News from the Cutting Garden

Well, the school summer holidays are upon us and so this will be my final post to the website for a while. I will be turning my attention to entertaining my hyperactive 3-year-old daughter Rosie and attempting to lure my 7-year-old Ben away from his computer games.

I've been cutting flowers from the garden practically every day for the last few weeks. My early hardy annuals are producing buckets of blooms. I've been leaving quite a lot of flowers for the insects but ensuring that I always deadhead when the flowers are over to ensure that the plants keep on producing. I've had plenty of flowers so that I can have a display in almost every room of the house and still had some spare to create some lovely little jam jar posies as presents for teachers at the end of term.

Jam jar posies make excellent and indiv
Jam jar posies make excellent and individual presents for teachers at the end of term

Mysterious plant deaths

I've just planted out a second batch of hardy annuals - a few more Cornflowers and some Ammi and Bupleurum to replace those that died off last month in mysterious circumstances. I thought I had the answer last week when I dug up a Cornflower that had been merrily flowering away but had gone yellow and floppy looking. Under the plant, I found what I initially thought to be a Vine Weevil grub, but soon realised was too big. After a lot of searching images of disgusting white grubs on the internet, I think it was actually a Swift Moth Caterpillar. These live in the soil and nibble on plant roots which may explain the Cornflower death. I didn't find any of these caterpillars when digging up other plants that had failed and they seemed to die off earlier so I think either another pest or fungal disease is probably at work there. I'm hoping that everything else will survive and we don't have too many more die-offs.

Annuals from the cutting garden
Sweet peas, Scabious, Cornflowers, Alchemilla, Gypsophila, Cosmos, Lemon balm, Lupins

Annuals

I'm currently picking Cornflowers, Sweet Peas, Lupins, Larkspur, Malope trifida, Gypsophila, Panicum grass, some lovely Nigella (Love in a Mist) and the odd early Cosmos flower.
Annuals that will take over from these as the main crops in a few weeks will be Zinnias, Scabious, Cosmos, Didiscus (Blue Lace Flower), Salvias, Coreopsis, Carnations, and Chrysanthemum 'Polar Star'.

Malope trifida 'Vulcan'
Malope trifida 'Vulcan', Pelargonium 'Lord Bute', Cornflowers, Lupins, Lemon balm

Perennials

Elsewhere in the garden borders, I am harvesting Lavender, Knautia macedonica, Verbena bonariensis, Perennial Scabious, Francoa sonchifolia, Oregano (now flowering), White and Pink Mallow, Sanguisorba, Persicaria, a few Dahlias that have just started blooming in their pots, Pelargonium 'Lord Bute', Galega officinalis and the first Fennel flowers.

Jobs to do

Aside from picking flowers (not really a chore!), I check my raised beds every day or two and spend 5-10 minutes on the following: deadheading, fishing out the odd weed, tying in new growth to supports, squashing aphids and replacing the odd plant that has reached the end of its life or has succumbed to the mystery disease with a seedling from the potting shed. I also try to give the raised beds a really good watering once a week and have fed the Sweet Peas and Dahlias with flower food every few weeks.

Raised Bed
Hardy annuals in my raised cutting bed. Amberboa, Malope, Cornflowers, Lupins, Larkspur and Cornflowers

What's next?

Well, I'll just keep picking my flowers from the raised beds and perennial borders and will look forward to the later flowering plants coming into bloom. I'll clear away spent plants when they cease to flower and put them on the compost heap. I'll keep on top of the jobs listed above - a little time spent every few days will do the trick.

I'll report back on progress after the summer - hope to see you then. In the meantime, I'll still share my cut flower pictures on Facebook and Twitter and have also been working on producing some Cut Flower Guides detailing everything you need to know about growing, cutting and arranging individual flowers such as Sweet Peas and Cornflowers.

Flowers from the cutting garden in July
July cut flowers - Cosmos, Larkspur, Cornflower, Sanguisorba, Galega officinalis, Mallow, Amberboa and Gypsophila
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It's National Pollinator Week - bringing to attention the essential needs of pollinators and the simple actions that can be taken to aid their survival.

Bee Cornflower
Bumblebee on my cornflowers in the cutting garden

When we think of pollinators, bees immediately spring to mind, but there are at least 1,500 species of insects that pollinate plants here in the UK. These include bumble bees, honey bees and solitary bees but also hoverflies, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths. All have complex life cycles and specific needs. Most require food in the form of pollen and nectar, and need a home for shelter and nest-building. Summer is the time when numbers of insect pollinators are at their highest which coincides with peak plant growth and corresponding supplies of nectar and pollen.

Here are 5 simple steps that anyone can take which will help pollinators (advice taken from The Wildlife Trusts - visit their website for a host of information on this subject).

  1. Grow more flowers (yay!), shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen
  2. Let it grow wild - leave patches of the garden to grow wild with plants like stinging nettles and dandelions
  3. Cut the grass less often to encourage growth of wildflowers
  4. Don't disturb nests and hibernation spots
  5. Limit pesticide use
Butterfly feeding on Verbena
Comma butterfly feeding on Verbena bonariensis in our perennial borders

Our garden is stuffed full of nectar-rich flowers which also happen to be good for cut flowers. We don't use any pesticides in our garden, with the exception of organic slug pellets (spread very thinly in our raised cutting beds at the start of the growing season). We have an army of slugs at work in the garden and probably wouldn't have any annual flowers if we left them to their own devices. Birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife that eat slugs and snails are not harmed by organic pellets, unlike with other commonly available slug pellets.

