With record temperatures for February, we are making the most of the sunny days here in Norfolk. Spring really does seem to have come early with blossom appearing on our apricot tree and pulmonarias, grape hyacinths, daffodils and primroses all blooming early alongside the more traditional February fare of snowdrops, crocus and hellebores.
I do have to keep reminding myself that the 'Beast from the East' struck in early March last year and we had so much snow that the shops ran out of milk and bread. There is a chance of the wintery weather returning so it's important not to go too mad and plant out anything frost-tender until later in the year.
In the meantime, I will enjoy the early flowers, picking a few to bring inside for tiny spring posies and I'll finalise my plans for the annuals that I will grow this year.
I plan to sow some sweet peas under cover this weekend and will start sowing some hardy annuals in a week or two, once March is underway. There are some annuals that I always grow - cornflowers, marigolds, sweet peas and scabious, but I might not choose the same colours or varieties to grow each year. In this way, each year is different and there will be something new and exciting to place in the vase.
I love growing herbs to use in flower arrangements as they add lovely scents and textural interest from both their foliage and flowers. In addition, you can use them in your cooking, to make herbal teas and tisanes or even your own herbal remedies. If you are establishing a cutting garden at home, space is often limited so growing plants that have another use is a great bonus. Herbs are often important food sources for wildlife attracting bees, butterflies and hoverflies - yet another good reason for growing them. Herbs really benefit from having their foliage cut and will produce new foliage all through the Summer.
Herbs can be annual or perennial. Perennials include Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Lemon balm, Mint, Chives, Fennel, Lovage and Sage. Annuals you can grow from seed include Coriander, Dill and Parsley - herbs that you don't usually see in flower as they are cut before this occurs. All three produce lovely delicate umbels of flowers that add lightness and frothiness to a display. This year we've grown some annual Borage for the first time and it is flowering its socks off at the moment. It has stunning blue flowers with a cucumber like taste that can be scattered in salads. I love the furriness of the stems and flower buds. The furry buds add a hazy softness to an arrangement.
I grow Fennel, both the green and bronze varieties, in my garden borders. They are useful perennials for adding height to the border and are loved by hoverflies - they will be swarming with them in the summer. It is a great filler for flower arrangements and I find it's an excellent alternative to Euphorbias for adding a zingy greeny-yellow touch, which is such an excellent foil for other flower colours. We leave the Fennel skeletons over the winter in the garden to add interest at this time of year. They look stunning covered in frost.
Evergreen perennial herbs such as Lavender and Rosemary provide interest in the garden year-round and are easy to look after. Spikes of Lavender flowers add height and scent to an arrangement. Rosemary, traditionally associated with remembrance, is useful for winter greenery and for adding to Christmas wreathes. 'Miss Jessop's Upright' is a tall variety good for cutting.
My favourite herb for the cutting garden has got to be Oregano (good in pizza and pasta dishes). It is a mecca for bees, which is reason enough, but it also produces scented, pale purple flowers which have surprisingly long stems. It will flower from late June all through the Summer. I used it as a staple flower last year in my friend's wedding flowers where it featured in the bouquet and the button holes, along with the yellow Fennel flowers.
Cutting and Conditioning Herbs
Soft-stemmed herbs need a good soak overnight and some stems will benefit from searing in boiling water for 20 seconds before being left to have a good drink of water before arranging. Woody stems often need splitting an inch at the bottom to increase the surface area available for water uptake.
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..
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