How to grow cutting flowers

cutting flowers
One of the lovely British flower stands at Malvern

A friend once commented with surprise that she didn’t expect to see me buying flowers. Surely I had enough in the garden, she wondered. Yes, I did but not for indoors. Like many others, I hate cutting flowers from my borders and would rather buy them than reduce the garden display.

Yet the idea of having a cutting garden has been niggling for months. I’m starting to see many more beds devoted to flowers for the house in the gardens I visit and not just those with rolling acres.

Then the British flowers movement has been a vibrant force at the recent Malvern shows with local growers and florists showing how stunning arrangements of seasonal blooms can be.

cutting flowers
I was inspired by the British flower arrangements at the Malvern show

So, I’ve decided to give it a try prompted partly by a surplus of home-grown sweet William plants and the realisation that I no longer need to produce quite as much veg now the two eldest are both away.

One of the British growers at the recent Malvern Autumn Show was Karen Hughes of The Somerset Cut Flower Garden and I turned to her for advice on how to start.

Karen has been growing cutting flowers as a business for the past three years on half-an-acre of her garden in the Quantock Hills near Taunton. It may not sound much space but provides enough blooms for weddings, parties and bouquets.

cutting flowers
Karen’s innovative flower garland at the Malvern show

“People imagine they need five to 10 acres of plants,” she says. “It’s a myth. It’s really all about what you grow.”

And if you’re not planning to earn a living from it, you can afford to be choosy.

“Grow what you like and know you are going to look after it,” advises Karen. “Everyone has their own personal preference.”

That may be for certain colours – pastels or bright jewel shades – or types of flowers be it tulips rather than iris.

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Tulipa ‘Angelique’ is a favourite for cutting

Karen’s top picks are cornflowers for their range of colour and because they can be used for everything from buttonholes to posies.

Tulips are another must-grow with ‘Angelique’ a particular favourite and she would not be without dahlias, which have a multitude of shapes and colours.

“There is an amazing range.”

cutting flowers
Dahlias offer a huge range of shapes and colour

One she has grown a lot this year is ‘Labyrinth’, which starts off as a coral-pink, turning more yellow in the autumn.

Planning is essential, if you want to get the most out of your plot. Karen starts the year with camellia, followed by narcissi, choosing varieties that offer something extra, such as scent or different colours, because they don’t mix well with other flowers in a vase.

“They poison the water for anything else,” she explains.

The year moves on with hellebores, anemones, ranunculus, then into tulips of all shades before the summer stars, including sweet peas, cornflowers, achillea and roses, and then the autumn display of dahlias. In the winter, she may use the dried seed heads of nigella or hydrangea flowers.

cutting flowers
Perennials such as peonies make good cut flowers

Plants, particularly annuals, are grown through a wire grid to keep their stems straight and, where possible, Karen chooses taller varieties. Many of the seed catalogues now indicate if particular plants are suitable as cutting flowers.

She is also careful to get a mix of flower shapes and will ‘mock up’ bouquets using catalogue photographs to make sure nothing is missing.

Regardless of what you grow there are some general points to consider.

Get the right spot

If you’re growing cutting flowers, the first consideration must be the site. Most flowers prefer an open, sunny position but Karen advises growing some in a more shaded spot, if you have the space.

“You can plant the same things in two different parts of the garden and they will flower at different times,” she says.

Pick for longer

Another way of extending the season is to stagger your seed sowing. Karen sows some hardy annuals in September-October, again in spring and another batch in June or early July to give her some autumn blooms.

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Achillea makes a good cutting flower

She also makes good use of a polytunnel: “It really makes the difference in terms of extending the season at each end.”

Plants grown in there also act as a back-up, if bad weather spoils flowers grown outside.

Do make room for some perennial plants, which will help to cut down on the amount of seed-sowing needed. Peonies are one of Karen’s favourites and make wonderful cut flowers.

Look beyond the stars

Don’t forget the understudies in your floral arrangement. The best combine big stand-out blooms with smaller, contrasting flowers, such as Ammi majus.

