Imagine floating serenely down rows of beautiful blooms, pausing every now and then to pick some perfect buds on long sturdy stems – then filling the house with delicately arranged vases of flowers. Just the thought of growing your own cut flowers is a gorgeous and ecologically sound thing to do (thinking uses very little carbon), but the reality is slightly less dreamy. Growing cut flowers requires space, time and effort, if you want to get a good – and varied crop.
Where to grow them
A sheltered, sunny position is ideal, as blooms need protection from the wind and weather. Some flowers flourish in the shade, but most will do better in full sun – and with access to water if possible. The number of flowers you need will be an important factor when you’re deciding where to grow your flowers. Annuals, some roses and repeat-flowering plants with many blooms can easily be grown in existing flower borders – they respond well to picking, so it’s just early dead-heading. In reality you might not want to deplete your borders, so it can be worth finding a separate space. A corner of the veg patch can work well, and dahlias, sunflowers and sweet peas will appreciate the rich, well-cultivated soil.
It makes sense to grow cut flowers in rows, as you would any other crop, as this will make weeding, picking, and general maintenance easier. My cutting garden has narrow beds – about a metre wide, but they’re quite long, with small paths in-between. If you choose to have grass paths, ensure that you can get the mower down them…
How to grow them
Soil preparation, as with the production of any other crop, is key. Clear perennial weeds and apply some organic matter (well-rotted manure/spent mushroom compost) to improve soil structure and fertility. Budget will dictate whether you start with good-sized plants that will crop in the first year, or whether you take the cheaper, longer, but ultimately more satisfying route of growing from seeds and cuttings. Once established, clumps of perennials can be divided and replanted, shrubs can be layered, or propagated from cuttings, and you will learn which annuals and biennials enjoy your conditions and happily self-sow – saving you time and effort. A general purpose fertiliser raked in at the start of the season will keep the plants fed and a mulch applied in spring will also release nutrients, retain moisture and help prevent weeds. Watch out for aphids and other pests and try to catch them early before they infest your plants. A potassium-rich feed in mid/late spring will encourage flowering and the ripening of fruit. This will be especially useful for those plants that flower repeatedly and will keep them going for longer.
What to grow
Much of this will be down to personal taste and you will have a good idea of the flowers you simply must include – and probably a hate list too, but don’t forget to think about the overall structure of your bouquets and arrangements. Flower arranging is similar in principle to border design. Colour schemes are important, but shapes are also key. Aim for a mix of plants that will allow you to design an effective bouquet of flowers for as long as you need. Think about shapes; spikes, larger focal points, foliage as structure and background, and fillers to soften and act as a foil or buffer in between blooms.
Perennials and bulbs
Grow peonies and dahlias for impact, majestic spires of delphiniums, verbascums and lupins, with Gypsophilla or Alchemilla as fillers andMelianthus for foliage interest. Bulbs are great for spring colour, but remember that you only get one stem per bulb. Peonies won’t appreciate too much hacking either, but if you cut lupins and delphiniums right to the ground after flowering/picking, they should put on another show in the autumn.
Annuals and biennials
Some of these will self-sow if they like you, but be prepared to grow a new batch from seed each year. Sweet peas, Cerinthe major,Bupleurum griffithii, sunflowers, Amni majus, foxgloves, Lunaria annua (Honesty) are all quick and easy to grow directly into the soil of your cutting patch.
Cosmos, antirrhinums and cleome are fantastic and long-lasting, but they’re half-hardy annuals, so don’t grow them outside until all danger of frost is past.
Shrubs and foliage
Shrubs for foliage, bark, berries and blossom are vital for autumn, winter and early spring displays; the stems of plants like Pussy willow, dogwoods, Viburnum bodnantense and quince will help you to prolong the cutting season, and plants like eucalyptus, Osmanthus,Euonymus and Ruscus will provide long-lasting evergreen foliage.
Cutting and preparing
Cut your flowers in the early morning, or at dusk, as these are the times when the stems are turgid and full of sap. Airlocks may form once stems are cut, so make a slanted cut with sharp scissors and plunge them immediately into luke-warm water; apparently tepid water is better, as it has less oxygen than cold and therefore less chance of airlocks.
Once the stems have been cut, it’s time to prepare them. Cut a further 3cm off the stems and strip off leaves that will end up below the surface of the water to stop them rotting and remember to keep your flowers cool once cut. Soft stems should be kept in deep water and left for several hours if possible. Hollow stems can be turned up-side-down and filled with water – use your thumb to plug the stem then quickly invert them back into the water to stop the airlock. Do not smash stems, as was once recommended, as this prevents the flow of water up the xylem.
There are many simple tricks to help improve vase life. Bacteria multiply in unwashed vases, so keep them clean – and you can use a teaspoon of bleach in the water. Also keep your tools, such as secateurs clean. Use floral preservative,
or a spoonful of sugar in vase water, to prolong the life of
Planning and preparing to grow cut flowers is great fun, but the reality can be somewhat gruelling, so factor in time constraints, not to mention the weather/pests/weeds or Acts of God/dogs/chickens/children. With any luck, you’ll soon be harvesting armfuls of home-grown flowers and gladdening vases all over the place. Let’s get growing.
With any luck, you’ll soon be harvesting armfuls of home-grown flowers and gladdening vases all over the place
- words: Jo Arnell
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