A lot has been going on in the cutting garden since we finished our revamp last month. We've been planting up the beds with a mix of perennials, bulbs and roses leaving space for plenty of annuals - these have been grown from seed and are currently jostling for space in the potting shed and on my sunny windowsills until the weather warms up a bit.

Cutting garden in April
Cutting garden in April

We started by planting up the edges of all the individual cutting beds with small, low-growing perennials and bulbs. This gives the beds some structure and by restricting these plants to the edges, we still have plenty of space for lots of plants within the beds. We've chosen to line the central path with a mix of Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) whose acid-green, frothy flowers make a great back-drop for showier flowers, Lavender 'Munstead' a dwarf lavender, and a range of Primulas - drumstick primulas (P. denticulata), Primula 'Gold Lace Dark Red' and Primula cortusoides 'Primadiente' (Siberian primrose) an alpine with dainty pink blooms.

Primula
Primula 'Gold Lace Red'

Primulas are great for providing early flowers for picking alongside spring bulbs. They form small mounds that are ideal for edging beds. We've interspersed these with the bulbs of Iris reticulata, Tulipa turkestanica, Ranunculus, Triteleia and dwarf daffodils. All these spring bulbs have small or strappy foliage and so are ideal for edging cutting beds. Lots of large, untidy foliage can get in the way when you want to plant annuals within the bed. With all bulbs, you need to let the foliage die down naturally so that energy goes into the bulb for next year's flowers so you do have to consider this when planting bulbs in cutting beds.

Ranunculus
Ranunculus, one of the bulbs planted around the edges of the cutting beds

So far, we've planted three different shrub roses. We've gone for varieties that have beautiful flowers but also have other important attributes: i) high resistance to disease, ii) must be repeat flowering varieties so that we have flowers to pick throughout the summer and iii) must have a strong scent.
We've chosen 'Munstead Wood' with sumptuous, deep velvety crimson blooms and a strong Old Rose fragrance, 'Gertrude Jekyll', twice voted the nation's favourite rose, with beautiful, rich pink rosettes and superb fragrance and 'Comte de Chambord', warm pink, full-petalled flowers, opening flat with a delicious Damask fragrance.

The perennial bed has been planted up with Hellebores, Salvias, Achillea, Poppies 'Patty's Plum' & Pavaper rupifragum 'Orange Feathers', Briza media 'Limouzi', a grass with delicate flower heads, and Guara, all interspersed with self-sown Nigella seedlings which have been carefully transplanted from the old raised beds.

Perennial poppy
Papaver rupifragrum 'Orange Feathers'

Another bed houses plants especially valuable for their foliage or for their small flowers that act as fillers (a backdrop for larger, showier flowers) - Euphorbia oblongata, Dill and some Autumn-sown Ammi majus.

We've added 2 chestnut pyramids supports for the sweet peas to clamber up, incorporating manure into the soil as these plants are hungry for nutrients.

Honesty and Stocks are both in flower and the Sweet Williams are just forming flower spikes. These biennials were planted out last September into our old raised beds and have been carefully transplanted into their new positions in the new beds. These plants are valuable for providing flowers before the annual flowers appear and after the tulips and spring bulbs are over. Others you could try are Sweet Rocket and Wallflowers. Sow seed for these biennials in June for flowers the following year.

The tulips have been about 3 weeks earlier in flower than this time last year. Usually, by choosing a mix of early, mid and late-flowering types, you can be picking tulips until the end of May but we may struggle to get past the first week of May! I've planted tulips in the beds where we will either be growing Dahlias or later flowering annuals like Zinnias so that the tulip foliage has time to die down before these plants get going.

Tulip Queen of Night
Tulip Queen of Night looking lovely with apple blossom in the garden borders

Although it is nearing the end of April as I write, we've had a hard frost and numerous hail showers so don't be tempted to plant out too early! When the weather warms up a bit, I'll plant out my hardy annuals and once all risk of frost is past (towards the end of May), I'll plant out the frost-tender half-hardy annuals and the 9 varieties of dahlia which are currently sprouting in pots under cover. More about that next month, but for now here is a list of the annuals I have grown this year so you can see the abundance of flowers to come:

Scabiosa 'Fata Morgana', Orlaya grandiflora, Larkspur 'Giant Imperial Mixed', Nigella 'Black Pod', Helipterum roseum 'Pierrot', Calendula 'Snow Princess', Cornflowers, Antirrhinum 'Royal Bride', Zinnia 'Yoga', Zinnia 'Pale Mix', Limonium sinuatum 'Iceberg', Maurandia wislizensis 'Red Dragon', Helichrysum bracteatum Scarlet, Moluccella laevis, Clarkia purpurea 'Burgundy Wine', Cosmos 'Rubenza', Cosmos 'Purity' and Acroclinum 'Double Giant Flowered Mix'.

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Time to say goodbye to January. I always find this month to drag on just a little too long. Last year, we did 'Dry January' which made it seem even longer! This year, we've learned our lesson and are going to do a dry February, it's no coincidence that it is the shortest month.. This January we've experienced some proper winter weather in Norfolk, with beautifully crisp, frosty mornings.

Winter frost
Winter frost in our garden

January for me is a time to reflect and plan. I've been poring over flower seed catalogues, making lists and planning what will go where.  This year, I've particularly enjoyed the Chiltern Seeds catalogue which has lovely descriptions and lots of useful advice. If you visit their website, you'll be able to view pictures of each flower variety and search by colour, height and other useful factors. Just be warned that you may be tempted to buy far more seed than you have space for.

