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.

cutting flowers
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.

cutting flowers
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

• Enjoyed this? Do leave me a comment and share this post via Twitter, Facebook or email. 

Plant-hunting at the Malvern Autumn Show

malvern autumn show

The nursery displays at the Malvern Autumn Show are always the first place I head. Mail order is all very well but nothing beats being able to examine plants and talk to the people who’ve grown them before you buy. And at Malvern there was no shortage of tempting exhibits.

The judges’ favourite was Hampshire Carnivorous Plants’ display of insect-eating plants (pictured above). I confess to finding them somewhat sinister but the colours were stunning and the exhibit richly deserved its Best in Show award – the third at Malvern for grower Matt Soper and number 11 in total.

Elsewhere, Stella Exley, of Hare Spring Cottage Plants, won her first gold with only her third RHS show exhibit; she got silver at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival and Tatton Park earlier this year.

malvern autumn show
There was lots of good detail on Hare Spring Cottage Plant’s stand

I loved the sense of timelessness she had created. It felt like the corner of a real garden that the owner had just stepped out of for a moment.

The sense of a garden was also apparent on Green Jjam’s stand. This Cotswold-based nursery, which specialises in penstemon, showed how they could be worked through a border with things such as Verbena bonariensis, helianthus and grasses to create a soft, cottage garden-like effect.

malvern autumn show
Green Jjam Nurseries’ stand showed how to mix penstemon with other plants

And there were plenty of individual plants that caught my eye at the Malvern Autumn Show. Here are just a few I spotted.

Rethinking rudbeckias

I’ve never been too sure about rudbeckia, though my judgement is possibly clouded thanks to my struggles to grow them. It’s the combination of yellow and brown that puts me off so a new variety on Hayloft Plants’ stand really appealed.

Rudbeckia ‘Sophia Yellow’ has an orange central cone instead of the usual dark brown and two-tone petals of yolk and pale yellow, giving a real blast of sunshine colour to a late border.

Malvern autumn show
Rudbeckia ‘Sophia Yellow’

It grows to about 40cm high and needs more sun than the traditional rudbeckia – so much so that Hayloft are promoting them as ‘Sunbeckia’.

“If you put it in the same category as ‘Goldsturm’, it’s going to struggle,” explained Lark Hanham, of Hayloft.

The Dutch breeders regard it as fully hardy but, until it’s been thoroughly tested in gardens, Lark is advising that it’s hardy to minus seven.

malvern autumn show
Rudbeckia ‘Amber Glow’

For those who like the familiar brown and yellow combination, ‘Amber Glow’ is a winner. It has a dark brown centre but the yellow petals have striking red-brown markings.

A cool contrast is a Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’. This is so new on the nursery they still have no idea what colour the flowers will be or even what shape. As it’s not hardy, it’s being suggested as a houseplant or as part of a summer border.

malvern autumn show
The new senecio has lovely felty leaves

New versions of old favourites

I love heucheras: the foliage is good year-round; they have lovely, delicate wands of flowers; the slugs and snails leave them alone. Malvern always has several specialist nurseries, making it easy to compare different varieties.

On Plantagogo’s stand this year, a new heucherella – a cross between a heuchera and a tiarella – was making an impact.

malvern autumn show
‘Art Nouveau’ will eventually make a sizeable clump

‘Art Nouveau’ is a beefy plant that will eventually get 2-3ft across with large green leaves that have a striking dark marking.

“It will have leaves as big as your hand and lovely white flowers,” said Vicky Fox, who runs the nursery with her husband, Richard.

And if it’s brown hues you want, Heuchera ‘Mega Caramel’ has tints of orange, peach and pink in its foliage.

malvern autumn show
‘Mega Caramel’ has beautifully shaded foliage

The display by specialist aster growers Old Court Nurseries was stunning and a worthy gold medal winner.

malvern autumn show
The gold medal-winning display by Old Court Nurseries

Among the familiar pink, white and mauve blooms was a new variety, ‘Jessica Jones’, a seedling from ‘Ochtendgloren’ but slightly taller and with larger flowers.

