Gardening: Add drama to your plot

The flowers that look best in the house are not necessarily those that you would choose for your garden, says Sarah Raven. For a cutting garden, you should be bold and go for brilliantly coloured hyacinths and flamboyant tulips
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IF YOU ARE making a cutting garden, annuals will be the mainstay, providing you with flowers for the house for most of the year. But in the spring bulbs will provide you with bright, glamorous flowers that will stand out and dominate the bunch.

By February or March, two of the hardy annuals discussed last week will already be in flower; Cerinthe major `Purpurascens', with its ghostly silver and purple flowers, and Euphorbia oblongata (syn E. palustris `Zauberflote'). They are remarkable for flowering so early and you should have great swathes of these in your cutting patch to provide you with interesting foliage.

Now is the time to start ordering bulbs to go with them (for suppliers, see right). For March picking, hyacinths and narcissi are invaluable, guaranteeing you flowers before the tulips have got going. Avoid the most expensive hyacinths, with 18 to 20in flower spikes. These are too chunky. The cheapest 12 to 14in group have much better proportions for flower arranging.

Don't be prejudiced against strong colours. Flowers that look good in a vase are not necessarily those that will look best in your garden. My favourite garden hyacinths are `Jan Bos' in searing, brilliant pink and `Woodstock' or `Distinction' in beetroot purple. Avoid `Gipsy Queen' - which is a terrible flesh pink - at all costs.

The best of all, from a flower-arranging perspective, are multiflora hyacinths, which look more like a wild hyacinth with 10 or 15 small flowers spread out on the stem. They are delicate, pretty things which look lovely in small vases with sprigs of blossom, hellebores or snowdrops.

There is only one narcissus I would grow specifically for cutting, though I would plant another under a tree in huge numbers, so that I could pick some without reducing their impact. The narcissus for the cutting patch is N. `Geranium'. It flowers for twice as long as any other and lasts twice as long in a vase. It has lots of flowers on the top of each stem, cream petals around an orange perianth (the central cup), and a delicious, strong perfume that will fill any room. N. poeticus `Old Pheasant's Eye' is the one for the grass. It flowers in May, much later than other daffodils and has simple white flowers with a yellow, crimson-rimmed perianth. It has a superb scent, too.

For April and early May picking, you need tulips. The single early T. `Generaal de Wet' is one of my favourite April flowers. It has large orange cups and a sweet, freesia-like scent. I also like the showy `Mickey Mouse'. This has a buttercup- yellow base, with slashes of scarlet. If you live in a rainy place, choose the bulk of your tulips from the Triumph group which are the most weather- resistant and won't get pockmarked by the rain. There is nothing worse than spending a fortune on tulips only to have them all ruined.

Go for the deep ox-blood red, gold edged `Abu Hassan', or the blackcurrant- juice purple `Recreado'. They are both unharmed by rain. This is sadly not true of the handsome single late `Queen of Night' with its 2 to 3ft stems and large crimson-black flowers. It can be grown under cover, but it will be covered in brown and white flecks from a day in the rain.

For hardier tulips on the same scale, there are two excellent Darwin hybrids. `Ivory Floradale' has huge cream flowers, like ostrich eggs, with butter-yellow centres. The perennial `Gudoshnick' is also spectacular: golden with a feathering of scarlet. It comes up year after year, even if heavily picked the year before. It's a good idea to grow at least one from the elegant, slim, lily-flowered group, with pointed petals. Try the sweetly scented orange `Ballerina', and `White Triumphator' - the best white tulip you can grow, with tall stems and tapering, stately flowers.

For May flowering, choose from the viridiflora and parrot groups. The viridifloras have green striped flowers. The cream-based `Spring Green' and the orange `Golden Artist' are long-lasting in the garden and when cut. There are lots of flamboyant parrot tulips, but the scented `Orange Favourite', feathered with purple and green, and the gold `Texas Flame', slashed with red, seem to go on looking good for longest whatever the weather. The final tulip that everyone should grow is the weird T. acuminata, which looks like a yellow and red striped daddy-long-legs on top of a tall, thin stem.

Both hyacinths and narcissi benefit from an early autumn planting so they can form substantial roots. With tulips, it makes no difference. I planted mine just before Christmas last year and they did fine. Narcissi grow well in sun or partial shade and thrive on most soils, except water- logged bog. Hyacinths and tulips flower best in full sun.

It's a good idea to add some grit to your soil if you garden on heavy clay. Dig the soil to a depth of 8 to 10in where you want to plant your bulbs. Line it with two inches of grit, then spread out your bulbs an inch or two apart (ie much closer than you're told) and replace the soil, firming it down with your hand rather than foot to avoid crushing the bulbs. Never plant them in groups of less than 15 or 20.

Sarah Raven also runs courses on how to make a cutting garden. Tel: 01424 838181

This week

1 Good bulb catalogues include: De Jager, The Nurseries, Marden, Kent TN12 9BP, tel 01622 831235, fax 01622 832416. Van Tubergen, Bressingham, Diss, Norfolk IP22 2AB, tel 01379 688282, fax 01379 687227. Peter Nyssen, 124 Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester, M41 5BG, tel 0161 747 4000, fax 0161 748 6319

1 With the strain of flowering, the foliage of phlox and monardas tends to get mildew at this time of year. Avoid this by keeping them well-fed and watered, leaving the hosepipe on them for 10 minutes or so a couple of times a week and watering them with liquid seaweed once a fortnight. Do this, rather than use a fungicide spray

1 Remember to water greenhouse tomatoes twice a day. Watering little and often is better than a weekly deluge, which will cause the fruit to split where it joins the stem

1 If you have huge-leaved rheums like R. palmatum `Atrosanguineum' growing in the garden, the spring leaves will be looking pretty ragged by now. Cut these down. There is still time before the autumn for fresh ones to grow