Dahlias break out

For years, I’ve kept my love of dahlias safely contained. Trying to grow them in borders proved impossible as plants disappeared overnight thanks to the resident slugs and snails. Instead, I had just a few in pots – more successful but high maintenance and deeply frustrating as time, cash and space limited my choice. This year, the temptation – fuelled by seeing dahlias in almost every garden I visited – proved too great and I decided to have another go at growing them free range.

Starting a cutting garden was my excuse to grow more.

The excuse was starting a cutting garden – what better than dahlias for that late summer vase of flowers? With that in mind, I chose colours that would work together and with the rooms I planned to put them in.

There are many ways to judge a dahlia: shape, colour, number of flowers and, if you’re planning to cut them, length of stem.

‘Furka’ produced the most flowers.

Two of my choices scored highly in every category: ‘Furka’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’. ‘Furka’ is a beautiful white cactus-type dahlia. It produced dozens of flowers with long, straight stems.

‘Totally Tangerine’ was the best for length of stem and I loved the dazzling colour and crinkled centre to the anemone blooms. Possibly the only drawback was that it didn’t seem to last as long once cut.

‘Totally Tangerine’ has a wonderful crinkled centre.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is another beauty with white flowers tinged with a hint of green. However, it didn’t have as long a flowering season as ‘Furka’. Perhaps it will be better next year.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is a winner.

I also liked ‘Zundert Mystery Fox’, which had neat dark orange flowers and long, straight stems. It was not as prolific as some of the others but well worth growing.

‘Zundert Mystery Fox’ was more beautiful than its name.

The most disappointing dahlia was ‘Nicholas’, which produced only a couple of flowers before the first frosts. The large, somewhat loose, blooms were also difficult to use with another flowers. A shame because I did like the colour.

‘Nicholas’ was the most disapppointing.

The very best colourwise was ‘Henriette’ a beautiful creamy ivory with hints of peach. Her downfall was the stem. The semi cactus flowers are large and need a reasonable length of stem as a counterbalance. All too often the only way to achieve this was by sacrificing another bud slightly lower down.

‘Henriette’ was my favourite colour.

There was a similar problem with ‘Labyrinth’, a mad whirl of pinky-orangey petals that reminded me of an exploding Catherine Wheel. Again, the head size didn’t match the length of stem I could cut, meaning the flowers easily tipped in a vase. Perhaps it was my lack of skill at growing, or my lack of nerve when faced with cutting off yet-to-develop flowers.

‘Labyrinth’ is a mad whirl of colour.

The dahlias never actually made it to the cutting bed, as I hadn’t the heart to dig up sweet Williams that were still flowering to make room. Instead, the dahlias gradually took over the cold frame, getting ever bigger in the pots that I had started the tubers off in and sending roots out into the ground.

Realising the sweet Williams were not willing to budge, I decided to use some spare corners of the veg beds for the dahlias and they spent the rest of the summer season alongside the brassicas and carrots.

‘Henriette’ got very tall.

This late entry into their final beds was, I think, the reason why they fought off predators. By the time they were finally planted out, the dahlias were strapping plants – ‘Furka’ and ‘Henriette’ eventually stood around 4ft tall and needed careful staking. Quite simply, I think they frightened the slugs.

Of course, having broken out there is no way the dahlias will be contained again. This year’s tubers have been dug up and are now spending the winter in the greenhouse in pots of sand, while I’m starting to work my way through the dahlia catalogues and websites. Having started with creams, oranges and white, the pinks and purples are looking very tempting.

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.

cutting flowers
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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