gloria’ (a pale pink small cactus variety) and ‘Trelyn Kiwi’ (a white-and lavender, small cactus variety). For Christopher White, who grows more than 1,500 dahlia plants in his Dublin garden and nursery, its giant decorative dahlias such as Dahlia ‘Aggie White’ (named after his late mother) or Dahlia ‘Louis White’ (named after his father). The latter, a giant yellow-flowered variety, won him a prestigious gold medal at the 2021 Chelsea Flower Show (unusually it was held in early autumn that year). So will there be a clutch of medals heading back to Ireland after the Harrogate show?

“Winning an award is always nice,” says Moloney. “And seeing what your competitors are up to is always interesting. But in the end, it’s the people that make the shows such special occasions. They’re always great fun.”

Harrogate Autumn Flower Show runs September 15th-17th at Newby Hall, Ripon, Yorkshire.

This week in the garden

Early September is a good time of the year to trim many kinds of garden hedges including beech, hornbeam, privet, Lonicera nitida, yew, eleagnus, Leylandii, cypress and thuja.

Always take appropriate safety precautions when hedge-cutting including using protective goggles, strong gloves and long-sleeved clothing. If it requires ladder-work, have someone hold it for you.

If your garden or allotment’s soil is a free draining one that’s inclined to quickly dry out in normal summers, then this is also a great time of the year to plant and move conifers and evergreens while the soil is still warm but moist. Take care to excavate and prepare the planting hole carefully, water well after planting, and prevent the foliage being damaged by harsh, cold winter winds by offering the plants some sort of temporary cover or protection (fleece, hessian) until they establish healthy root systems.

Dates for your diary

Saturday, September 9th (3pm-6pm) and Saturday, September 10th (noon-5pm): Naul Gardening And Flower Club is holding its 34th Annual Horticultural Show, Clann Mhuire GAA Grounds, Naul, Co Dublin

Sunday, September 10th (10am-5pm): Garden Open Day at Fruitlawn Garden, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, R32W5W7, the home of garden designer Arthur Shackleton and artist Carol Booth, with a wide variety of rare & unusual plants for sale.

Also Sunday, September 10th (11am-4pm): Fota Pant Fair takes place at Fota House & Gardens, Fota Island, Carrigtwohill, County Cork with plant stalls by many members of the Irish Specialist Plant Nursery. and

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening