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It’s a blooming good show

Antoinette Lambert with some of her exhibition-standard dahlias in her Nireaha Road Garden. PHOTOS/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Award haul for colourful blooms

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

From watching her local mayor attend to his champion flowers to bringing home bags full of her own national trophies – you could say it’s been a “blooming” successful journey for Antoinette Lambert and her prize-winning dahlias.

Lambert, from Eketahuna, competed at this year’s North Island National Dahlia Show, held in Taranaki last month, walking away with a total of seven awards.

At the show, hosted by the Hawera Dahlia Society, Lambert and won the title of “Champion Vase” in multiple categories: including in the Pompom, Medium Decorative, Miniature Ball, and Fimbriated Dahlia classes.

She also had four of her competition vases make the judges’ “Top Table” – the finalists for the supreme “Champion Bloom” award.

Lambert, who has been gardening since her early twenties (which she confesses makes her “a late starter” amongst the gardening community), was first introduced to dahlias while living across the road from Woodville district mayor Ralph Mountford, a competitive grower.

“That was back in the 80s. He’d been out in his garden, pruning his dahlias, and I’d pop over and pick up all his spent blooms for him,” she recalled.

“I decided to give dahlias a go and set aside a little patch in my garden.”

Before too long, Lambert had hit the competitive circuit – going on to exhibit at flower shows throughout the country, gaining numerous accolades for her colourful, precisely shaped blooms.

She was particularly chuffed to win the overall “Champion Bloom” award at the 2012 North Island championships, held in Napier.

She has also won several champion vases at the Woodville Horticultural Show, where she normally enters flowers in multiple classes, as well as dahlias.

Antoinette Lambert’s award haul from the 2022 North Island National Dahlia Show.

Lambert said her latest awards are particularly gratifying, as the national contests attract “the best of the best”.

“It’s pretty cool – especially as you’re up against some serious competition,” she said.

“You get some seriously good growers at the national shows. You don’t compete unless you’re competitive – and I’m a pretty competitive person!

“I’ve put a lot of hard work into growing dahlias over the years – and it’s great to have that work validated.”

After having gained valuable advice on dahlia cultivation from mayor Mountford, Lambert sourced “about half a dozen” plants, which, on relocating to Ashhurst, she added to her new garden space.

It wasn’t long before she “caught the bug”.

“I started out with a few plants, and thought they looked really nice. Then I ended up with 50. And then 150.

“You can never get enough of dahlias.

“They come in so many different styles, colours and varieties. And, if you mass plant them, they look absolutely stunning in flower.”

Eventually, Lambert decided it was time to “crack on with showing” her flowers.

She entered her first competitions in the late 1980s – and recalled one show where she was arranging flowers with her baby son strapped to her in a backpack carrier.

Growers wanting to compete at flower shows need to up their game and plant exhibition varieties – as regular “garden-variety” dahlias have far fewer petals and tend to be “loose, floppy and informal” in their shape.

“You don’t take your cross-breed dog to Crufts – and you don’t take garden dahlias to a flower show,” Lambert said.

Growing competition-worthy dahlias takes elbow grease: though dahlias are hardy plants which have a long flowering season and do well in many soil types, they require specific conditions to thrive.

Some of Lambert’s cactus dahlias..

Dahlias do best in free-draining soil environments, require regular watering and removal of dead flower heads to prolong growth, and need shelter from harsh sunlight, wind and heavy rain.

“Luckily, our place has got lots of little nooks and crannies for planting.

“Good compost is important – there are brews you can mix up to get the best result. We put down wheelbarrow loads of compost each winter.

“It can be as time consuming as you want it to be.”

Once growers are ready for competition, they must adhere to strict judging criteria to come away with a trophy.

Flowers must have “eye appeal”, have stems which are perfectly centred and proportional to the size of the flower, the blooms must be at a 45-degree angle to the stem, and have evenly distributed petals.

Points are deducted for any bruising or anomalies, such as green centre florets.

Show flowers must be meticulously stored for travel in milk crates packed with newspaper to avoid flowers touching – which can cause damage.

“There are a lot of things to bear in mind,” Lambert said.

“For example, your flowers can’t be too young, or too old.

“They need to stay in place within the vase. The judges can’t touch the flowers, so they’ll pick up the vase to look – and they’ll downgrade you if the bloom swivels.

“If you’ve got three to a vase, the petals shouldn’t be touching. If they do touch, you could be concealing bruises.”

Despite the rigorous competition, Lambert said shows are supportive environments, with growers keen to pass on advice and wisdom to one another.

Similarly supportive is the New Zealand Dahlia Growers Facebook group – which has 9000 members, including amateur gardeners looking to improve the quality of their plants.

“There’s been a huge interest in dahlias over the last few years,” Lambert said.

“Most competitive growers are in their 80s or 90s, so we definitely need some younger ones coming through.

“It’s great to see people are interested in taking their dahlias a step further – and there’s a vast network of knowledge they can tap into.”

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