I started growing flowers for cutting on my allotment over 10 years ago. I was really interested in where the food we ate came from, and I had started to wonder about the provenance of the flowers at my local florist and the ones in buckets at the supermarket. The more I read the more I realised growing my own would be better for the planet – many shop-bought flowers have a significant carbon footprint because they’ve been grown abroad and there are issues around the chemicals used to grow them, the demands made on local water supplies and the working conditions of the growers and pickers. I also preferred a certain style of flower arrangement, something that looked like it had been picked from the garden, with a looser more natural feel.
When I moved house five years ago I had to give up the allotment and my cut flower patch, but I still wanted to be able to pick flowers. Like most people, I don’t have the space to devote to growing shrubs and perennials solely for picking, so I decided that my small front garden and the back garden at my new home would become a cutting garden. Both patches of garden were pretty much blank canvases, so I designed the planting so that it looked good as a garden and that it would attract lots of wildlife, but I also wanted to include plants I knew would work well when picked and arranged in a vase. The plan was to grow most of the plants in borders with a little patch devoted to annuals and biennials.
With small scale growing like this you need to adjust your expectations as to what constitutes a flower arrangement – I make small posies for jugs and jars rather than bouquet-sized arrangements, and sometimes I might just arrange a handful of stems individually in pretty glass bottles, which looks really stylish but only takes a few minutes to do. This approach means I get to enjoy flowers indoors without spoiling the look of the garden.
Getting started now
Whether you’re starting off with a new garden or already have a good selection of plants that are suitable for picking, autumn is the time to get planning and planting – it’s a particularly good time to plant shrubs and perennials as the soil is still warm and any autumn and winter rain will help the roots get established. There are also bulbs to get in the ground now, plant daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and other bulbs in autumn for beautiful cut flowers in spring. Plus, there are even some hardy annuals which can be sown between late August and mid-September which will give you early pickings next summer.
Flowers for cutting
There’s no reason why you can’t pick any flower or foliage stem in your garden, although it’s important to know whether something is toxic or poisonous first, but some plants make better cutting material than others. It’s a waste to pick something to find that it wilts or sheds its petals really quickly – I’d say flowers and foliage that last for at least four days are worth picking.
Another consideration is whether a plant has a long flowering season, providing a succession of flowering stems over several months, and plants that have more than one season of interest, for instance, colourful autumnal foliage or striking seed heads that can be picked too, are a good way to make the most of your space.
While commercial flower growers and florists want flowers with long, straight stems because these are easy to transport and arrange, as a home grower a whole world of other flowers opens up.
One of my favourite cut flowers is the primrose. Posies of these spring flowers used to be picked for Mother’s Day but today they’re considered too small for commercial growing. However, they’re really easy to establish in your garden, they’ll happily self-seed, and the flowers last at least five days when picked, all you need are some small vases to display them in.
Annuals are go-to plants for cutting because they’re generally cut-and-come-again, meaning that once you’ve picked them they’ll produce another flush of flowers, and the plants will keep on doing this for three months or so. They are grown from seed and generally sown in spring, but some can be started off in the first two weeks of September for an early batch of flowers next year.
If you have well-drained soil you can sow these direct into the ground – you may need to provide cloche protection during very cold spells. I garden on clay soil and the winters are very wet so direct sowing doesn’t work for me. Instead I sow into module trays which I keep in a cold frame until spring.
My favourite annuals for cutting include: Scabiosa atropurpurea, sunflower ‘Valentine’ (Helianthus annuus) and strawflower (Helichrysum bracteatum).
Ones that can be sown in early autumn include: cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), larkspur (Consolida ajacis), bishop’s weed (Ammi visnaga) and pot marigold (Calendula officinalis ).
Biennials make good cut flowers and handily bloom in May and June, plugging the gap between bulbs and summer-flowering annuals and perennials. These need to be sown between June and August for flowers the following year. I often forget to do this, but it is possible to pick up plug plants of biennial wallflowers and sweet Williams from garden centres or online between late summer and mid-autumn, and these can be planted at the front of a border or in a dedicated cutting bed.
Perennials are sustainable, cost-effective plants because they’ll come back year after year, unlike annuals and biennials, and after a couple of years you can divide them to make new plants for free. The best ones for cutting are those that flower the longest, because you don’t feel like you’re denuding your garden when you’re picking them.
I used to prefer planting perennials in spring, but I’ve found the trend for drier, colder springs due to climate change means they struggle to settle in, particularly if a summer drought follows, so I’m now favouring autumn planting.
My favourites include: the whole range of primulas – the unusual green flowers of ‘Francisca’ are really eye-catching, Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’, Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, hardy chrysanthemums, ox-eye daisies, heleniums, rudbeckia and hardy salvias such as ‘Amethyst’.
Hold on to glass jars rather than putting them in the recycling as they can be repurposed as vases. I like to keep a stash in a cupboard so that if I want to give some flowers away as a gift I have something to put them in. If you’re finding it difficult to get rid of the glue from the label, soak the jar in hot water then rub with bicarbonate of soda. Any remaining stickiness can be removed with vinegar.