Winter is a time to take stock. Once you've dug up or mulched your dahlias, planted your spring bulbs and cut down and composted the annuals, you have time to assess your garden space. Look back at what worked this year and what you would change.
Although things have slowed down, there are still treasures to be discovered in the garden. Winter-flowering shrubs really do come into their own at this time of year and many of them are highly scented. A few sprigs of Viburnum bodnatense brought into the house will scent a whole room.
We have a lovely winter flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtilla autumnalis) at the front of the house which flowers throughout autumn and winter. A few cut branches brought into the house when in bud will gradually unfurl to reveal pretty cherry blossom flowers.
This year, my Hellebores have been early to flower, starting back in November. They are one of my favourite winter flowers and can be relied upon to flower usually from December/January all the way into March. Every cutting garden should include them.
If, like me, you planted some paperwhite narcissi in the autumn, they should now be ready to bring into the house. A big pot of these bulbs makes an elegant and fragrant display. Forced Hyacinths are another option. Mine sadly have to be relegated to the table in our courtyard garden as their scent is a bit too strong and seems to give me a splitting headache.
I hosted my first ever wreath-making workshop this December and it was such a fun, festive day. Some lovely friends attended and we used foraged materials - Holly, Ivy, Yew, Christmas tree trimmings, Rosehips, Sage, Virburnum tinus, Rosemary, Clematis seed heads, Catkins, Bay, Mistletoe and Alder cones to make our wreaths.
We used grapevine wreath bases as they are a natural material and are perfect for poking in stems of cut material. We wired bunches of foliage to the wreath and then added highlights of rosehips etc.. to fill in any gaps or to hide any wire left exposed.
Attach your hanging ribbon at the start.
Wire everything in tightly and overlap successive bunches of foliage so that each bunch hides the wired-in stems of the preceeding bunch.
Attach your foliage bunches so that stems all face in one direction around the wreath.
Even the most craft-phobic of us were really pleased with the results (pictured below) and surprised at how artistic they could be. I'm not sure if the mulled wine actually helped us but it certainly added to the festive spirit.
I've added some pictures of just a selection of my favourite flower arrangements from my cutting garden last year. I've enjoyed over 100 jugs, vases and posies of flowers from February through to December. I've calculated that I spent under £30 on seeds, compost, flower feed and organic slug pellets over the year, which is considerably less than it would cost to buy that number of flowers from the florist or supermarket. This is all without the air miles, pesticide usage and loss of character and scent that you get with imported flowers. Growing your own flowers comes with the additional benefits of providing a food source for bees and other pollinating insects, being able to use flowers that you would never see in a shop, and the pleasure of sowing seed and watching it grow. In 2016, I'll be growing all my old favourites, but trying out some new varieties of annuals, Tulips and Dahlias, so watch this space!
Back in late January, I sowed 3 varieties of sweet pea (‘King size Navy Blue’, ‘Purple Pimpernel’ and Matucana) which I have just planted into a bed with a wigwam frame of birch branches. These climbing annuals are one of the very first seeds you can sow in the Winter if you are itching to sow seeds ready for warmer weather. It is generally best for most hardy annuals to start sowing a little later in the year, in March, when the temperature is a bit higher, but crucially day length is longer which is what spurs these little seeds into action. Annuals (plants that go through an entire life cycle in one season - growing, flowering and setting seed) will be one of the mainstays of any cutting garden. Hardy annuals are resistant to frosts and, therefore, can be sown outside in the open ground in Spring where they are to flower, but again, you will need to wait until late March when the soil temperature is warm enough. Once you see annual weed seeds starting to germinate in the garden this is a sign that the soil is warm enough for your flower seeds.
I, being really impatient to get going and a bit overexcited, sowed most of my hardy annuals in early February and have since sown a few more as a second batch in March when some failed to germinate. The second batch have nearly caught up with the first batch (probably just a week or 2 behind) so there is no real need to sow before the beginning of March. Some hardy annuals can be sown in September and overwintered in order to get a really early start. Those best suited include Cornflowers, Sweet peas and Ammi majus.
