Winter is approaching - we've had the first frosts which have blackened the Dahlia foliage and killed off the half-hardy Zinnias. My Cosmos seem to have escaped this fate owing to their height (over 6 ft this year!) and are still in full flower.
Once dahlias have been blackened by frost, it's time to cut them down and either dig them up for storage inside over the winter or to apply a thick mulch to protect them. Annuals which have given up the ghost should be removed and composted and empty beds given a covering of organic matter - compost or manure. It can be left on the soil surface for the worms to drag down and enrich the soil over the winter. Where I have planted out biennials, I just mulch around them.
As an avid watcher of predicted overnight temperatures, I dug up my frost-tender Chrysanthemums before any danger of frost. Late-flowering Chrysanthemums like the elegant 'Avignon Pink' don't start flowering until the end of October and will flower up until Christmas. You can either grow them in pots which can be brought in under cover or plant out over the summer and then carefully dig them up with an intact root ball and place them in large pots in a greenhouse/conservatory or potting shed. I find them really useful additions to fresh Christmas wreaths as they are very long-lasting flowers once cut.
I sowed some hardy '10 week' Stocks and Chinese Forget-me-nots late in June and these are still full of flower, so along with some Borage and Feverfew still in flower, a suprisingly summery jug of flowers can be picked even in November.
Viburnum tinus is a shrub that is overlooked for a lot of the year but come October/November it is flooded in fragrant white flowers. These are invaluable just when the herbs that I use for foliage/filler material in a vase (like Borage, Mint and Feverfew) are coming to an end. The baton is handed to this evergreen shrub for most of my winter flower displays and trimmings look good in a fresh Christmas wreath.
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:
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.