Elton John once famously spent nearly £300k on cut flowers in less than two years and, to be honest, I reckon my own bill for blooms isn’t far off. Pricey business, isn’t it, decking out your house with fragrant florals? Especially as they only seem to last about 48 hours before wilting sadly and making the vase water revoltingly stinky. And while I’ve got lots of flowers growing in my garden I feel a bit guilty about snipping them off in their prime to display them indoors. A cutting garden is the way forward my floral-minded friends — thank you to Simon Murfitt, founder of landscaping, design and maintenance whizzes The Oxfordshire Gardener (Blur bassist turned Kingham farmer Alex James is a client) for explaining how to do it!
What is a cutting garden exactly?
They were traditionally attached to grand country houses, where they were needed to provide the household with an abundance of flowers at a time when the nearest city markets were a couple of days’ ride away. It was an area of the garden set apart and usually out-of-sight of the house in a sheltered and sunny position, with several beds devoted to rows of flowers grown for cutting and arranging. But these days honestly you don’t need a country estate to have one! People like them because it provide the house with flowers without depleting beds and borders.
OK, let’s do it. What’s first?
You need to prep the ground. Many people opt for raised beds as they can look tidier, provide ease of access for watering and cutting (less bending down!) and help reduce plant-munching pests. That said, you can certainly grow from ground level too. Either way, the earth will need a little TLC. Work in a large amount of organic matter and enriched topsoil to get your plants, bulbs and seedlings off to a good start and make sure your site is near a water supply as you’ll need to feed and water regularly. If you’re time-poor you could install an automatic irrigation system — they don’t have to be complex or expensive.
What shall I put in it?
This is the fun bit. Are there flowers already in your garden which you particularly love and want to bring into the house, but doing so would leave your borders bare? If so, plant a row or two of them in the cutting garden. You’ll also want to keep things blooming for as long as possible, so think about flowering times. Plant tulips in autumn for armfuls of colour in spring, follow them with aquilegias and alliums. For summer flowers think of roses, peonies, hydrangeas and dahlias, or a pretty wigwam of sweet peas. Sprinkle rows of annual seeds such as cosmos and stocks in spring at regular intervals for a beautifully fragranced home over an extended period. But most importantly, remember to grow plenty of foliage and filler plants too, as country casual floral arrangements look their best when there is just a bit more greenery than flowers. Try alchemilla mollis, euphorbias and ferns for their foliage and Solomon’s Seal, ammi and eryngium planum as fillers.
What if I haven’t got much outside space?
Struggling to find any space at all? If you already have a kitchen garden or vegetable beds you can sow flowering annuals between your rows of vegetables. They help attract pollinators as well as doubling the productivity of your beds. Nasturtiums (above) not only look pretty in bouquets but make salads picture-perfect too as the flowers are edible. Talking of multi-taskers, herbs like rosemary and clary sage make highly fragrant, unexpected fillers in rustic, naturalistic displays.
Any other top tips?
Firstly, if you want big displays and have lots of tall vases, pick plants with long stems. Plant the tallest flowers where they won’t cast shade on smaller plants or be difficult to get at to cut, but don’t forget a few smaller stemmed plants in the mix. Plant a selection of your favourite perennials so you’ll have them year-after-year, and add in a healthy dose of annuals so you can refresh your arrangements with fresh new looks each year. Finally, keep in mind ease of access. Sowing or planting in rows with adequate space between for watering, feeding and cutting will make for an easier life.
OK, cutting garden sorted but is it possible to pinch stems from the main garden without butchering it?
Yes absolutely. Use your imagination to see if there are existing plants that can be added to bouquets without taking too much away from the garden. Variegated ivy looks great spilling over the edge of a display, geranium leaves are wonderfully floaty fillers and foliage from trees like beech, oak, acer and smokebush make unusual but really effective foils to big blousey blooms. Get creative!
Inspired but, um, lazy? (*sheepishly raises hand*) theoxfordshiregardener.co.uk can create and maintain a cutting garden for you.
The Oxfordshire Gardener, The Garden Barn, Kirtlington Business Centre, Kirtlington, Oxfordshire OX5 3JA. Tel: 01869 338592.