Early each year, I like to look back at the flowers that I grew last growing season. The winter months are an ideal time to reflect as there's not a lot to do out there in the bleak, muddy, occasionally snowy, cold, wintery weather - can you tell that I am not a fan of winter?
It's mid-February and I am itching to get sowing and growing, but regrettably, it's not quite time to start sowing this year's batch of spring-sown annuals. If you wait until early March, when the days are drawing out, the seedlings won't have to strain to find the light. This will stop them getting all leggy and ungainly.
I have taken the time to look back at all the flowers I picked from the cutting garden and allotment last year - from January (snowdrops and cyclamen) all the way through to December (chrysanthemums).
This serves primarily as a way to cheer me up and show me that in a few weeks time I will be picking tulips and early-flowering perennials and then the flowers will just keep on coming. I can also remind myself which flowers I particularly liked, which flowers looked good and lasted well in the vase and which ones were best suited to pressing and drying.
Here is my photo record of the flowers that I grew in 2020 - which is your favourite?
I love May as it is the month that a lot of garden perennials such as Aquilegias and Oxeye daisies begin to bloom and there is suddenly a lot more material to cut. However, June is the month when the hardy annual flower seedlings - Cornflowers, Sweet peas and Ammi, which were sown back in March and have been cosseted since then, finally all start to flower. These annuals really do flower their socks off for months if you keep picking the flowers or dead-heading any that you leave on for the bees and other pollinating insects.
I vary the annuals that I grow each year, as I like to try new varieties, and there will always be some new amazing flower that I will see when browsing the seed catalogues which I simply must have! This year I'm growing Phacelia campanularia (with bright blue flowers), Cornflowers 'Polka Dot' (a mix of blues, whites and pinks) and 'Black Ball' (dark, wine red), Godetia 'Crown Double Mix' (pink tissue-like flowers), Ammi majus 'African Queen' (the classic white umbellifer which makes excellent filler material), Candytuft 'White Pinnacle' (with sweet scented, white flowers), Amberboa muricata (a pale pink, shaggy thistle type flower) and Malope trifida 'Vulcan' (a trailing plant with magenta flowers with a green eye).
All these annual flowers will be featuring in arrangements this month which I will post on my Facebook page in order to demonstrate the wide variety of cut flowers that anyone could grow in their own back garden, in combination with garden perennials, shrubs, bulbs and herbs. Herbs like Mint, Lemon balm and Oregano all provide useful foliage or filler flowers this month to mix in with your annuals.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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