The cutting beds are awash with a sea of self-sown Nigella or 'Love-in-a-mist'. The flowers are literally buzzing with bees - their open faces and their blue colour makes them an ideal bee-attractor.
Nigella are really easy to grow and once you have bought the first packet of seed, you'll never need to buy another one (unless you want to try a different variety that is).
The only thing I had to do last year was to wait for the flowers to produce seed pods (when the seed is ripe, they will rattle) and then crush the pods and broadcast the seed over the cutting beds. As these self-sowers start growing over the winter, they flower nice and early and I can then pull them out to make room for spring-sown annuals later in June.
I haven't thinned out my seedlings and they are mingling in amongst the rose bushes, pushing their way up between the blooms - a lovely combination in the garden and in the vase.
The annual herb borage is another wonderful prolific self-sower which pops up everywhere in the cutting beds. If it's in the wrong place, I simply pluck it out or carefully transplant it to a more convenient location.
I am such a fan of these easy to grow plants as they are one less flower to sow in pots in my tiny potting shed. Other self-sowers that are good cutting garden plants include forget-me-nots, feverfew, Eschscholzia, Panicum, Nasturtiums and cornflowers. You simply need to remember to let some plants go up to seed at the end of the season.
I grow forget-me-nots in the garden borders as they are fabulous for hiding messy tulip foliage as it dies down.
Feverfew is a very useful filler flower with its tiny daisy flowers. A short-lived perrenial, it will flower for a second time if you cut it to the base after the first flowering.
The decorative grass Panicum 'Frosted Explosion' is a welome self-sower coming a bit later in the season in mid-late summer. It sees me through into the autum and combines wonderfully with Cosmos and Chrysanthemums.
This year I am going to add Eschscholzia (Californian poppy) to the party. I've chosen an elegant creamy variety called 'Thai Silk' series 'Milkmaid'. It's quick to grow from seed so if I scatter some around in the beds now, I should see some flowers in about 8-10 weeks time.
It's hard to narrow it down to just 10 but these are my favourite annuals to grow for cut flowers. It's important to choose a balance of colours, flower shapes and foliage when deciding which annuals to grow in your patch.
Ammi majus, Bishop's flower - a delicate, creamy-white umbellifer similar to Cow Parsley with attractive fern-like foliage. It's a great filler to add frothy bulk to an arrangement and to set off other flowers. Flowers from mid-Summer to mid-Autumn.
Cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus - Brings a relaxed, naturalistic feel to a vase. This lovely native flower used to grow in abundance on arable land. The deep blue flowers are easy to grow and can be sown in Autumn for early flowering next Spring. As well as classic blue, I recommend 'Black Ball', a dark, red wine colour. Flowers from early Summer if sown in Spring.
Scabious, Scabiosa atropurpurea - Prolific flowerers from early Summer until the Autumn frosts. The flowers are long-lasting and are a great plant to grow as they also look attractive at the bud stage and at the seed head stage. Let some flowers go to seed to take advantage of this. I grow 'Tall Double Mix' which has a mix of pinks, whites and crimsons but I also like the dark red 'Black Cat' variety and 'Ping Pong' has blue flowers and amazing sculptural seed heads.
Larkspur, Consolida ajacis - Useful tall spires of flowers to add height to your vases. It's similar to a Delphinium but smaller with more delicate foliage and flowers more prolifically. I'm growing 'Stock flowered mix' this year which has a blend of colours ranging from light pink to dark purple. Flowers in late Spring from an Autumn sowing or early Summer from a Spring sowing.
Love in a Mist, Nigella damascena - A classic cottage-garden flower with lovely fennel-like foliage. It has gorgeous seed pods which can be used later in the season. I grow it scattered throughout my perennial borders where it self-seeds into any gaps. 'Miss Jekyll' is a classic blue, 'Persian Rose' is a delicate pink.
Cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus - Very easy to grow and produce hundreds of flowers. There are a range of pinks and crimsons to pure white forms. Flowers from mid-Summer to the first frosts. I grow 'Purity' for its simple white flower which adds elegance to a vase and, for something a little different this year, I'm trying 'Click Cranberries' which has more layers of petals with raggedy edges and a deep red colour.
Euphorbia oblongata, Eggleaf spurge - like Ammi, this is invaluable to grow as a filler for your arrangements. Bright, greeny-yellow flowers offset darker flowers beautifully. As with all Euphorbias, the sap is a skin irritant so wear gloves when harvesting.
Zinnias, Zinnia elegans - These natives of Mexico come in a range of rich, bright cheerful colours and will flower from late Summer to mid-Autumn. I've grown 'Giant Dahlia' mix in the past which produces a mix of colourful flowers but this year I'm trying 'Yoga' and 'Art Deco'. The lime-green 'Envy' is a little temperamental to grow and I haven't found that it has flourished as well as some of the other varieties.
Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, H. debilis - Bright, cheerful flowers that are easy to grow and loved by children. Big flower heads look great on their own in a jug but they can be hard to combine with other flowers. I grow Helianthus debilis 'Vanilla Ice' (hard not to sing 'Ice, Ice baby' every time I think of this one!) which produces an abundance of smaller pale yellow flowers that combine beautifully with other blooms. Flower from Mid-Summer to Autumn.
Sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus. The individual flowers may not last long once cut but these climbing annuals produce so many flowers over a long period and have some of the best scent of any flower. They come in so many colours, you are spoilt for choice. I go for ones that smell as good as they look such as 'Matucana'. Flower from late Spring into Autumn.
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..