It has been hard going. The first couple of years were a total disappointment. Annual seed which I sowed failed to germinate. Some things worked, notably cosmos, but there were huge gaps when the garden was empty and dull, not to say full of weed.
Here is cosmos purity in 2009 looking beautiful.
Here is the cutting garden itself in 2010 looking rather grumpy and dull.
I had at least by that stage discovered the importance of sweet peas, even if I did not have the varieties right. Sweet peas are supreme for weeks and weeks in the cutting garden. If you cut them they come and come. If you choose your varieties carefully you get fabulous perfume as well as beautiful flower and I have now learned some lessons about cultivating them.
I have tried all sorts of approaches with sweet peas. I have tried sowing in the greenhouse in the autumn, supposedly to create plants which will flower earlier in the season. They were eaten by mice. I have tried sowing directly into the ground in spring. Nothing, or the even worse sensation of nearly nothing: things germinate, then they get eaten. What works for me is sowing early in the greenhouse in a propagator. There is no point in sowing too early as at some point the plants have to go out into the garden and going out too early, while it is still cold, simply results in a prolonged sulk. So sowing in mid March works up here in North Wales and putting them out sometime in May. You are supposed to pinch out the tops to produce bushy plants. I have discovered that you can forget to do that and find your sweetpeas leggy and falling over like drunken supermodels. They are forgiving. Do it, even in a guilty, late sort of way, and they will recover. And then the only other thing that really matters: you have to feed the soil. Here we dig in bags of manure or compost.
So these were the first big discoveries of the cutting garden: cosmos is fabulous and delivers for months; sweetpeas are indispensable. I struggled in the early days to create any kind of flower arrangement but even I could put some glorious sweetpeas in a jug and find that they look wonderful. There are so many varieties of sweetpeas. I have had most success with some of those from Sarah Raven who chooses carefully for scent as well as flower. For me there is no point in a sweet pea without scent. I have tried growing them in a single colour but what looks best in my view is a mix in the cutting garden and a mix in the jug.
I tried growing lots of annuals from seed for the cutting garden but many things struggled. Poppies are fine but zinnias didn't like it and there is a lot of work with annuals if you grow them in the greenhouse and then transplant which works far better here than sowing directly where they are to grow. Many of the annuals which I thought would work well such as cerinthe never really thrived. I decided that I needed to find some perennials that would work well for cut flowers and would also not need a lot of attention in the garden. This has been a mixed success. Echinacea which I love is still alive but being ferociously out competed by lupins. The lupins look fantastic in the garden but somehow I have failed to find a way to use the spikes as cut flowers successfully. They have such a presence that they over power other flowers. I also think I need a huge vase or jug so that they can have the space in the house they need to make their statement but while they are in flower they do reach for the sky.
The other perennials which are working well this year are Achillea and Euphorbia polychroma. They may not be spectacular but they are a very good foil for the prima ballerinas: the dahlia. I had tried growing dahlias in the garden without success. They don't like the stony conditions of my main garden so they need a vast amount of cossetting but even when I could keep them going they didn't look right anyway. They are too blowsy and over the top for native, wildish feel of the garden itself. Moving them to the cutting garden happened for the first time last year and it was inspired. They look fabulous in the midst of my growing flower shop. They flower for months on end. I am cutting them now and they will keep on going until the first frosts cut them down.
At the moment I grow Bishop of Llandaff and Ludwig Helfert which is the orange monster in the picture above. They need plenty of foliage with them and here the annual Euphorbia Olongata comes into its own. I have slowly come to realise how important it is to grow foliage for cutting as well as flowers. The rest of the garden provides feathery fennel and alchemilla by the bucketload but annual euphorbia lasts well and sets off so many things. Last year I lifted and replanted the dahlias but this year I intend to try mulching them very heavily and leaving them in the ground. If it works it will save me quite a bit of time and if it doesn't it will be the reason to acquire more dahlias. At the moment I have twelve big plants and don't really want to give any more room to more.
I always plant tulips in the cutting garden in the autumn and take the bulbs out after they have flowered. This year I am going to put tulips and alliums in among the dahlias and more tulips and some more daffodils in the annual sections where the cosmos grows. I love alliums and have loads in the garden proper but never want to cut them. This will be the first time I have grown some with the intention of cutting them for the house. The tulips are always a success and are brought in before the sweet peas and cosmos have got going. I have a lot of orange tulips in the garden near the house so this year I am going to go for reds and crimsons in the cutting garden. The daffodils are a bit of an indulgence really. There are daffodils all over the rest of the garden in the spring in quantities that mean I can cut as many as I like. I simply found last year that the cutting garden was depressingly empty in March and early April. I shall try growing ones which will be sweetly scented when they are brought into the house.
So it has taken nearly five years of experimentation and much failure, a lot of stomping around disgustedly and much trial and error but now I am beginning to have a cutting garden which looks good (not in a Sarah Raven Perch Hill sort of way obviously but in an OK for me sort of way) and which does indeed provide flowers for the house and the holiday cottage for months on end. I am sure there are many ways in which it can improved and I shall keep on trying new varieties and combinations but at last I feel I have a basic recipe with which to work.
Do you grow flowers for cutting and if you do, what would you not be without?