All for the love of dahlias

“It’s just good to have it nice,” says retiree John Woodfield of his beautiful Hughes garden – which is something of an understatement.

The well-organised, colourful garden is packed with an abundance of roses, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, daphne, viburnums iris, lilies, magnolias, pittosporums, small conifers, maples and holly – and that’s just for starters. Besides, at this time of year, it’s really all about the dahlias.

“There are 17 varieties of dahlia, and we grow 15 of them,” says John. “We grow them for exhibitions; the judges look for certain specifics depending on the type. The way the petals curl, the perfection of the ball varieties, the way the flower sits on the stem. It’s a lot of work – I can spend up to three hours a day debudding, and of course they have to be tied up properly or you might as well not bother.”


John and his wife June’s garden will be open to the public as part of the Australian Open Garden Scheme on the weekend of March 12-13, when they expect around 200 dahlias to be in full bloom.

This is the second time it’s opened this season – the first time, in rainy October, was to showcase the rhododendrons, but this time visitors can expect a truly stunning collection of dahlias of every shape and colour imaginable.

“Dahlias are the easiest thing in the world to grow!” John says. “And they are beautiful. The one thing they lack is perfume, although they do start to smell once the season is over, and not pleasantly.”

John and June are members of many gardening societies, including the Horticultural Society of Canberra, where John has been president and treasurer; the Rose Societies of NSW and Victoria and the Dahlia Society of NSW/ACT. In the Australia Day Honours this year John was awarded an OAM for service to horticulture. He says that gardening is something he loves – although he’s also driven by his competitive spirit.

“The garden is something I can do at home, since I retired – I can’t stand to sit around doing nothing,” he says.

“I used to play sport – football, cricket, tennis, squash – but you go past those things. There are dahlia shows most weekends, and I go along either as a judge or a competitor. It gives me a reason to get up tomorrow.”

As well as the dahlias, the garden has “everything that grows well in Canberra, with a view to always having something colourful to look at”, according to John.

“We’ve done our own design, but this is an exhibitor’s garden. We grow for exhibitions all year round, have done for 40 years, and we’ll show whatever’s going.”

The dahlias started to flower in late January and will continue until the first frost, as long as the spent flowers are continually removed, the plants kept tied up and debudded, says John.

“The dahlias are the most spectacular plants we grow and are usually at their best at the end of February and into March,” he says.

“I think if you’re doing it, you’re in. You might as well do it properly and aim for perfection.”

John and June Woodfield’s garden at 1 Spence Place, Hughes, open Saturday, March 12 and Sunday, March 13, 10am-4.30pm. Adults $6, children under 18 free. Funds will go to the Open Garden Scheme and the Horticultural Society of Canberra. More information at www.opengarden.org.au.

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