I have always wanted a cutting garden. I love flowers in the house but when I had small gardens I could never bring myself to cut the things which were making an impact in the garden in order to bring them inside. Here, with lots of room and a blank canvas, I decided to make a garden specifically for cutting. It would be full of sweetpeas, cosmos, foliage plants and dahlias with daffodils and tulips in the spring.
There were successes. The dahlias were fabulous but only if I lifted them in the autumn and started them again in the greenhouse the following spring. For the last two years I have tried to leave them in the ground but I am reluctantly concluding that on a high site in North Wales we do not have a long enough growing season for dahlias to get going without the boost they receive from being started off under glass. Left in the ground they are only just beginning to flower strongly when they are cut down by the first frosts.
Sweetpeas have always been a great success. My thin soil needs feeding furiously with compost or manure in order to be rich enough for sweetpeas and they need endless tying in but they are so beautiful and they flower for so long that a variety of strongly fragranced sweetpeas would be in any ideal cutting garden I designed.
And cosmos is fabulous. It flowers and flowers and its foliage, unusually for an annual, is distinctive and charming in its own right. I have grown all different kinds of annual cosmos but the pinks and whites are the most successful for me.
And yet, despite all these good things, the cutting garden is a problem area in this garden. It lives in the productive part of the field garden, alongside the orchard and the fruit beds. This makes sense. It is the right place for it to be. It is meant to be something like an allotment which also grows flowers. I wanted it to have some structure of its own when it was not full of flower so I planted two box crosses. The intention was that each cross made four squares and that each square was planted with flowers. The sweetpeas would grow on netting at either end of the bed. The bed itself is about six feet wide and twenty foot long and when the sweetpeas are flowering the first three feet at either end of the bed are taken up with them and their supports. Reading it here,the basic arrangement of the patch looks quite sensible and yet if you were to wander out to look at it you would find that it is quite a mess.
I think the main problem is that I have been tinkering with it, trying to make it less labour intensive and losing sight of what I made it for. I planted up one square with achillea Goldplate and a Euphorbia polychroma, thinking that some perennials would make it easier to care for. I don't think I have ever picked anything from either plant for the house but they are happy in the open sunny spot and grow well. I got interested then in the idea that more perennials would look after themselves and, as time became squeezed by the demands of ill and ageing family, I looked around for others. I planted a square with lupins.
They are far too big to pick for the house and although they are spectacular they don't really go with anything else easily. Once they are finished the square is empty of colour and looks oddly unkempt. And I have experimented with other perennials that I have felt ought to work like rudbeckia and let calendula self seed. And gradually over the last couple of years when the cutting garden has had less attention it has become neither fish nor fowl. The design depends on the patch being worked like an allotment. It needs to be tidy and productive and picked from almost daily. It doesn't work as an additional flower bed because it was never meant to be one. It does not have the layering of flower and foliage, the contrast of forms, the attention to height, the expectation that you will look at it from a particular place or series of places. It is meant to be a productive cutting patch and I need to decide whether I want to run it as such or give the space over to something else.
At the moment I am thinking that I will have another serious go this year at running it properly as a cutting patch again. I will let the achillea stay but I will lift and clear everything else and plant it up with the things that I know work well and which give me endless jugs of flowers for the house and for the holiday cottage. I have seedlings of sweetpeas, cosmos and euphorbia oblongata for foliage waiting in the greenhouse and I will see if I can produce enough time to prepare it properly and let it do its stuff.
And if at the end of the year I find myself scratching my head about it all over again, well perhaps I will decide that it should go back to grass and provide space for another couple of trees to add to the orchard.....