Growing cut flowers

Having a cutting n old idea.  Large country houses would always have an area, usually within the kitchen garden, where cut flowers were grown.  They were grown in rows, just like the vegetables and were designed to keep a steady supply of fresh blooms for the house for much of the year. With increasing numbers of cut flowers being grown in exotic, far flung places overseas for our houses these days, perhaps it’s time to bring back the cutting garden and grow our own fresh flowers nearer home.


Where to grow cut flowers

Annuals, roses and plants with many blooms can easily be grown in flower borders for cutting – they respond well to picking, it’s just early dead heading, but it can be hard not to leave your borders looking depleted.  The number of flowers you need and the size of the border will be an important factor.  If you have space in the vegetable garden, or can make an area specifically for growing cut flowers, plants can be grown as if they were another crop.


Site, soil and aspect

Although some flowers flourish in the shade, the best position for a cutting patch should be a sunny, sheltered area – shelter being important to prevent fragile blooms from being blown about and damaged.


The soil should be fertile and well drained, but not too rich.  Too much fertiliser, especially nitrogen and leaf growth will be promoted at the expense of flowers.  If you are able to divide beds up, each flower type can be given what it needs.  Some are hungrier than others – dahlias and sweet peas need much richer soil than meadow type flowers like cosmos and verbena bonariensis.


Design of the cutting garden


This is completely down to personal choice and obviously if you are choosing to use your flower borders, the layout may already be in existence. If you are growing flowers in a separate area, almost as a crop, it makes sense from a practical point of view to grow them in rows, as you would vegetables.  This will make it easier to weed, cut and generally maintain.  Try to put plants that like similar conditions together and make sure that taller growing flowers don’t loom over smaller ones, putting them in the shade.  You could also arrange them in colour groups, say from light to dark, or large flowers to small.


What to grow


Annuals and biennials

Hardy annuals can be sown in either spring or autumn.  Autumn sowings will give an earlier start to the cutting season, but early spring sowings catch up quickly.  It’s traditional to sow sweet peas in the autumn to establish their root systems, so that healthier, stronger plants can be planted out in the spring.  Autumn and early spring sowings are usually done under cover, in a cold frame or in a seed bed and then moved to their flowering position once they’re big enough.  They can be sown directly outside in their flowering positions from mid spring onwards.


Half-hardy annuals can be sown as early as February in a heated greenhouse, but don’t sow directly outside until May.


Many annuals flower for a long period of time.  Their job is to produce seed for next year, so if you keep deadheading they will continue to flower.  They can also be sown successionally – every 3-4 weeks, to ensure a constant supply of blooms from new, strong plants.


Biennials are sown in May and June and will flower the following year.  Sow directly or in a nursery bed to transplant in the autumn to their flowering position.


At the end of the season, remember to leave some flowers to go to seed so that you can harvest them to sow the following year.


Many perennials can also be sown from seed, but may take longer to mature and flower.  It may be easier to make new plants from cuttings or by dividing established plants in the spring or autumn.

 

Shrubs – for foliage

Choose fast growing shrubs, or large specimens, as continual pruning will not be possible from small plants.  If you want long, straight growth, hard pruning in spring will cause the plant to grow vigorous shoots that can then be cut.  Many shrubs or trees that are grown for their young foliage should be treated like this – pollarding or coppicing each year to maintain the attractive juvenile foliage – eg Eucalyptus, Cotinus,



General maintenance

For ease, try to grow plants in rows, as this will make it easier to look after and ultimately, cut your flowers. 


Water well to establish transplants  and once plants are in flower if the weather is dry.  Keep an eye on forecasts and make sure plants aren’t stressed by erratic watering. 


A general purpose fertiliser raked in at the start of the season will ensure the plants are adequately 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 will encourage flowering and the ripening of fruit.  This will be especially useful for those plants that flower repeatedly and should keep them going for longer.


Tall growing plants and those with long flowering spikes such as delphiniums, verbascums, foxgloves and lupins will need staking or supporting.


Cutting

It’s best to cut 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 the stem is cut, so make a slanted cut with sharp scissors and plunge immediately into luke-warm water.


Preparation

Cut a further 3cm off the stems, strip off any leaves that are below the surface of the water.  Once cut, the flowers should be kept in cool conditions.  Soft stems should be kept in really deep water up to the neck 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 and then quickly invert back into the water to stop the airlock.


Do not smash stems, as this prevents the flow of water up the xylem and causes more air-locks.


Use floral preservative to prolong the life of the flowers.


Keep buckets disinfected, knives, scissors/shears clean and well oiled.


Plants for cutting (a selection)


Half-hardy Annuals – these will flower from June until the first frosts.  Keep dead heading/picking to ensure a prolonged flowering period.

Cosmos – daisy like flowers in shades of white through to burgundy.  Try C bipinnatus ‘Purity’ (white) and ‘Dazzler’ (carmine pink)

Cleome spinosa – the spider plant.  Striking, tall plant with long lived flower in shades of white, pink or mauve

Antirrhinum (snapdragon) - easy to grow in a large range of colours

Nicotiana (tobacco plant) – useful, shade tolerant plants with good scent (on white flowers, mainly) Try N ‘Lime Green’ and N affinis (white, scented)

Zinnias – available in some striking colours


Hardy annuals

Helianthus (sunflower) – comes in many shades from cream through to rich dark brown, but the lovely cheerful yellow sunflower is my favourite.

Sweet peas – for long stems grow as cordons ( this involves cutting out side shoots and training the stems carefully on wires).  The old fashioned varieties are more strongly scented than the modern hybrids

Marigolds – cheerful and will self seed around the garden.  Try ‘Mr Majestic’ for an unusual stripy flower

Nigella (love-in-a-mist) also has good ferny foliage

Cornflower – lovely blue, or try mixed pastel shades or dark burg/black


Dahlias – these are fantastic cut flowers.  They like a rich, fertile soil and need lifting, or mulching in winter as they are not hardy, but will reward you with stunning flowers in a huge range of colour and flower form


Perennials – the best cutting flowers

Acanthus – good architectural flower and foliage

Delphinium – tall spires, can drop petals, so pick early

Lupin – good flower spikes in a range of colours

Echinacea – late summer, daisy like

Helenium – another late summer daisy in warm, rusty shades

Peony – sumptuous blooms that last well as cut flowers.  Slow to establish, but plants will last many years

Anenome japonica – white or pink flowers – good for late summer, early autumn

Eryngium – thistle-like in shades of metallic blue through to white

Mollecella (bells of Ireland) spires of green flowers

Roses – choose old fashioned roses for the best shape and sent – modern ones will give a longer flowering period and be more disease resistant


Bulbs/corms/tubers

Many bulbs are available for use as cut flowers, the best are those that form clumps readily, or self seed, giving extra value for money.

Alliums

Lilies

Gladioli

Shizostylus

Crocosmia

Narcissi

Anenome

Iris


Fillers

Gypsophila (baby’s breath) frothy, small white flowers on branched stems

Gaura – will flower for a very long period – likes free draining, sunny position

Amni majus – tall plant with umbels of white flowers

Thalictrum – delicate, shade tolerant plant with flowers in mauve, white and yellow

Verbena bonariensis – mauve flowers over a long period


Shrubs and foliage

Eucalyptus gunnii – juvenile foliage

Ruscus

Viburnum

Holly

Privet

Ferns

Melianthus major

Pittosporum

Forsythia


Winter interest and architectural

Cornus

Callicarpa – amazing purple berries

Artichoke

Teasel

Thistles

Bulrushes

Pyracntha

Holly/ivy/yew/conifer

garden is a



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