We have a wilder, woodland area at the back of our garden and some of our raised beds have been built from pallets and filled with cobbles and flints around the sides to provide crevices for sheltering insects. We would love to have a wildflower meadow but don't have the space and have children who appreciate a lawn to play on but maybe one day! Having said that, we are not fanatical about having a closely clipped lawn and have Clover, Buttercups and Daisies growing away merrily among the grass. We often include a wildflower meadow when designing client's gardens  if they wish to have a wildlife-friendly garden.

Raised bed with insect shelter
Raised bed with insect shelter

When choosing plants, it's important to have a range of pollinator-friendly plants which flower at different times of the year so that beneficial insects have a food source / habitat year-round.

Which flowers are best for pollinators is an area of intense research by organisations such as the RHS and plant lists are refined every few years.  In the following lists, I have focused on plants that I find are also good for cut flowers so you can harvest some for the house and leave some for the bees and their pals. In general, the simple, natural flowers are the best nectar sources for insects as they have an open shape for easy access. The highly bred, showy, double varieties aren't as accessible.

Feb/March-May

Many insect pollinators will be emerging from Winter hibernation and need access to nectar quickly. Willows, Hawthorn and Fruit tree blossom such as Apples, Pears and Plums are good sources. Other important plants include Wallflowers, Crocuses, Primroses, Polyanthus, Rosemary, Snowdrops (single flowered varieties), Violets, Grape Hyacinths, Hellebores, Sweet Rocket and Honesty.

June-Mid-July

Most insect pollinators will be on the wing and actively foraging for food. Pollen will be collected as a protein source to produce and feed the next generation. Good sources are Ox-eye daisy, Foxgloves, Snapdragons, Cornflowers, Mallow, Lavenders, Alliums, Aquilegia, Borage, Hardy Geraniums, Ragged Robin, Lupins, Poppies, Honeysuckle, Marigolds, Salvia, Scabious, Oregano, Valerian, Buddlejas, Dahlias (single and semi-double varieties), Sea Holly, Fennel, Lupins, Phlox, Roses and Liatris.

Bee feeding on Allium nectar
Bumblebee on Allium sphaerocephalon

End July-October

Insect pollinators are looking to build up their energy levels and reserves before they head into hibernation. Good garden plants at this time of year include Ivy, late-flowering Hebes and Asters, Dahlias (single and semi-double varieties), Lavender, Roses, Salvias, Sedum spectabile, Sunflowers, Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea, Fennel and Rudbekias.

As you can see, there is a wide choice, so just including a few from each category will provide a food source for these important insects, in addition to providing you with a wonderful garden and flowers for the house. This list is by no means exhaustive, find a full list on the RHS Perfect for Pollinators page.

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You won't be the only one in love with your cut flowers. Bees and hoverflies will be buzzing around your flowers, collecting pollen and nectar. You'll want to leave some flowers uncut for the bees to enjoy too. However, you may not be so keen on the aphids feasting on the new flower buds of your Lupins or Sweet peas.

Raised Bed
Annual bed - Lupins, Larkspur, Amberboa muricata, Malope trifida and Cornflowers


Aphids.

My dainty annual Lupins ('Snow Pixie') have got an infestation of really big grey-green aphids ('Lupin aphids' to be precise). I have got over my squeamishness and now have a daily aphid squashing session which really is effective at reducing the numbers of aphids and the damage they can cause. If left unchecked, they can distort flower buds and stop them opening. As they feed on the plant sap, they also exude a sugary discharge called honeydew which can attract sooty moulds, creating black patches on plants. Squashing these bugs, instead of using chemical sprays, will ensure that beneficial insects such as ladybirds and their larvae will still thrive and in turn, they will help you in the fight against the aphids. You can also use the hosepipe to blast off large infestations or use a soap spray. My Sweet peas have also been affected, but these aphids are not nearly as big as the Lupin aphids so they're easier to squash!

Pollen beetles
Pollen beetles feasting on the pollen of Amberboa muricata


Pollen beetles.
The other main nuisance at the moment, are the thousands of pollen beetles which seem to have descended on my garden. They are more common in gardens in rural areas, especially if there are fields nearby that have crops of oilseed rape. They don't actually cause any damage to flowers, but they really do gather in large numbers. The last thing you need when you bring a jug full of flowers inside, is to have them swarming with tiny, black beetles. Thankfully, they are quite easy to remove. Once you have cut a bunch of flowers, gently wave them about upside down to dislodge the beetles or blow over all the blooms to remove them. Do this outside, before you bring them into the house. This works well for open flowers such as Cornflowers and Cosmos, but these little beetles can hide away in the folds of flowers like Sweet Peas. If you stand your picked flowers in a bucket in a dark shed with the door ajar slightly, the beetles will be attracted to the light outside and fly away.

Snails and Slugs.
Snails and slugs are more of a problem when annual seedlings are small, upon initial planting. I use organic slug pellets during these early stages and find this works really well. Without them, a crop of annuals can be wiped out overnight. As the seedlings grow, they are less likely to be chomped and you will no longer need to use the pellets. You only need a very small sprinkling of them to be effective.

Earwigs.
These small, brown insects like to eat flowers and are particularly fond of Dahlias. If your flowers start to look shredded then you may have an earwig problem. Earwigs are nocturnal. The traditional method of dealing with them is to stuff an upturned flower pot with straw and place in on top of a cane in your flower patch. This provides a refuge for the earwigs during the day. Check pots daily and dispose of any earwigs you may find.

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