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.

Cutting garden in April
Cutting garden in April

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.

Primula
Primula 'Gold Lace Red'

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.

Ranunculus
Ranunculus, one of the bulbs planted around the edges of the 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.

Perennial poppy
Papaver rupifragrum 'Orange Feathers'

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.

Tulip Queen of Night
Tulip Queen of Night looking lovely with apple blossom in the garden borders

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:

Scabiosa 'Fata Morgana', Orlaya grandiflora, Larkspur 'Giant Imperial Mixed', Nigella 'Black Pod', Helipterum roseum 'Pierrot', Calendula 'Snow Princess', Cornflowers, Antirrhinum 'Royal Bride', Zinnia 'Yoga', Zinnia 'Pale Mix', Limonium sinuatum 'Iceberg', Maurandia wislizensis 'Red Dragon', Helichrysum bracteatum Scarlet, Moluccella laevis, Clarkia purpurea 'Burgundy Wine', Cosmos 'Rubenza', Cosmos 'Purity' and Acroclinum 'Double Giant Flowered Mix'.

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Here are my favourite garden perennials which also make great cut flowers. It was hard to narrow the choice down to just 10 but these are the ones that I really value in my garden. They have to perform in the garden (look good and have a long season of interest) and make excellent cut flowers. If they are also good plants for bees and other pollinators, then all the better!

Top 10 perennials for cutting

  1. Christmas / Lenten Rose (Helleborus niger / H. orientalis) - Beautiful flowers that are in bloom when there are a scarcity of flowers in the garden. Depending on the varieties grown, hellebores can provide you with flowers from December all the way through to the end of spring. An important early food source for emerging bees.
  2. Lady's Mantle  (Alchemilla mollis) - Great as a foliage plant and as a filler element (fillers are small flowers that bulk out an arrangement). Grows happily in both the sun or shade. I grow it in both situations for a prolonged flowering period (those in the shade will flower a couple of weeks later than those in sun).

3. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) - The yellow umbels of flowers are great as fillers in a vase and I love the height that fennel adds to a garden border. The hoverflies adore it. We leave the expired flower stalks on the plant over winter for sculptural interest.

4. Perennial wallflower (Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve') - Ours flowers on and off practically all year round (I used the flowers in my Christmas wreath last year!) A very important food source for pollinators as it is so long flowering.

5. Red campion  (Silene dioica) - A pretty wildflower that will grow well in shade so it is possible to have flowers for cutting in shady spots. With deadheading, it flowers all summer long and adds a natural look to a vase of flowers

6. Masterwort (Astrantia) - Another perennial that is happy in shade. It has beautiful architectural flowers that last well in the vase and can be dried.

7. Oregano (Oreganum vulgare) - Great for cooking but it is the lilac clusters of flowers that I value. They are great filler flowers for arrangements and the foliage is a lovely fresh green colour.

8. Oxeye daisies (Luecanthemum vulgare) - Can be a bit rampant as will self-seed everywhere but seedlings are easily pulled out. We have established clumps that flower in early summer for months. Will produce a 2nd flush of flowers later in the year if you cut them back after flowering. Long-lasting in the vase.

9. Giant scabious (Cephalaria gigantea) - You need space in the border for this large perennial but it produces gorgeous, large lemon yellow flowers. They are a mecca for bees and each flower can accommodate up to 4 bees at a time, as I  have been witnessing this summer!

10. Burnet (Sanguisorba) - I love the red bobble headed-flowers of this plant which wave about on top of wiry stems. Long flowering all through the summer and adds interest to a vase of flowers giving it an individual feel.

For more information on creating your own cutting garden from choosing which perennials, annuals, shrubs and bulbs to grow, to planning the layout, sowing seeds, harvesting and arranging cut flowers, please contact Jane about attending a 'Grow your own cut flowers' workshop.

Cut flowers
Garden perennials Oxeye daisies, Alchemilla mollis and Sanguisorba mixed with annual cut flowers
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According to the Meteorological calendar, March 1st is the official start of Spring and that is good enough for me to shrug off Winter (though maybe not my layers of jumpers just yet) and embrace the new growing season. March sees the start of annual seed-sowing and every windowsill in the house will groan under the weight of seed trays and pots. I have a potting shed but it's unheated so I like to start my annuals off inside and then move them out to the potting shed (and eventually the cutting beds) when the weather heats up. This will free up space on the windowsill for a 2nd batch of seedlings.

