Green foliage makes an ideal backdrop against which to display your flowers, mimicking how flowers would grow in the garden. It adds bulk to an arrangement, can tone down bright colours and is a useful framework for supporting your flower stems. I always add my foliage first and thread the flower stems among the foliage 'scaffold' when creating a display.
Evergreen foliage is ideal, as there is something to pick all year, but it can be hard in a residential garden to find space to grow shrubs and trees. If you are picking foliage all the time, you may leave your shrubs looking a bit bare, so go gently. I have a large, established Viburnum tinus, which we inherited with the garden, which can take a fair amount of cutting. I love the dark green, glossy foliage but I tend to wait until it produces creamy white flowers in the Autumn before using it. It has a wonderful fragrance to the flowers making it a welcome addition to bring into the house in the dark months of Winter. Other good evergreens include Rosemary, Box and any clippings from hedging plants. Experiment with the existing shrubs that you do have. There is a useful article by My Garden School about the best shrubs for cutting.
Great foliage plants
Herbs provide some of my favourite foliage to use during the Summer. Lemon balm, Borage and Oregano will all keep producing new foliage if you cut them. Once they are looking tired in mid-summer, you can cut the foliage back to the base and they will sprout up again giving you new, fresh foliage to use.
These include plant material, other than foliage, which provide an interesting backdrop to your flowers. Plants to try include the unopened flower buds of annuals such as Helianthus 'Vanilla Ice', Scabious or Cosmos, which all look interesting in bud form. You can try green flowers like Dianthus barbatus 'Green Trick' with its fuzzy, lime-green pom poms, the tiny acid-green flowers of Alchemillla mollis, Euphorbia oblongata, Bupluerum, Fennel or Dill or other annuals with tiny flowers such as Ammi majus or Ammi visigna. Some flowers, like Cosmos, come complete with their own foliage which you can leave on the stem (provided it is above the water line in the vase - if you leave on foliage below this, the water will quickly spoil, see Conditioning.)
Foraged Wild Carrot or Cow parsley are excellent fillers and abundant in the hedgerows. I've grown the grass Panicum elegans 'Frosted Explosion' for the first time this year and I will definitely grow it again. It adds a lovely airy feel to displays. There are lots of interesting grasses you could try such as Briza maxima (quaking grass) and Agrostis nebulosa.
For further inspiration and pictures of all the plants mentioned in this post, visit the Homeflower Pinterest page.
We're approaching the end of June and we've had some pretty cold weather for what is supposed to be Summer. Yesterday and today have been lovely however, so could we please have Summer now?
My hardy annuals are now nearly all in flower and I'm really pleased with the varieties that I've chosen to grow this year. New for me this year are Amberboa muricata 'Sweet Sultan' with pale pink shaggy cornflower type flowers, the tiny white annual Lupin 'Snow Pixie' with delicate white spires of flowers on short stems and the amazing Malope trifida 'Vulcan' which has large magenta trumpet flowers with lime-green centres.
My blue and dark red Cornflowers are producing masses of flowers. They are so easy to grow and reliable and really do keep on flowering for a couple of months the more you pick them. My Larkspur are looking really healthy and are in bud but not flowering quite yet.
My Sweet Peas are looking really lush climbing up a frame of birch branches and I love the rich colours of the flowers. I've grown 'King Size Navy Blue' (a very dark purple - I'm not sure why seed producers are obsessed with producing blue varieties of flowers which are always, always not blue at all!), 'Matucana' which are bi-coloured - crimson and violet and 'Wiltshire Ripple' which are frilled, white flowers, splashed and streaked with deep claret. All three varieties have a lovely fragrance. Sweet peas have one of the very best scents of any flower. Yesterday, I took a sneaky day off and visited the gardens at Helmingham Hall in Suffolk and walked through a lovely rusted metal pergola swathed in gorgeous sweet peas which smelt heavenly. I don't have space for more than 3-4 varieties but it is fun to grow something different each year.
Unfortunately, I've also suffered some losses in my cutting beds. Virtually all of my Bupleurum, Ammi majus and Orlaya grandiflora plants, which started with healthy growth have slowly, one by one, turned brown and have died off. I'm not sure what has happened to them but it may be the unseasonably cold weather or some kind of pest or disease in the soil. All my other annuals in the same beds are flourishing so it's very strange and not something I've encountered before. I have sown some more of each type, which may still have time to flower this season, so I will see if they fare any better. All of these annuals make very good fillers (serving to bulk out a display with non-showy flowers and adding a light, airy feel to a vase).
My half-hardy annuals, which were planted out into two beds at the beginning of the month, are slowly increasing in size. These include Didiscus 'Blue Lace', Cosmos 'Click Cranberries' & 'Rubenza' and Zinnias 'Yoga' &'Art Deco'. I'm expecting flowers towards the middle of July (if the weather warms up!).
The Cosmos were planted into a bed that previously housed a crop of Tulips. I left them for as long as possible for the foliage to die down but it was still pretty green when I had to take the bulbs up. It's important to let Tulip foliage die down so that all the energy goes back into the bulb for flowers the following year. This being so, I carefully lifted the bulbs with foliage still intact and placed them temporarily in some plastic window boxes with some soil and put them out of sight at the bottom of the garden. Once the foliage had died off, I took the bulbs up again and let them dry out before brushing off any soil and storing in paper bags in a dark cupboard until late Autumn.
In the potting shed, I've sown some bi-ennial seeds for plants which I will plant out in September for flowers in early Spring next year. I've gone for the purple form of Sweet Rocket (it also comes in white) and two varieties of Sweet William - 'Single Mixed' (a mix of whites, pinks and dark red) and 'Sooty' which is a dark maroon chocolate colour. Other biennials you could sow now include Honesty and Wallflowers.
