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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.

cherry plum blossom
Cherry plum blossom displayed in a macrame wall hanger

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.

primrose
Primrose

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.

snowdrops and cyclamen
Snowdrops and cyclamen

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.

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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.

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Half- hardy Cosmos with the first frost

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.

Dried flowers from the cutting garden
Dried flowers from the cutting garden - hydrangeas, dahlias and hyssop

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.

Chrysanthemum and hydrangea
Chyrsanthemum 'Avignon Pink' with dried Hydrangea heads.

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'.

Spider chyrsanthemem
Chrysanthemum 'Tarantula Red'
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I feel like I am always raving about the benefits of Hellebores in the cutting garden. They are such a welcome flower in the depths of winter and throughout spring. If they freeze, they just thaw out again, undamaged. They're an important source of early nectar for pollinating insects and they reward you with stunningly beautiful flowers which can form the focal point of arrangements from January through into April.

Hellebore Yellow Sunrise
Hellebore Yellow Sunrise

But, (sorry!) they can be temperamental as a cut flower. You can't cut them whilst in bud, like most flowers, you need to wait for them to have been fully open for a few days. You can even wait until they start forming green seed pods in the centre. These pollinated flowers do last much longer in the vase but the flower colour does alter as the flowers age. I cut them young, straight into water. I slit the stems at the bottom and if they do wilt overnight, despite this preparation, I find that re-cutting the stems and searing the ends with freshly boiled water can rejuvenate them. If that doesn't work you can always dispense with the stem and float the flower heads in a large, shallow bowl. Or you could if you don't have a cat (Florence, you know who you are..) that likes to drink water out of any vessel other than her water bowl! Hellebores with cat hairs aren't so attractive.

Hellebore Loren
Hellebore Loren

The reason for focussing on hellebores in this post is that I have been treated to an early Mother's Day present of some new hellebores to plant out in the cutting garden. I am planting them in the dahlia and tulip bed where I am hoping they will enjoy the shade cast by the dahlias during the summer but will be free of towering dahlias from late autumn, all through winter and spring. Hopefully they will enjoy this mix of sun and shade as much as I enjoy their flowers.

Hellebore orientalis
Hellebore orientalis
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