A cut above
For the price of seeds, compost and a bit of graft you will have armfuls of sweetly scented, bright cut-flowers in the months to come
Cut flowers growing in Fionnuala’s garden last summer. Photograph: Richard Johnson
There’s a turf war taking place in my polytunnel. Fighting it out for space alongside an apricot tree, vegetables and herbs is a host of autumn-sown young plants that I’m growing for cut-flowers.
Fast forward a few months and I hope to be picking bunches of peacock-blue larkspurs, fragrant sweet pea, lacy love-in-a-mist, frothy white Ammi majus, florist’s dill and plum-coloured cornflowers for my family and friends to enjoy.
Some might see this as a waste of valuable food-growing spac e but I grow these cut-flowers as food for th e soul.
The mere sight and smell of them brings joy and pleasure in a way that their shop-bought equivalents, shipped from half-way around the world, never could. And as they’re grown without the use of damaging chemicals, the garden’s many beneficial pollinating insects love them too, with knock-on benefits for us all.
A polytunnel or glasshouse is useful for extending the cut-flower season in this country but it’s perfectly possible to grow seasonal blooms, from spring through to autumn, without one.
Take my garden. Squeezed between the rhubarb patch, autumn-planted garlic and overwintering onions are spring-flowering biennials, including wallflowers, forget-me-nots and honesty grown from seed last summer. Nearby are drills of golden daffodils and flame-coloured tulips planted as bulbs last autumn. All will supply armfuls of home-grown, sweetly scented blooms.
As for the plants growing in my polytunnel, nearly all of them are what are described as hardy annuals (HA). Most of these will also grow happily outdoors from an early autumn sowing; they’ll simply flower a month or two later than those that are grown under cover.
Don’t worry if you didn’t get round to sowing them last year. They can also be successfully grown from a spring sowing, either under cover into trays, or directly into the ground outdoors once soil temperatures rise.
Spring-sown hardy annuals will also flower this summer, although not for as long or as abundantly as their sturdier autumn-sown cousins.
Half-hardy annuals (HHA) need more molly-coddling. These are the cut-flower plants that I have to grow from seed each spring, under cover and in gentle heat, starting in late February. As soon as they’ve germinated, I give young seedlings a bright window-sill and then, once large enough to handle, I prick them out into modular trays/small pots. Once the risk of frost has passed, I harden them off and transplant them into their final growing positions in the garden. There’s no denying that the few months between sowing and transplanting (the tricky newborn to toddler stage) are labour-intensive.
The rich reward is that they are exceptionally long-flowering and floriferous, providing me with bucketloads of pretty flowers each week in return for the price of seed packets and compost.
Exactly the same can be said of the dahlias that I also grow for their extravagantly beautiful flowers, potting up the tubers each March before planting them in the garden in early summer.
Success lies in giving flowers them great growing conditions. Treat them as you would most fruit or vegetable crops and give them a sheltered spot in fertile, weed-free, free-draining soil in full sun, far from the competing root systems of established trees, shrubs or hedges. Best of all is a dedicated cut-flower bed, or even several beds.
Most will enjoy a soil enriched by compost and dried seaweed powder.
A few (marigolds, cornflowers, love-in-a-mist) are happier in lighter, less fertile soils. Successional sowing will further extend the season. Crucially, all young plants need vigilant protection from slugs and snails. Otherwise what would have been food for your soul will instead be a feast for them.
10 great cut-flower s to grow from seed this spring
l Cosmos bipinnatus (HHA, mid-March/early April, under cover)
l Queen Anne’s Lace (Ammi majus/ A visnaga, HA, March under cover in deep pots, direct-sow mid-April under fleece)
l Calendula officinalis ‘Neon’: (HA, mid-March under cover, direct-sow April under fleece)
l Sweet pea (HA, February-March, under cover)
l Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus, HA, mid-April, direct-sow under fleece)
l Snapdragons (Antirrhinum sp , HHA, February-March, under cover)
l Love-in-a-mist (Nigella sp, HA, mid-April-May direct-sow under fleece)
l Larkspur (Consolida sp , HA, direct-sow late April under fleece)
l Salvia viridis/ syn. Salvia horminum: (HA, March under cover, direct-sow mid-April under fleece)
l Euphorbia oblongata (treat as HA, late Feb-March, under cover)
IN THE GARDEN THIS WEEK
Order seed for cut-flowers. Try seedaholic.com,
chilternseeds.co.uk, sarahraven.com, seedsofdistinction.co.uk
DATE FOR THE DIARY
Saturday, March 1st, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin:
RHSI Seminar with speakers
Brian Wood, Jane McCorkell and Ciaran Burke. Tickets €50-60.
To book, see rhsi.ie, 01-2353912