Foliage is also important and a good bank of shrubs elsewhere in the garden will provide the necessary ‘backdrop’ to your floral stars. Among those Karen suggests are pittosporum, physocarpus – including the lime and variegated varieties – euonymus and choisya, although not everyone likes the smell of it.

In the vase

If Karen is cutting flowers for a client, she will do it either early in the morning or in the evening and she stands the blooms up to their necks in cold water overnight.

For flowers in her own home, she cuts and arranges them immediately, as making them last is not so important.

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Too many Sweet Williams made me start a cutting border

“Who wants flowers to last three or four weeks? The joy of flowers is they are so ephemeral. You have to enjoy them while they’re here.”

And she adds: “Look hard at what is already in your garden. Give anything a try in the vase as it’s surprising what will work.”

Now all that remains is for me to be brave with the secateurs and not turn my cutting flowers into just another border.

For more information on The Somerset Cut Flower Garden see here

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Vintage style is blooming

Growing flowers for picking is nothing new and many gardeners have a small cutting patch or a wigwam of sweet peas providing blooms for the house. Yet few go to the lengths of Sally Oates who has turned her Cotswold garden into one big cutting border. 

The driving force behind her garden near Tetbury is not the appearance of the beds, creating plant collections or the amassing of rare blooms. Instead, she plans and plants to provide year-round material for her floristry business. 

Sally is part of a recent surge of interest in the British flower industry, born out of concerns about the environmental impact of importing flowers. The use of home-grown blooms was championed at this year’s Malvern Autumn Show and Flowers From the Farm is just one group campaigning for their increased use. 

“It’s a lot of like-minded people all over the country and they are probably making a difference,” says Sally, who describes herself as an ‘artistan’ rather than a traditional florist. 

“It’s looser and more relaxed,” she explains. “It’s all about respecting the flowers and the foliage for what they are and the season they are in.” 

Sally’s arrangements have a soft feel

When we met, she was testing an arrangement for an autumn wedding using russet leaves and the psychedelic orange and red fruit of the spindle berry, a natural mix that is typical of her work. 

Dillycot Flowers was started three years ago with sales at local markets, such as Nailsworth Farmers’ Market. Today, Sally does much of her business online, with commissions for celebrations, such as birthday parties, christenings and weddings, providing table decorations and flower crowns. 

“I’ve done 70, 80 and 90th birthday parties this year,” she says, with a smile. “They don’t want a large flowering statement; they want really nice garden flowers in a low arrangement.” 

She grows her blooms organically in half-an-acre of ground, divided between her own garden and an allotment on a nearby farm. The borders are packed with rows of perennials underplanted with bulbs and any gaps plugged by annuals. 

Bulbs are most important in spring and she grows masses of tulips, narcissi and hyacinths, in a vast range of colours. 

Low table arrangements are a popular request

“One of my favourites is ‘City of Bradford’ hyacinth, which is a very unusual pale blue.” 

She particular likes the hyacinth flowers that reappear in subsequent years, as they tend to be less compact: “They’ve got a slightly softer feel to the bloom. There’s more of a gentle elegance about them.” 

The summer offers rich pickings with annuals, including cornflowers in all shades of blue and pink, lots of iris, masses of peonies, roses, ranunculus and sunflowers before the autumn blooms of dahlias and chrysanthemums begin. 

Over the winter, evergreen shrubs form the backbone of her arrangements with viburnum and pittosporum particular favourites. Scented shrubs, such as Lonicera fragrans, bring an extra dimension to arrangements and she also uses dried seedheads, including nigella, poppy and achillea. If the weather is kind, there may even be late roses to add colour.

Achillea is used fresh and also dried for winter arrangements

 And that is the secret of her work: it is based upon what looks good at the time, rather than sticking to any pre-conceived plan, particularly as weather conditions can vastly alter flowering times. 

“It’s why I come from a colour direction rather than being flower specific,” she explains. 

Those flowers are displayed in vintage containers, sourced from antique shops and car boot sales, and include Art Deco and 1940s pieces, old ink bottles, silver, glass and brass. 

“For me it’s not pseudo vintage, it’s the real thing. I also grow older varieties of flowers. It evokes a past era.” 

It’s an era that appears to be making a comeback. 

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