The festive trimmings have been taken down, the Christmas goodies have been gobbled up, the children are back at school and there is a way to go before spring. I have to confess that I do find January and February gloomy months and there aren't a lot of gardening jobs that need doing. Rather than sink into a pit of doom, I try to keep busy and do find a certain excitement in planning for the year ahead. There are some flowers that can be cut in the depths of winter, my favourite being Hellebores. These are stunning flowers and all the more useful for flowering in January and February. Once you have an established clump, you can cut a few blooms and enjoy their beauty up close.
Use these winter months to plan ahead - browse the numerous seed catalogues, clean your pots and tools in preparation for more busy periods and look back at what worked for you last year and what you can improve upon this year.
By spending a bit of time last autumn potting up spring bulbs, you may even have some pots of small bulbs like Crocus, Iris reticulata and Paperwhite Narcissi to bring into the house to cheer up the winter months. Seeing those little green shoots poking out of the surface is very encouraging on a cold, grey day.
Another way to banish the winter blues is to look back at pictures of your garden from the previous year and remind yourself of things to come. Just starting to peep up from under the soil are bulbs waiting to spring into action, perennials, that are no more than twiggy tufts at this time of year, will flower and bloom again and buds are forming on trees and shrubs, reminding us that they will once again be clothed in foliage and flowers.
Here's a review of just a few of the flowers I have grown in 2017. If you'd like to get the most out of your garden this year and have flowers to cut and bring inside, then please check back here for advice throughout the year or consider a 'Grow Your Own Cut Flowers' workshop to get the most out of your garden.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.