Growing to about 4ft-high, it has dark pink buds that open to paler flowers giving a lovely two-tone effect on the plant.

malvern autumn show
‘Jessica Jones’

“It’s a pretty good size, robust and very free flowering,” said Helen Picton from the Colwall-based nursery.

Don’t forget the scent

Another pretty pink bloom that was getting admiring glances was Clematis ‘Manon’ making its Malvern Autumn Show debut on Floyds Climbers and Clematis’ stand.

It has almost pearlescent lavender-pink flowers, which appear from May to September, grows up to 5ft, making it idea for a container, and is best in semi-shade for the best colour.

malvern autumn show
Clematis ‘Manon’

“It is also good for growing up a low-growing shrub,” said Marcel Floyd.

His tip for growing clematis in a container is to give them two gallons of water once a week and let them dry out, rather than watering daily.

“They don’t like wet feet,” he explained.

malvern autumn show
They may be tiny but these flowers have a powerful scent

But it was a pink jasmine that followed me home from his exhibit. Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Pink Showers’ is an evergreen that flowers from June to September, is drought and salt-tolerant, and deer-proof. It is also suited to any aspect except north-facing.

Best of all, it has that wonderful jasmine fragrance.

Also beautifully scented was the Actea simplex ‘Brunette’ on Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

malvern autumn show
Actea has a wonderful scent

The creamy wand of flowers is held above deep burgundy-brown leaves. It will grow to around 4ft in height, likes humus-rich soil and needs sunshine to keep good foliage colour.

“It will gradually clump up and can be split after four or five years,” said Rob Hardy.

For those who love honeysuckle but don’t have room for what can be a vigorous climber, one of Newent Plant Centre’s most popular plants could be the answer.

Lonicera periclymenum ‘Honeybush’ doesn’t climb but forms a 3ft by 3ft bush, covered in deep pink and golden blooms.

malvern autumn show
A bushy honeysuckle is good for the front of beds or pots

“It still has that fantastic, intense scent,” said Mark Moir of the nursery, which is now based near Ledbury.

The honeysuckle is deciduous, will flower from July to October and can be grown in pots or in a semi-shaded position in the garden.

“If you want to tidy it up, you can prune it in the spring.”

And among the edibles

Mint is rarely thought of as a thing of beauty yet a new variety on Hooksgreen Herbs’ display was stunning.

Variegated grapefruit mint, which was discovered on the nursery, has pale mauve flowers above green and white foliage, which has a definite hint of citrus.

malvern autumn show
Variegated grapefruit mint

“At this time of year it goes pink and has good autumn colour,” said Malcolm Dickson.

Finally, I love looking at the veg displays at the Malvern Autumn Show – if only to marvel at their absolute perfection. There’s also usually something a bit different, such as the Karella on W. Robinson & Son’s stand.

Sue Robinson described it as a bitter gourd from India that is used as the base for curries.

malvern autumn show
Karella is used in curries

“It’s a bit of an acquired taste.”

And if you don’t like the flavour, you could always use this climber as her grandfather used to: as living greenhouse shading in the firm’s glasshouses.

Read my reflections on the Malvern Autumn Show and its future shape here

• Enjoyed this? Do leave me a comment and share this post via Twitter, Facebook or email. 

Reflecting on the Malvern Autumn Show

Despite an enjoyable day buying plants and talking to nursery owners, I’m not convinced the Malvern Autumn Show has found its niche. Here are some thoughts on what is for many the final show of the year.

There’s no doubt that the Malvern Autumn Show has a very different feel to its springtime cousin.

Its RHS flower show is smaller and less crowded, there are no show gardens – it’s been some years since Malvern had its autumn ‘edible gardens’ feature – and the mood is more one of calm reflection than the fizz of anticipation.

It is, of course, not billed as a purely gardening show but rather a seasonal celebration with a large ‘harvest festival’ element, food, and, for the past three years, the National Giant Vegetable Championships, which this year broke four world records, adding to the mix.

malvern autumn show
The giant veg contest is a big attraction

As such, the gardening section is but one part and it was good. The nursery stands were beautifully put together, there were quality plants to buy and many things sold out with nurseries reporting lots of new customers rather than just their regulars.