Whether you sow inside in pots or seed trays, or directly into the ground, will depend on whether you have the space to raise seedlings under cover in the form of a heated greenhouse or wide window sills. I have a small potting shed, converted from an old coal shed, but it isn't heated and space is restricted but I do have lovely big window sills in the house. I sow directly into 9 inch square pots, a method also used by flower seed supplier Higgledy Garden. This size of pot is big enough for seedlings to grow to a decent size without outgrowing the pot. I sow 3 seeds per pot and then remove the 2 weaker seedlings, if they germinate, to leave one seedling per pot. This means I don't have to prick out seedlings from seed trays and pot them on. This size is also perfect for fitting into seed trays which act a reservoir for water. I can turn the whole tray round easily each day to prevent seedlings growing crookedly toward the sun and transport a tray at a time outside when it is time to harden them off (gradually accustom them to lower, outside temperatures).
Use a special seed compost, which has the right balance of nutrients for early seed development and a light texture, and follow the instructions for sowing on the back of the packet. Generally, most seeds just need a light sprinkling of compost over the top of the seeds. Water the compost in the pot before sowing your seeds so that you don't wash away the seeds you have just sown and, once sown, keep the soil moist. Water with a small watering can with a fine rose so that seedlings and seeds and not dislodged.
Once the seedlings have reached a fair size, I take the trays into the potting shed during the day and return them to the house at night for a few days and then move them into the potting shed permanently so that I now have space on my window sills for my half-hardy annuals which I sow in late March / April.
Growing in pots first also helps in the battle against slugs and snails which are rather partial to tender seedlings. Larger plants may suffer the odd nibble here and there but will generally stand a better chance of growing into a mature plant. If you do sow direct, you will probably need to add organic slug pellets or other slug defences such as a nematode treatment (which is watered onto the soil), copper slug rings or tape or wool pellets. I have tried the copper tape and nematodes this year as my son's favourite animals are snails (don't ask me why!) and I'm waiting to see if my seedlings are less nibbled. I may sneak in some organic snail pellets when he's not looking if I do see a problem. You only need to protect seedlings when they are small, once they are a fair size then you can stop using any pellets.
If space is restricted in your garden you could try to mix annuals into your existing borders where you have any gaps and pick from there but ideally you will have a dedicated bed for cutting. This needs to be a sunny spot which is sheltered from the wind. With a cutting bed, you can treat the bed as a crop and cut with abandon without having to worry that your garden border looks ravished.
I have 3 raised beds built from railway sleepers in which to sow (measuring 1.1 m x 2.2 m each) and a further smaller raised bed made from used wooden pallets (0.8m square) which I dedicate to cut flowers and bulbs. I find raised beds easy to work with as you can have a good depth of quality soil, deep enough that I can leave my bulbs and corms (Daffodils, Muscari, Anemone coronaria, Iris reticulata and Tulips) in the bed and plant annuals over the top of them. At the moment, I am waiting for the leaves on my daffs to die back but have planted my hardy annuals between bulbs or between rows. You don't walk on the beds so you won't have to dig them over in the Winter. Just a light forking and they are ready again.
It is late April now, but there is still time if you would like to sow your own cutting garden. You can direct sow hardy annuals, such as Ammi majus and visigna, Bupleurum rotundifolium, Cornflowers, Nigella, Orlaya grandiflora, outside now. May- June is a good time to direct sow half-hardy annuals (those annuals that cannot withstand a frost such as Sunflowers, Zinnias and Cosmos ) or you can start them off now indoors to get a head-start.
If you've completely missed the boat with sowing your seeds then you can buy small annual plug plants direct from nurseries and online retailers for planting out but this is less cost-effective. I forgot to sow any biennial Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) last September so was really pleased to be able to buy a pot at a plant fair so I don't miss out on it's flowers in early Summer.
The next stage in the story will be to plant out my half-hardy annuals (merrily growing away on the window sill) when all danger of frost is over - it's generally best to wait until the end of May to be on the safe side, and to stake all tall annuals well (a subject for a further post). I've focused on annuals as this is prime sowing time but I also use the rest of the garden borders to grow flowering perennials and shrubs which can be used for cutting. I would be lost without perennials like Knautia macedonica, Astrantia, Alchemilla mollis, & Galega offinalis and shrubs like Viburnum tinus and Daphne odora for their foliage and scented winter flowers. And I haven't even started on Summer flowering bulbs and tubers such as Alliums, Dahlias and Schizostylis..