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.
The festive period brings a host of opportunities for some crafting. I'm no Kirstie Allsopp but I do love spending a bit of time making a few decorations with cuttings and clippings from the garden and some materials foraged throughout the year.
I have written about displaying seed heads before. For this Christmas wreath, I've used some of the seed heads I collected earlier in the year (poppies, Nigella, Scabious 'Ping Pong' and Crocosmia), along with beech nut cases and a few dried flower heads of feverfew and hydrangea. I've used a bought grape vine wreath for the base. It's great for poking in the stems of dried materials. I haven't used any glue or wire to secure the materials but you could use some to make it a bit more robust.
Fresh flower wreath
I've got some lovely sea-urchin type Chrysanthemums growing in my potting shed (they've been flowering since November and should flower on into January so they are a good choice if you have some space to grow them under cover). They make fantastic additions to foam wreaths (the floral foam provides the cut stems with water), looking like bright baubles over a base of yew, golden ivy, Vibrbum oplus and holly clippings from my garden hedge. You'll need a foam wreath base (I've re-used one from last year but they do have a limited life-span). Give it a good soak in a bath then hang up over the bath taps to drain before placing on some newspaper. It's then a case of poking in the stems of whatever greenery you can find in the garden to cover all the foam before placing your fresh flower stems at intervals around the ring.
My final wreath is a simple and cheap option, requiring no pre-bought wreath base. I have simply cut long lengths of trailing ivy from the garden and formed it into a circle, holding here and there with a small amount of thin florist's binding wire (rescued from last year's wreaths). I've then wired in a few holly clippings, poked in the stems of some Viburnum opulus berries and attached three foraged pine cones with the florist wire. Tied up with a length of red ribbon (you could also use garden twine) that I had in my craft stash, this wreath has cost me nothing but if you bought the wire and ribbon it would still cost about £1 to make! (I found some binding wire for £1.99 online but you only need a small amount of it and it can be used in years to come, ditto the ribbon).
I've had great fun pressing flowers from my cutting garden to make into pictures for my walls and have started up an Etsy shop to offer them for sale. They are a great way to enjoy the beauty of flowers all through the year.
I saw these tiny frames for sale and thought they'd be ideal for hanging on the Christmas tree. Just a single dried flower or leaf in each frame, looks very effective. Simply glue in place with a tiny dab of clear-drying glue.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.