We've had a very mild winter so far here in Norfolk and every day that I venture into the garden in the morning, cup of tea in hand, I notice a few more signs of spring.
The cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) is one of the first hedging plants to flower and the blossom is a pretty addition to the hedge and to a vase to bring into the house. The first tiny blue Scilla flowers are emerging from the soil. They are unusual in that the flowers emerge from the bare soil before the leaves do.
The pale yellow primroses, usually a herald of spring, have actually been flowering away merrily since about November. I have a few as edging plants in the cutting beds as they don't take up a lot of space and the flowers are useful in tiny spring arrangements, lasting really well as a cut flower.
Last year, I planted some Hellebores in the dahlia bed, figuring that as they enjoy a certain amount of shade, they wouldn't be too affected by being shaded out by the towering dahlias during the hot summer months. Once the dahlias are cut down after the first frosts, the Hellebores gain access to some weaker sunshine during the winter and spring. It's worked really well and they are all blooming away happily. They really help to create vibrancy and life in the cutting beds during these winter months. I now have 14 different varieties in the garden and couldn't resist purchasing a few more on a recent shopping expedition to try the same idea up at our allotment plot. I cut some, leave some to brighten up the garden and press some of the beautiful flower heads for picture and card making.
I'm slowly adding to the clumps of snowdrops in the garden borders. These beautiful dainty flowers are a classic winter flower and there are a staggering number of varieties of snowdrops to grow. Mine are the common Galanthus nivalis supplemented by some double-flowered 'Flore Pleno' and the tall 'Elwesii'. I have invested in a November-flowering variety called 'Remember Remember' which I hope will clump up and justify the small fortune that I paid for a single bulb. I often pick just a few snowdrop flowers along with a few stems of colourful Cyclamen coum for miniature displays.
Although I always find something to harvest and bring indoors during the winter months, there's no denying that there is a sharp decline in cutting opportunities once the first frosts have struck.
A sharp frost truly spells the end of the half-hardy annuals and dahlias and, while some hardy annuals can soldier on (I have still been cutting some late-sown cornflowers, chinese forget-me-nots and marigolds), they slow down in the face of prolonged cold weather. Now is the time to remove them to the compost heap and mulch the cutting beds with manure to add nutrients for future flowers next year.
These next few months are a time for reflection and forward planning. I have some hardy annuals overwintering in my potting shed, ready for planting out next spring. I've potted up some spring bulbs in large pots for early spring flowers to display by the back door. I always plant miniature Iris reticulata and crocuses in small terracotta pots to bring inside the house during January and February. I have also planted some quick-flowering Paperwhite Narcissi which I think may not be quite ready in time for Christmas but should flower soon after.
I like to dry flowers throughout the summer for display over the winter. Hydrangeas turn lovely shades of lime-green and dark pink, alliums produce very beautiful seed heads. I was very pleased with my experiments at drying some dark red ball dahlias which kept their structure and turned a lovely deep shade as you can see in the photo above.
There are still fresh flowers to cut such as tender, late-flowering Chrysanthemums which are seeking protection in my allotment polytunnel. I like to team these with dried Hydrangea heads or use them with the dark green foliage and scented white flowers of Viburnum tinus.
Chrysanthemums come in some very beautiful forms and follow on nicely from Dahlias for cutting right into December. They have a fabulously long vase life, lasting about 2 weeks. I often use them for a splash of colour on a Christmas wreath (if the moss base is kept moist). I am a particular fan of the spider Chrysanthemum 'Tarantula Red' and the pretty pale pink 'Avignon Pink'.
September, one of my favourite months in the cutting garden and a time to catch up with all those jobs that there has been less time for during the school holidays. I've been weeding, deadheading, watering and taking out some of the plants that have seen better days like the sweetpeas and wild carrot.
Recent days have definitely aquired a little nip of autumn chill in the mornings and evenings. I quite relish the thought of donning a cardigan after the hot summer days and the whole garden does seem to breathe a sigh of relief now it's not quite so hot.
I'm continuing to harvest jugfuls of flowers including large numbers of richly-coloured dahlias, gorgeous Panicum grass 'Frosted Explosion' with its 'firework' seed heads, purple Zinnias, electric-blue larkspur, Cosmos in shades of dark and bubblegum pink , gorgeous blue Chinese forget-me-nots, dark-red Scabious, lime-green Nicotiana and classic blue cornflowers.
While there are still an abundance of flowers to harvest, it is also a time of planning for next year. September is the ideal time to sow some hardy annuals ready for early flowering next year. I'll sow pots of larkspur, cornflowers, marigolds and Eschscholzia in the potting shed and keep them over winter before planting out in the spring. You can also direct-sow outdoors if you have space in your cutting beds (I don't have any space until the first frosts kill everything off so prefer to plant in pots).
Autumn is of course, also the time when spring bulbs start appearing in shops and this year I have lots of space for rows of bulbs up at my allotment. I grow them in the cutting beds at home in amongst the dahlias but have run out of space so I'm really excited at the prospect of planting even more tulips along with daffodils which I haven't grown a lot of thus far. I often wait until the tulip bulbs are reduced in price in November as they don't mind being planted quite late in the year. If you plant them before Christmas, you'll still have a good display come spring.
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