Colour Vision Deficiency, Cosmopolitan and the Delights of Dahlias

Chris Palmer

My first serious girlfriend was called Mimi (her parents enjoyed opera). I used to enjoy reading her Cosmopolitan magazine. When my perusal was questioned, I vaguely replied:

“Just reading the horoscopes.”

Her response was: “I’ve looked at mine. It says that I’ll get an exciting offer.”

“That must have been this morning when I offered you a roll in bed with honey. You weren’t interested.”

“I don’t like crumbs in bed.”

In fact, my favourite section in the magazine was the problem page. It was educational to a teenager at a single-sex school with no sisters. There was quite often a feature along the lines of ‘Ten ways to avoid a relationship meltdown’. I’m guessing that No.1 might have read ‘If he says his favourite pastime is gardening, dump him’.

My enthusiasm was a slow burner. I had been married for a few years by the time it had become one of my favourite pastimes. Glancing through a recent edition (in our unisex salon) I came across the phrase ‘habit tracking’. This was a new one to me. Apparently, there are a huge number of apps, self-help books and weekend retreats. The aim is to optimise the ways in which we spend time ‘to become the best version of ourselves’. I wondered – am I doing this as a gardener?

Time is precious in the winter with so few daylight hours and lots of hostile weather, whereas now, as the days are longer, there is so much to do. By late May there are more daylight hours than night, but equally, as we emerge from hibernation there are many more demands on our time.

As well as our primary occupation, there are holidays, visits to family (often at a distance), sport, and those dreaded three letters, DIY. Bearing all this in mind, I’ve been wondering whether or not I optimise the time that I can set aside for my garden, and do I use my space effectively? Advance planning has to be a feature – even preparing a plan of the plot. What is going to be sown or planted and what is already growing there?

I can offer two examples from my own garden of how I try to optimise the available space. In the vegetable plot I insist on growing new potatoes. I will have started them off indoors back in January, planted them out in late March with a view to them being ready in about ten weeks’ time. From mid-June onwards, I will be impatiently waiting for the potato plants to flower, a good indication they are ready to be dug up. My impatience is twofold. The primary reason is to get them onto the family plates as soon as possible. The ulterior motive is that I want to use the plot for a crop of leeks. This has been planned since early spring when I ordered leek seedlings from a seed catalogue.

The seedlings arrived in mid-May, and I have been nurturing them ever since. Once the tatties are cleared, I dig the ground over and add a standard nitrogen-based fertiliser, or fish blood and bone for a more organic approach, to give the ground a boost, before planting the seedlings out. They can stay in the ground all winter to be harvested when needed. In my view, after tatties, leeks are the perfect Scottish vegetable, though I can already hear the howls of protest from Welsh growers. Planned in advance, this particular plot of land has been used for two entirely different crops throughout a period of twelve months.

Turning to the flower bed, I recently created a new shrub border, with a joint purpose: creating colour for most of the year and concealing a patch of grass that was badly damaged by builders. I planted four permanent shrubs and then in gaps between them, spring-flowering bulbs (crocuses, daffodils, tulips etc) to give colour from late January to early May. When the show is over, I dig up the bulbs and store them until the autumn. In their place I plant out possibly my favourite flower – the dahlia. I have been preparing this transition since last November when I dug last year’s plants up, and once completely dried out, stored them in our spare bedroom.

In late March I potted the dahlia tubers up, and kept them moist in the garage and shed ready to be planted out once I was satisfied that the risk of frost has passed. So, in early June I plant out my dahlias. It is important to keep them well watered in dry spells. I occasionally feed them with a potassium-based fertiliser, such as Tomorite, and dead-head the flowers once they are past their best, to encourage new flowers to form. Until early November they will add vivid colour to our garden. However, at the mention of colour, I must digress and mention rugby. Yes, rugby.

Frustratingly, when watching the rugby international between Ireland and Wales on television, I have virtually no chance of distinguishing between the two teams. Those of us with Colour Vision Deficiency are pleased because next year, Ireland, as the visiting team, will have to wear a change of kit. Apparently, the Irish fans aren’t too happy. An Irish rugby team in black? CVD sufferers tell them to get over it.

Yes, I’m red/green/brown colour blind. Blues and purples are also a real difficulty. Not surprisingly, it has an impact on my gardening. I struggle to notice pink flowers, like the camelia in our garden which leaves me wholly unimpressed. I even miss occasions when a plant is dying. My favourite and most trusted colour is blue. But are there any blue dahlias? I couldn’t find one in our local garden centre, so I posed the question to a well-known search engine.

The answer is, apparently not, due to the plant lacking the gene for a vital enzyme to produce a blue flower. It appears, in fact, that a blue dahlia has come to be known in idiomatic terms as something virtually unobtainable – like the Arran ferry running on time. The consequence of this is that I must content myself by choosing from the thousands of red, yellow, orange, pink and purple dahlia plants that are available.

I would encourage anyone who has not tried them to give them a go. They suit pots as well as the garden border itself. My favourite variety in the past couple of years has been ‘Edinburgh’. It is described as ‘a crimson purple flower, tipped with white’. It’s close to blue in my eyes!

Despite gardening for more than forty years, I still have more questions than answers. In that sense I feel that I am still on the way to being the best version of myself as a gardener.

I will consider two more questions in our next edition: ‘Can you grow sweetcorn in Scotland?’ and ‘Is Pink Fir Apple the tastiest potato?’