The Orange Tip

Tag: cut flowers

Late Annuals

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It was around this time last year that I remember feeling a distinct sense of guilt each time I wondered through the picking beds. We had so little sun and so few warm days that almost every gardener I spoke to waved a similar flag of defeat when talking about their cut flower crop. Growing the large, prolific and long-lasting annual bruits we’ve come to rely on each year, both as significant border-fillers and cut supplies for the house, depends upon these two elements at a crucial time during the early to mid summer. Last year we had neither, and those plants sown from seed that year (bar the ever-resilient, ever-praised Euphorbia oblongata, obviously) struggled their way to flower, only to quietly flop and later blacken in the permanently saturated soil.

This year in the South however, we couldn’t really have had any more sun, light and warmth. The conditions for growing annuals in particular, in fact, were so ideal that it was almost as if they were nature’s sole concern this summer. There was heat when needed, rain when needed and so few windy days the dahlias may as well not have been staked. The blooms have kept going since late June, and it’s actually been fun again to work in the picking beds; a prospect that seemed pretty unlikely as the summer drew to a close last year and the leaves began to fall.

I set myself a challenge for the following year around that time, to put all my efforts into making these beds work as they were intended, which thankfully seems to have been the case. But the lesson is simply that no matter what you do, success ultimately lies in the hands of the weather.
There are still a few more weeks of decent flowering to come, but by way of simple analysis, here are a few things I have noted:

1. Careful over-winter storage of dahlia bulbs is key. Dry and cool. Sowing fresh from seed is not to be scoffed at too -in the right conditions they’re very fast growers.

2. No matter how tempting, hold off sowing until the warm has truly arrived.

3. Larkspur and Tithonia are the balls; once going they give relentlessly.

4. If you’re going to do cornflowers, cut back hard at least twice in the season, just before they go to seed.

5. You can never have too much cosmos.

Photos by Roo Lewis:


Integrated Growing


After last year’s let down in the cutting garden I have vowed to give it my all during the coming spring and early summer. The failures, of which were many, I put down to a handful of combined problems. We had a warm spring and dim, wet summer; great for the bulbs, but less than ideal for seed grown annuals. I made mistakes also with the preliminary growing stages; not enough room to harden off young seedlings and therefore taking too long to move them from greenhouse (where they put on fast, tall and leggy growth) to ground. My watering regimes were also too sporadic and often too frequent; leading to rotting tubers and damping off of seedlings.

So, this year I am taking the following measures: 1. Careful and detailed approach to watering – making sure not to water when unnecessary. 2. Moving seedlings quickly on through the new cold frames and out into the beds, starting each day with an hour or so in the greenhouse/propagation area. And most importantly, 3. Getting started early. This means making the most of the warm spring rather than depending on a hot and bright summer.

Therefore, for the first time in my three years with the cutting garden, I am sowing annuals into the spaces between the bulbs before they have even begun flowering. In both years past I have waited to get the bulbs out prior to planting in the annual flowers. The flowers were started in the greenhouse and ready to go in by this point (usually around late May to mid June), but they were limited in number according to how many I had been able to store or pot on. They were also at the mercy of a hot greenhouse. This time I have been moving the plants on quickly through the greenhouse, hardening them off in the cold frames and then getting them into the gaps between the bulbs. It has meant paying more attention to the plants in all stages; watching for the signs and adjusting the temperatures in the growing spaces accordingly, but the results should (hopefully) be worth the effort.

I have also begun direct-sowing some of the seeds. So far these have included: Ammi majus, Papaver somniferum, Calendula ‘Indian Prince’, Californian poppy, Nigella, quaking grass (Briza maxima) and cornflowers. I have planted out a first row of Ammi majus seedlings, as well as Cosmos and white Larkspur. Next will be the Cleome followed by Zinnias and Dahlias.






Although invariably a favourite of every other gardener, Cerinthe has only more recently become a plant I enjoy growing. It takes quite a while to get going and only really fills it’s allotted space by early Autumn, but once it has, the long drooping stems pay back their return in abundance – and make an ideal filler in a cut flower mix. I saved a handful of the last stems before composting the now enormous bulk of Medusa-like clumps. The foliage is very similar to that of the Sedums, the small flowers like comfrey or Pulmonaria.