Yet, over the years I’ve had the impression that the gardening is being squeezed, although I’m assured the number of nurseries was just one short of last autumn’s show. The vintage section, once farm and horticultural machinery, now encompasses cars and even caravans, while trade stands are selling everything from handbags to rugs.

It was disappointing to see empty spaces in the flower show area and on the trestle tables displaying vegetables raised by amateur growers, although that may have been due to a tricky growing season.

Perhaps gardening at the Malvern Autumn Show suffers coming as it does at the end of a long year of shows; many of the nursery owners I spoke to looked quite simply exhausted after months of driving stock across the country and staging displays. It will be interesting to see how the addition of RHS Chatsworth next year will affect things; I can’t see how a shrinking number of nurseries can fill ever more flower shows.

malvern autumn show
Nerines on Hoyland Plant Centre’s display

Does this perceived dwindling of the gardening element in the autumn show matter? It should. The two Malvern shows offer the chance to buy from a wide range of independent nurseries to gardeners for whom the likes of Hampton and Chelsea are too far or too expensive.

And autumn should be important for gardeners. It’s widely acknowledged as the best time to plant, giving things time to put down roots in still-warm soil before having to think about fruiting and flowering. It’s also often easier to reshape planting schemes while they are still fresh in your mind rather than waiting until spring.

There have been moves to revitalise the autumn show. Last year’s introduction of a celebration of home-grown flowers and British florists added a much-needed buzz. It was repeated this year and showed just how vibrant September gardens can be; the dahlia display by Jon Wheatley around the theatre stage was also a widely admired injection of colour.

malvern autumn show
Detail from one of the floral garlands

Yet, while the floral exhibits were still innovative and interesting, I felt the ‘Floral Fiesta’ would have been better in one of the many Malvern ‘tents’ rather than being somewhat lost in the ‘tin sheds’ between trade stands selling labels and tools. The Floral Art section is another area in need of a rethink, if it is to attract a younger audience.

malvern autumn show
Floral Circus’ flower photo frame was a bit lost in the hall

I also think there is a need for some design element – possibly small scale to fit with many people’s available growing space and to encourage design newcomers; award-winning designer Paul Hervey-Brookes started with a tiny garden at the Malvern Autumn Show.

There’s no doubt the spring festival is on the up, thanks to its partnership with the RHS. It’s now the RHS’s third biggest show, is attracting more nurseries, designers and visitors and Jane Furze has just been appointed as its head after a successful stint as Cheltenham Festivals Director.

The Malvern Autumn Show will also be under new leadership with Diana Walton starting as a new Head of Shows in December. As yet, what are described as “exciting plans” for the show are under wraps. I for one will be watching with interest.

malvern autumn show
There were some great displays but should there be more gardening?

Read about my plant-hunting at the Malvern Autumn Show here

• Found this interesting? Do leave me a comment and share this post via Twitter, Facebook or email. 

Malvern Autumn Show 2016

The Malvern Autumn Show has always marked a turning point in the gardening year for me. It’s a time to look back at the season that’s drawing to a close and somewhere to start planning for next year.

There’s the chance to stock up on plants, seeds and bulbs from some of the country’s leading nurseries, pick up tips from experts and marvel at displays of fruit and veg.

malvern autumn show
There will be lots of veg on show

And if monster carrots weren’t enough of a spectacle, this year Strictly Come Dancing fans will get the chance to see Anton du Beke as he dances in the Vintage Village.

I’ve been taking a look at what’s on offer at The Three Counties Showground this weekend.

Time to plug those gaps

malvern autumn show
I’m looking for some autumn inspiration

For me, the very best garden shows have the chance to buy plants and talk to the people who have grown them. Malvern has more than 40 different nursery exhibits in its RHS Flower Show, covering everything from perennials and climbers to bulbs and roses.

Like many, I’ve got some gaps in my borders and plants I’ve spotted during the summer that I want to try growing. So, I will be heading for the nursery displays with my shopping list.

