Tribute to the dahlia king: Roger Aylett
PUBLISHED: 19:22 26 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 20 February 2013
Dahlias and Aylett Nurseries go hand in hand. Philippa Pearson finds out about founder Roger Aylett, who sadly died in May, and his passion for dahlias
ROGER Aylett was enchanted by dahlias from an early age when he used to grow them at his family home in Marshalls Drive, St Albans, where his parents encouraged young Roger during wartime to have his own vegetable plot.
Here, he raised carrots, beetroot, runner beans and potatoes and as he grew older, sweet peas, dahlias and chrysanthemums were added to the mix. Roger went on to train in horticulture at Oaklands College, St Albans (he later became a governor), and whilst studying there and with the support of his parents, Roger at the age of 20 established Aylett Nurseries in July 1954, buying 7 acres of pasture land on the North Orbital Road, St Albans, the following year where plans included numerous glasshouses for the production of tomatoes, cucumbers and carnations.
The nursery, originally just a shed selling cut flower blooms and produce, developed over the years but dahlias became the key plant associated with Roger and the nursery from the early stages. Roger had lifted his dahlias from Marshalls Drive around the time when the new business was established and re-planted the tubers in the nursery field.
Wanting to acquire more, he purchased another 200 plants from local commercial dahlia grower Ernie Copper, famous for the Jescot strain of dahlias, who later went on to grow plants in spare land at the nursery letting Roger harvest the flowers and keep the revenue. The cut dahlia blooms proved very popular and Roger decided to specialise in dahlias, increasing stock of his own dahlias each spring from basal cuttings.
He began selling dahlia cut flowers in Covent Garden market and displaying them at flower shows, Harpenden being his first show and where he started taking orders for plants as visitors wanted to grow them in their own gardens.
Rogers first dahlia exhibit at the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society was in September 1958, the display arranged with help from his mother Muriel and fiance Hazel, and he went on to win a staggering 36 consecutive gold medals for dahlias between 1961 and 1999 at RHS shows.
More glasshouses were built at the nursery for dahlia propagation and soon a mail order business started.
Roger designed a special corrugated cardboard box, made by a local company in Hatfield, which carefully packaged the dahlia plants. Adam Wigglesworth, who is married to one of Rogers daughters, Julie, and a director of Aylett Nursery for the past 17 years, comments that Ayletts early business was very much based around the mail order market.
Orders for Rogers dazzling dahlias came from the numerous shows he and wife Hazel exhibited throughout the country and also from the annual Dahlia Festival held at the nursery each September. The trial fields next to the glasshouses were also open to visitors to select and order dahlias.
This tradition still continues today where the two acre dahlia field with hundreds of plants is open from August to the first frosts and the annual Dahlia Festival is still celebrated each September.
Roger and Aylett Nurseries went on to win further accolades for dahlias including the Williams Memorial Medal in 1977 and 1994, presented for the best exhibit of plants and/or flowers of a single genus staged at one of the Society shows during the course of a year. Roger also received the Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for outstanding contributions to the science and practice of horticulture.
Aylett Nurseries was recently rated the Third Best Independent UK Garden Centre by Which? Gardening magazine, a tribute to the sterling work of this family business which is now run by Rogers widow Hazel, his daughters Julie, with husband Adam, and Sally, with husband Eric. As I walk around the dahlia field with Adam, its clear that Rogers original drive and passion as a grower is still very apparent at the nursery.
We concentrate on what we are good at growing plants, says Adam and ensuring customers receive the best service.
RHS Silver-Gilt medal winner Philippa Pearson is a garden designer and professional horticulturalist, awarded Peoples Choice Award for Best Show Garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2010.
or email Philippa at firstname.lastname@example.org