Bulbs and early flowers

I always pot up some spring bulbs during the Autumn in the potting shed to bring inside for floral displays throughout the winter. So far I've had Amaryllis, Iris reticulata, Paperwhite Narcissi and miniature daffodils in flower but I'm looking forward (somewhat impatiently I might add) for the Hellebores and Snowdrops in the garden borders to open out into flower. I think Hellebores are my favourite winter flower as they are so elegant. They make great cut flowers although they can be a bit temperamental. If you find yours wilt once cut, they can often be revived by re-cutting the stem and searing the end in boiling water for 20 seconds before placing in cold water up to their necks.

Iris reticulata
Iris reticulata 'Pauline'

Jobs to do this month

Jobs for February will include washing the black plastic pots I  use for seed sowing, ready for the new season. I bring them all in, shove them in the bath, and scrub them with washing up liquid and hot water. Seems simpler than doing it out in the cold with a bucket.

Hellebores and spring flowers
Hellebores and spring flowers

I'll sow sweet pea and Antirrhinum (snapdragons) seeds under cover this month (I place my pots on a sunny windowsill). You can sow sweet peas in November and December too, but I always seem to forget this in the run up to Christmas. Snapdragons need a long period between sowing seed and producing flowers (18 weeks) so, while I leave off sowing the seed of other half-hardy annuals until early April, I make a head-start with these. Follow my tips for seed-sowing here or why not enrol on one of my workshops and learn everything you need to know about growing your own flowers for cutting. Everything from planning, through to sowing, harvesting and arranging flowers.

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Frost has been threatening over the course of the last few weeks and although there has been a slight sheen of white on the rooftops, we've yet to experience a proper frost. Time is ticking then for the last of my annuals which will be killed off once it does arrive. The cosmos, which are highly productive and need almost daily dead-heading, are slowing down and my dahlias are looking very bedraggled. As soon as they are blackened by frost, I will lift them and store the tubers in the potting shed for the winter.

November flowers
Dahlias, Cosmos, Zinnia buds and Borage

My zinnias have lots of buds that seem to take an age to open and I don't think they'll manage it before the weather turns. I'll pick them anyway for their beautiful buds. Zinnias are one of the few flowers that won't open further if picked before they are fully open.

A late-sown Borage is providing very fresh looking fuzzy foliage and delicate blue flowers. My Guara (sometimes known as 'Whirling Butterflies') is a beautiful plant. It's been flowering all summer and is still going strong. Its spires of flowers add a delicate touch to an arrangement.  I am even picking the odd sweet pea, larkspur and cornflower here and there which have been flowering ever since July.

Chrystanthemum for cutting
Autumn-flowering Chrysanthemums 'Littleton Red' and 'Smokey Purple'

What next?

Despite the inevitable loss of the dahlias and annuals at this time of year, there is still plenty to look forward to in the cutting garden over the coming months. There is evergreen foliage in the form of festive Holly and Ivy which can both be brought indoors for simple winter displays. Shrubs like Viburnum tinus and Skimmia japonica, are easy to overlook for most of the year but they shine in the winter months with their scented white flowers and attractive red berries respectively. Autumn bulbs like Nerine, Schizostylis (now Hesperantha) and autumn cyclamen and crocuses are very useful for a splash of autumn colour in the borders. Then there is the anticipation of beautiful Hellebores which can flower from December through into spring and are my favourite winter flowers. There's a great article about the beautiful new varieties on offer in the December issue of Garden's Illustrated magazine - if only I had more space!

Hellebore
Hellebores - great in borders but also do well in pots are are excellent for cutting

Chrysanthemums

This is the first year that I have grown Chrysanthemums and I'm left wondering why I haven't done so sooner. If you pick the right varieties, they can really extend your cut flower season. I've had some lovely flowers from my early flowering varieties 'Littleton Red' and 'Smokey Purple' (see earlier photo) but it is the sea urchin types like this 'Saratov Lilac' (below) that I am really looking forward to coming into flower. There are plenty of buds and some are just breaking but these plants are frost tender so do need bringing in under cover if you want to be able to pick these flowers in November. Mine have been growing in pots and have now been brought into the potting shed where I am hoping they'll be ready to cut soon.

Chrysanthemum
Chrysanthemum 'Saratov Lilac' - this one got knocked off the plant when it was barely open and has gradually unfurled in the vase

Bulbs for the house

Over the last few months, I've been periodically potting up small spring bulbs - Crocus, Iris reticulata and Muscari in small terracotta pots which I keep in the potting shed for flowers a little earlier than if they were planted in the ground outside. When they start to bloom, I'll bring them into the house for some welcome colour in the depths of winter. I love the smell of Hyacinths which are great for forcing into flower in time for Christmas but I find that the scent gives me a terrible headache so I won't be growing any this year. However, I love to grow Narcissus Paperwhite. These are also strongly scented but don't have the same effect on me. They are easy to grow and I have a few pots on the windowsill which are shooting at the moment and should be in flower in about 6 weeks time. I will be planting up a few more to have a succession of flowers throughout the winter. You can store the bulbs in the fridge to retard their growth until you want to pot them. Amaryllis are another popular, easy to grow bulb for growing inside over the winter months.

Paperwhite Narcissi
Narcissus Paperwhite

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