Event date: 27th February 2017

Write-up by Ian Millichamp

I should start this account by declaring a fondness for the Halls of Heddon nursery. Actually I should say nurseries as there are two sites – at Heddon on the Wall and at Ovington. Heddon is the site of the Dahlia (and Chrysanthemum) raising operation and also offers a good selection of plants and gardening sundries, whilst at the Ovington site they specialise in hardy perennials.

Many of the plants in my garden were sourced from Ovington, but I also grow a handful of Dahlias and I use the Halls ordering process to pick my favourites from the display fields in autumn (well worth a visit) and to collect the starter plants in early May.


David started his talk by telling us about the history of the nursery. The company was established in 1921 by William Nicholson Hall (a veteran of World War I). The first Dahlia and Chrysanthemum catalogue was issued in 1931 and the Heddon site was taken on in 1935. It had originally been the walled garden of Heddon House. The Ovington site was added in the 1940s, originally just in a production role.

David spoke about the increase in interest in Dahlias in recent decades, they are no longer just a plant for shows but also a popular border plant. Meanwhile the taste for Chysanthemums has very much declined. Up until the 1950s the nursery did most of its business at regional shows and on market stalls. In the 1960s garden centres came into vogue and nowadays most plants are bought by visitors to the nursery. Also most plants are now sold in plastic pots, whilst in the early years, before plastic pots were in manufacture, the plants were grown in terracotta, then knocked out and wrapped for the buyer or sold bareroot from the ground.

David then went on to focus on the Dahlia, Halls’ flagship plant. They originate from Mexico from two single flowered genera: Dahlia coccinea and Dahlia imperialis. He explained that they are quite easy to hybridise because of their chromosome make up. The fleshy tuberous root is a water storage organ to help the plants to survive drought in the Mexican heat.

There are currently 18,000 recognised cultivars which are organised into 14 groups:

  1. Single flowered – good in the herbaceous border. Halls have developed their own cultivars (Hadrian series).
  2. Anemone flowered
  3. Collerette – noted for their long flowering time.
  4. Waterlily – especially good for cutting e.g. ‘Kilburn Glow’ (see photo).
  5. Decorative i.e.fully double.
  6. Ball – petals rolled in on themselves.
  7. Pompon – “golfballs on sticks” (heads about 2in across).
  8. Cactus–with pointed petals.
  9. Semi Cactus – where the petals roll back on themselves.
  10. Miscellaneous – which includes all species types.
  11. Fimbriated – the petals have “split ends”.
  12. Star – e.g.’Honka’ (see photo).
  13. Double Orchid
  14. Peony e.g. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.

The annual Dahlia production at Halls is 75,000 plants. I was surprised to hear that breeders of Dahlias mostly rely on natural pollination and don’t often make deliberate crosses. Halls pay royalties to the breeders who, in most cases, pass the payment straight on to charity.

In terms of cultivation, it is recommended to grow the plants in a well drained soil but with good watering. It is a mistake to use too much organic matter but good feeding is helpful. A high nitrogen feed should be used but once the buds show you should switch to a high potash feed. Ideally they should be grown in full sun with wind protection and not planted out until the 2nd week of June in our region, when the risk of frost has passed. For border use it is best to take out the centre growing tip to encourage bushiness and multiflowering. They need taking into shelter over winter in an airy and frost free place, it is best to stand them upside down to drain the stems.

David finished by mentioning the value of Dahlias to the flower- arranger – they look particularly good if used with broad-leaved grasses.


Dahlia ‘Honka’ © David Hall