My first port of call will be Green Jjam Nurseries, which specialises in penstemon. I’m determined to improve my late summer colour and penstemon are an easy way to do that and, unlike echinacea or helenium, seem to be ignored by slugs.

malvern autumn show
There should be plenty of asters on show

Hayloft Plants will also be displaying autumn-flowering perennials, Old Court Nurseries will have asters and there are several nurseries with heucheras that give important year-round colour.

I may also be tempted by dahlias from Pheasant Acre Plants, who had a stunning display at this year’s Hampton Court flower show.

Vegging out

malvern autumn show

Vegetables play a big part at the Malvern Show – in size as well as numbers.

The UK National Giant Vegetables Championship has been held at the show since 2013 with classes that include the heaviest pumpkin and longest beetroot.

This year, there are new categories for the heaviest bell pepper and red cabbage.

The show saw three world record-breaking entries last year and there are hundreds of entries for this season’s contest.

Amateur growers will also be vying for prizes in the Harvest Pavilion with Grow to Show, the Vegetable Trug National Championships and the National Vegetable Society’s Midland Branch Championships.

Floral fiesta

Having a cut flower patch is becoming increasingly popular in gardens I visit and the Malvern Autumn Show will again be putting the spotlight on British cut flowers.

malvern autumn show
Jonathan Moseley

Floral designer Jonathan Moseley will be working with some of the country’s leading growers to promote ‘grown not flown’ flowers in the ‘Floral Fiesta’.

There will be demonstrations, talks and hands-on workshops, showing visitors how to make the most of seasonal blooms.

“Autumn is the most magical time of year and for me as a floral designer there is a wealth of rich colours and stimulating textures to work with,” said Jonathan, who was the floral judge on BBC2’s Great Allotment Challenge.

“Visitors can enjoy a riot of sensational colours from bold dahlias in rich reds, burgundies and tangerines to vivacious sunflowers, nostalgic chrysanthemums with that scent so evocative of autumn, all married with some unusual choice blooms from my own Derbyshire garden.”

malvern autumn show
Expect to see squash and gourds used in floral arrangements

Several members of the British flower co-operative Flowers from the Farm will be there, including Great British Florist and Wild Bunch.

Dahlias take centre stage

The flower market of Mexico City is the inspiration behind a dazzling display of dahlias at this year’s Malvern Autumn Show.

malvern autumn show
Jon is promising a dazzling display

Leading horticulturalist Jon Wheatley is decorating the theatre stage with hundreds of blooms, including cut flowers from the National Collection in Cornwall, and varieties that he has raised himself at his nursery in Chew Magna.

Dahlias are the national flower of Mexico and Jon visited Mexico City earlier this year.

malvern autumn show
Cut flowers from the National Collection will be used

“I have never seen so much colour in my life,” he says. “I’m going to try to encompass a little bit of Mexico City’s flower market in it.”

He will be unveiling a new single white called ‘Stroma’ at the show, as well as using species dahlias, dwarf bedders and garden dahlias.

“We’re celebrating the dahlia’s diversity,” he explains.

malvern autumn show
‘Stroma’ will be unveiled at the show

Flowers will be arranged in bands of colour with accent plants such as miscanthus, box, artemesia, and banana.

“It’s not just going to be dahlias and will demonstrate how you can grow plants with them.”

Jon, who has won many RHS gold medals for displays of dahlias and chrysanthemums, will be on hand to answer queries throughout the show and is also giving a number of talks.

Pick up some tips

malvern autumn show
Mark Diacono will be hosting cookery talks

Expert growers will be offering tips and advice in a series of talks at the Malvern Autumn Show.

malvern autumn show
Tom Kerridge

Gardeners’ World presenter Carol Klein, expert veg growers and members of the RHS’ tender ornamental plant committee will be offering help on everything from container gardening to carnivorous plants.

There will also be ideas on how to use your homegrown produce with BBC TV chef Tom Kerridge and Mark Diacono from Otter Farm.

They will be appearing in the Cookery Theatre along with Mark Stinchcombe, winner of MasterChef The Professionals.

The Malvern Autumn Show is on Saturday and Sunday September 24 and 25 from 9am to 6pm.

Tickets are available on the door. More information and details of talks at here

• Enjoyed this? Do leave me a comment and share this post via Twitter, Facebook or email.