FEW sights from last summer have stayed with me so vividly as the dahlias basking in the borders at the Old Vicarage at East Ruston when I visited Norfolk last summer.

I can see them now, the red hot tones jostling among the fiery foliage and flowers of their exotic neighbours, you couldn't get anything less typically "Norfolk" if you tried.

But take heed, for new trends in growing dahlias, regarded as a somewhat old-fashioned plant, have begun.

If you ever had the pleasure of visiting the gardens you will know exactly what I mean. For there, among the north Norfolk countryside, you will find an oasis of adventure bringing inspiration from what seems like all over the globe.

And it is there that you will see that dahlias have been taken out from their traditional home in the veg plot and given a brand new starring role.

We are focusing upon the rather special dark-leaved forms of dahlia, which have been increasingly catching the eye of garden centre customers over recent years.

The dark shades of foliage, almost purple in some cases, provide the perfect contrast for the fiery blooms of red, orange and yellow.

It's easy to understand why these plants should be promoted from the lower divisions of the veg plot (home of many cut flower crops) and given a much more exciting purpose.

Try a touch of the exotic yourself and partner a dahlia such as the irresistible "Moonshine" with other vibrant subjects such as Cannas, Lantanas and annuals such as Gazanias.

"Bishop of Llandlaff" with its deep red blooms is another dahlia that is perfectly suited to this setting.

If you really want to push the boat out try setting these plants off with a backdrop of the lush green foliage of the banana plant, another that Alan has experimented successfully with.

For those who still prefer the more traditional setting, there is much to gain by experimenting with some of the more compact dahlias among the mixed border.

Some dahlias make great partners for shrubs and perennials alike and will soon fill some large holes.

It's even worth nestling some within the grasses for a real contrast of shape and colour.

Whether you fancy trying a new trick or two with dahlias, or will be sticking with the more traditional, you need to make a start soon.

Packs of tubers are available from the garden centre now. Once purchased you can store them somewhere cool but frost free, ready for planting directly in the ground in May.

Alternatively, bring the tubers on in the warm to produce plenty of shoots to propagate from.