With record temperatures for February, we are making the most of the sunny days here in Norfolk. Spring really does seem to have come early with blossom appearing on our apricot tree and pulmonarias, grape hyacinths, daffodils and primroses all blooming early alongside the more traditional February fare of snowdrops, crocus and hellebores.
I do have to keep reminding myself that the 'Beast from the East' struck in early March last year and we had so much snow that the shops ran out of milk and bread. There is a chance of the wintery weather returning so it's important not to go too mad and plant out anything frost-tender until later in the year.
In the meantime, I will enjoy the early flowers, picking a few to bring inside for tiny spring posies and I'll finalise my plans for the annuals that I will grow this year.
I plan to sow some sweet peas under cover this weekend and will start sowing some hardy annuals in a week or two, once March is underway. There are some annuals that I always grow - cornflowers, marigolds, sweet peas and scabious, but I might not choose the same colours or varieties to grow each year. In this way, each year is different and there will be something new and exciting to place in the vase.
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.
Although it's only October and we are experiencing some lovely Autumn weather here in Norfolk, my mind can't help thinking ahead to the Winter and the first frost which will spell the end of my annual flowers and dahlias.
There will still be flowers to pick from the cutting garden to display in the house over the winter months (Hellebores, Snowdrops, Cyclamen etc..) but production does inevitably slow down. A lovely way of prolonging the season is to display the dried seed heads of flowers grown in the cutting garden.
The spectacular, explosive seed heads of Allium christophii dry with a fabulous purple tinge to the flower spikes. Sprayed silver, they make great hanging Christmas decorations but I do prefer them 'au naturel' for displaying year-round.
Smaller, but still impressive, are the seed heads of Scabiosa stellata 'Ping Pong' which I have grown for the first time this year, purely for their seed heads. The actual flowers themselves are a rather underwhelming wishy-washy lilac colour whereas the seed heads, with their papery cups encasing each seed, are very unusual.
Poppies dry easily and are very sculptural. I love the frilly end cap.
Nigella or 'Love-in-a-mist' produce lovely balloon-shaped seed heads, some with attractive vertical strips.
How to dry your own seed heads
Allow some flowers to go up to seed and pick the seed heads when they are fully ripe but before they start to degrade and weather. Mature seed heads of poppies and Nigella will rattle, Scabiosa 'Ping Pong' will feel papery, whereas the heads and stems of Alliums will have started to fade in colour. It's important to harvest them on a dry day as any moisture will cause them to go mouldy. Pick with as long a length of stem as you can (you can cut them to size later). Tie the stems together in small bunches (singly for large Alliums) and hang them upside down in a warm, dry place such as a shed or airing cupboard. They should be ready in 2-3 weeks.