Erysimum and Alliums
Perennial Wallflowers (Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve') and Alliums.

It's not all about annuals though - perennials, shrubs, grasses, herbs and bulbs all have a role to play too. Now is a good time to make plans for introducing new plants into your garden that look good but can also be cut and brought into the house.

Annual flower seed

Seeds are relatively cheap and although seed has to be sown each year, you can allow some flowers to go to seed at the end of the season and store seed to sow the next year, cutting down on your annual seed bill. I love trying new varieties so will always buy new seed each year but I have some stalwarts that I love and will always grow like Cornflower 'Black Ball' & Ammi majus, and I will save the seed from these.

Annuals are good for dedicated cutting beds, growing in pots and for plugging any gaps in mixed borders. Choose a range of flower shapes and colours and use early flowering hardy annuals (like Cornflowers, Scabious & Candytuft) and later flowering half-hardy annuals (Cosmos, Zinnias and Sunflowers) to prolong flowering time. Sowing in small batches throughout the Spring means that you can replace spent plants with new seedlings to continue the succession of flowers. In this way, you can have flowers from annual seed for a good 6 months from say June-October.

Seedlings in potting shed
Seedlings in potting shed

Perennials

Most gardens have a mix of perennials and shrubs in the garden borders. When thinking about good perennials to grow, go for those that offer a long season of picking. Knautia macedonica, for example, thrives if you keep picking the flowers, producing lots to pick and lots to leave on the plant to look good in the borders. Other good 'cut and come again' perennials include Salvias, Japanese Anemones and Cirsium rivulare. Try to include a range of flowering times from Aquilegia and Delphiniums in early Summer to Sedums, Heleniums and Verbena bonariensis, which flower into Autumn, followed by Hellebores which provide welcome Winter flowers.

Hellebores and Spring flowers
Hellebores flower in Winter and early Spring

Bulbs

Bulbs are essential for the cut flower garden as they can be packed into borders and many start flowering in late winter or early spring. Extend the picking season by planting early-, mid- and late-flowering cultivars of bubs. For example, with Daffodils, 'February Gold' reliably flowers in March, while 'Pheasant's Eye' flowers from mid-April and with Tulip varieties, you can choose different varieties that will keep you in flowers from April through to June. Bulbs can be forced by an initial period in cool and dark conditions before being brought indoors to flower from mid-Winter. I like to treat Iris reticulata and Hyacinths in this way.

Iris reticulata
Iris reticulata 'Harmony'

Shrubs

Evergreens and early-flowering shrubs such as Japanese quince (Chaenomeles), Witch hazel (Hamamelis), Viburnum tinus, V. bodnantense and Daphne odora can provide invaluable cutting material in Winter and early Spring. Consider planting a mixed hedge in place of a fence to increase opportunities for cutting.

Climbers

Climbers not only provide flowers but some, like Clematis, bear attractive seed heads as well and they can be trained up trees or along walls and fences, taking up vertical space rather than a lot of space in your beds. I have a climbing Rose which flowers on and off over a long period in Summer and into Autumn - I was still picking the flowers into November last year.

Clematis and Hawthorn with Chives
Clematis, Hawthorn, Chive flowers, Aquilegia, Red Campion and Ceanothus - a mix of climbers, hedging, and perennials.

Planting plans

It's useful to roughly sketch out your garden, including all available planting space, and noting which plants you will keep which are either useful for cutting or will look good in the garden, or both. You'll then be able to see where you have space to introduce new plants. Using information on eventual height and spread of plants and flowering times, plan where best to place plants. A tool such as the Plant Finder on the Shoot Gardening website can be invaluable when choosing plants as it shows the eventual sizes, season of interest, growing conditions and even monthly care tips if you register for a free trial or subscription.

Mixed perennial border
Mixed perennial border designed by Miles Garden Design

If you need further help when planning your permanent planting, many garden designers offer a planting plan service to plan your beds and borders.  Tailored to your individual garden and likes and dislikes, you'll be able to achieve the perfect border for year-round interest both in the garden and in the vase.

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