Planting Dahlias

Dahlias have had quite a rocky history when it comes to gardening trends. They so often fall all too easily into the ‘love em or hate em’ category; lumped into a single generalisation of taste that accounts for little by way of individual colour, shape, spread and most importantly, application. From their first boom in popularity around the 40s and 50s, all the way through to their much more recent return in the catalogues of Sarah Raven and J.Parkers, these multi-coloured and most striking of plants have endured an ever-fluctuating criticism unrivalled in the gardening world. Nevertheless, a passion for them remains, and the diversity of the retailed dahlia is now vast.

For me, dahlias have become a most dependable and rewarding ally, both as a cut flower and as that crucial lift in the mid Summer border. In fact here at the garden they are a crucial part of the design; printed boldly into the initial planting layout sheets themselves, long before I arrived. Their role is considered essential to the central garden concept in fact, acting to lighten the atmosphere and make fun of the stern and imposing brickwork of the house. Each year as the tulips die back, are removed from the cutting beds and dried out, the over-wintered dahlias are dug back in their rows, ready to continue the show on into Autumn. These offer a continuous supply of cut flowers for the house, while at the same time making large, conspicuous spectacles of colour and form.

However, as the late colour-planting wizard Christopher Lloyd recounts, their attraction ought not simply reside in seeing them lined-out in a designated, separate bed or border. They should instead be ‘assimilated into the garden’s fabric’, this being, as he notes, ‘by far the most appealing way to see them’. And I would agree. In the long border this year I decided to repeat a few particular dahlias; using them as structured colour first and foremost. Once established and kept as slug-free as possible, I’ve found that they form reliable, continuously flowering mounds, drawing together the otherwise scattered individuals within the planting. This effect is further pronounced when there are one or two other plants also repeated throughout the border. The picture below shows bronze ‘Babylon’ dahlias mixing with the blue of the geraniums, coupled along the bed. They’re just getting started now, but will soon make quite an impression.

Back in the cutting rows however, I’ve been lining out dahlias for picking. It’s a simple task, and a nice one on a decent, warm day. There are a few key points to remember when planting out dahlias however, and if put in place from the very start, they can save you a lot of time.

Dahlias have two main enemies; slugs and the wind. Being a plant that grows both very tall and very fleshy, it’s exposed to the perils of a heavy wind and to the inexhaustible appetite of night-creeping molluscs. If a dahlia is simply planted out and left to its own devices, chances of survival, let alone fruition, are pretty slim. Especially in a British climate.

A third danger comes in the form of soil compaction. Dahlias prefer a rich, free-draining soil and, much like their potato relatives, suffer badly from damp, saturated conditions, leading to rot. So the first thing to do is make sure that, once their position is decided, a large and deep hole is dug. If the soil isn’t free draining enough as it is, grit needs to be added to the bottom in order to improve drainage.

The roots then need to be teased out a little, as with ordinary practice when planting out, before firmly placing it into the hole and lightly filling in around. Lightly is the key, as this is another opportunity for compaction to take place.

Next comes staking. Staking is a necessary evil unfortunately, but depending on your method and material, the results needn’t be an eyesore. Like many gardeners, I usually prefer to use canes of hazel or birch to support herbaceous plants, as they’re generally much more aesthetically sympathetic to the planting. However when it comes to dahlias, a good, sturdy bamboo will do the job, and placed deep and indiscreetly within the foliage, you’d never know it was there. In this case it’s definitely function over beauty that matters. The swaying, flower-bearing shoots are then tied in, making sure to secure the knot on the cane, rather than the plant.

Lastly a thick mulch of gravel is layered around the base. This will act as a barrier for slugs and snails, making it difficult to access the plant. I usually combine this with removing some of the lowest leaves, so as to make the journey even more of a likely dead-end for them. From then on, the method of slug removal is down to the individual, and where you stand on slug pellets, inorganic or organic. I prefer to avoid them altogether, although this does result in a lot of hand removal, which isn’t much fun, but you get used to it!

Provided the plants remain regularly watered and tied in, that’s about it. And the reward will far outweigh the initial planting effort.

The Picking Beds

Spring is in full and thorough swing now, and actually despite the somewhat worryingly abnormal Winter, things are looking good in the cutting beds. Better than I had anticipated in fact. Most of the early to mid-flowering tulips are out and growing strong, and I’ve begun allowing myself to pick a few for the house.

It’s our Open Gardens day on Sunday, and so the vicarage is opening it’s doors to the public for charity through the NGS scheme. I’m just hoping the giant magnolia holds on to a few of it’s flowers a little longer.