Jobs To Do
In terms of maintenance, I am tying in new growth on the tall annuals, such as Larkspur, Cosmos and the Sweet Peas, to their supports. Once a week, I give the cutting beds a really good soak with the hose. A good watering once a week is preferable to giving plants a little drink every day which only encourages shallow roots. You really want the plant roots to have to seek out the water further down the soil profile. Once the Dahlias are in flower (buds are just starting to form on my plants), I will give them a weekly feed of seaweed extract.
I haven't got a lot of weeds in the raised beds but if a stray one does appear, usually a fennel seedling that has self-seeded from elsewhere in the garden, I will pluck it out. That's it, just ensuring that flowers are picked every few days and not allowed to flower and form seed heads. Seed formation is an annual plant's whole 'raison d'etre' and once it has achieved this, there is no reason to keep producing flowers so pick them regularly and they will flower for months before exhausting themselves.
Elsewhere in the garden, I'm continuing to harvest the foliage of Lemon balm and Oregano and cutting flowers of perennial Scabious, Roses, Heuchera and Astrantia. Flowers have just started coming out on my perennial Knautia macedonica which will keep flowering the more it is cut for the next few months.
Chelsea week is drawing to an end and this year at the Flower Show, 90% of the flowers in the Floral Marquee have been grown in Britain. Getting flowers with different flowering times such as Tulips, Daffodils, Sweet peas and Alliums to be in peak condition for this week is a herculean effort and you can read more in this excellent post by the Physic Blogger. Marks and Spencer gained a Gold medal for their 'Blooms of the British Isles' exhibit and are selling lovely Chelsea bouquets featuring Stocks, Alchemilla mollis and Allium 'Purple Sensation'. At a price tag of £30 though, you could use that money to buy some annual seed and grow, not just one bouquet, but 2-3 vases full of flowers each week all through the Summer.
So, why not get inspired and try your hand a growing your own British blooms this year? May is a great time to direct sow annual flowers outside and if you sow now, you could be harvesting your own flowers in 8-12 weeks. You just need some spare soil - weed-free, sheltered and in the sun. Just follow the instructions on the back of the seed packets and keep an eye out for slugs. Check out my first Cutting Diary article for more information.
This time last month, I had just planted out my first batch of hardy annuals in one of the 3 raised beds in my cutting garden. They're putting on growth quickly now and I'm eagerly anticipating flowers in about 3 weeks. That's Cornflowers, Amberboa muricata 'Sweet Sultan', Malope trifida 'Vulcan', Ammi majus, Bupleurum rotundifolium, Larkspur 'Stock flowered mix', Lupinus 'Snow Pixie' and Orlaya grandiflora. I am just hardening off a second sowing of Ammi and Bupleurum which I sowed due to poor germination the first time. I'll plant them at the end of this week and they'll soon catch up with the first batch.
My half-hardy annuals (Cosmos, Sunflowers, Zinnias, Carnations, Chrysanthemums and Panicum grasses) are all a good size and have been moved from the house into the potting shed so I have clear window sills for a change). I've pinched out the growing tips on the Cosmos, Sunflowers and Zinnias to prevent them getting too leggy and to produce sturdier plants. I will start hardening these off next week for planting out at the end of the month when I can be sure that all danger of a late frost is over.
Even though the plants in my first bed are still fairly small, I have already added individual stakes for the taller annuals - a mix of bamboo canes, birch branches and rustic metal hoops. When the plants grow taller, I will tie them in with jute twine. It is best to stake sooner rather than later as firstly you won't damage established root systems when pushing in the stakes and if you leave it too late you may find that a Summer wind can quickly snap the stems of tall plants like Cornflowers and Cosmos. The removable chicken wire mesh frame will add a small degree of support for the plants (it's at a height of about 15 cm above the soil) but it is primarily a cat deterrent. We have our own cats and a lot of neighbourhood cats that see a raised bed and think it would make a nice toilet - sorry if this is too much information, but there's nothing worse than encountering buried treasure when you are planting your seedlings!
I potted up my dahlia tubers in early April, some in large terracotta pots where they will stay and a couple in large plastic pots as they will be transferred into a raised bed when space is freed up at the end of July. Some are already producing leafy growth, but I will keep them in the potting shed until all danger of frost is over, keeping them in the light and in moist compost.
One Dahlia tuber will produce lots of flowers as long as you just keep picking them. This year, I'm growing the lovely dark red, cactus flowered Dahlia 'Nuit d'ete', 'Sam Hopkins' a dark red form, 'Roxy' with a simple, magenta flower and 'Blue Bayou', an anemone flowered form with lavender outer petals and deep purple pin-cushion centres.
I will be planting 2 Dahlias in the raised bed that is currently home to my half-hardy annuals which will flower from June-July. In this way, this one raised bed will have housed 3 separate crops from February until October/November - first, early flowering bulbs - Daffodils & Iris reticulata, followed by my first batch of half-hardy annuals, and then the Dahlias, along with Carnations 'Giant Chabaud mixed' (a half-hardy perennial which can be treated as an annual) and Chrysanthemums 'Polar Star' - beautiful tricolour flowers with each white flower having an inner yellow halo surrounding a darker, central cushion.
May and June are good months to sow biennials such as Sweet Williams, Sweet Rocket and Honesty. These will put on growth this year and flower early next Spring. This may all seem a bit of a faff as you have to wait for flowers, but they are all worth growing as they provide flowers early in the season before Spring sown annuals have started flowering. If you let some go up to seed, they will self-seed and you can lift the seedlings and arrange them into orderly rows where you would like them without needing to sow again. I missed the boat last year with mine so will ensure I grow a few of each in the potting shed once I have planted out all the annuals at the end of this month and there is space for some new pots.