Gardening; An arranged marriage

In the final part of her series on creating your own cutting garden, Sarah Raven suggests some half-hardy annuals, biennials and hardy perennials that will provide scent, colour and the perfect foliage base for next year's flower arrangements
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF YOU want to be able to pick flowers from your cutting garden continually from March through to October of next year, there are various plants you need to sow alongside your annuals and spring bulbs. To make the patch complete, you need a few biennials, dahlias and foliage perennials, and some half-hardy annuals.

At this stage, your spring-flowering bulbs should be in the post and, ideally, you should be ready to sow your hardy annuals so that they'll grow through the winter and be double the size of those sown in the spring. You should wait until spring before adding half-hardy annuals and dahlias, but late summer is the time to get biennials in the ground and the next few weeks is the best time to plant hardy perennials, too.

First the biennials. Wallflowers in any colour are invaluable for bunches in the spring. They will act as fillers for your arrangements, as background to tulips and hyacinths, and they will fill a room with their incredible scent.

For later flowers, I wouldn't be without Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) or sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) with its tall bushy flower stems in mauve or white. This plant has pretty, sweetly-scented flowers followed by lovely seed cases that look like clusters of thin, upward-pointing, bright green beans. A handful of stems provides the perfect foliage base for bunches of flowers at this time of year.

Biennials are best sown earlier in the summer, but if you sow them now under cover, prick them out and pot them on, they'll be ready to go out in the garden in about six weeks. This will be just in time to settle them in before the winter. If you have a propagator, you accelerate germination and can catch up with those sown outside earlier in the year. It's not ideal, but I'm still sowing my biennials here.

If you can't face growing them yourself, buy them. Autumn bedding plants, par- ticularly wallflowers, are widely available. Unfortunately dwarf varieties in mixed colours like Erysimum 'Persian Carpet' are the most popular. These are a bit stunted for flower-arranging, and I prefer to grow panels of a single colour. Try to find single colours, like any of the 'Bedder Group' which come in cream, primrose, orange, scarlet and deep red, or better still go for the old-fashioned, single colours like the crimson 'Blood Red', orange 'Fireking' or purple 'Vulcan'. They'll come bare-rooted in bunches of 10. Check that they haven't been hanging around. They should look fresh and perky - if they look limp or have slimy yellowing leaves, don't buy them and find out when a fresh delivery is coming in.

When you get them home, soak the roots for 24 hours in water and then plant them, spaced from 12 to 18 inches apart.

Perennial euphorbias are the best large-scale foliage plants you can grow for flower arranging. They have substantial woody stems with brilliant acid-green plateaux of flowers, ideal as a starting point for any large arrangement.

There are three in particular that excel. For spring-picking, go for E palustris. It has bushy stems about a metre high. You'll only need between three and five for a whopping great arrangement. In May this is joined by the orange-flowered variety, E griffithii. This has flowers the colour of Heinz tomato soup and looks superb with crimson-black Parrot tulips and the black cornflower Centaurea cyanus 'Black Ball'. E schillingii is the one for summer and early autumn. It replaces E palustris with bushy spikes of brilliant acid-green. If you don't want to use up valuable space in your cutting patch, plant them in groups of three somewhere in your general flower beds. Wear gloves to pick euphorbias: their sap can cause an eczema-like rash.

Try to get all these plants in the ground in late summer or early autumn, but don't forget the half-hardy annuals and dahlias which should be sown or ordered next spring. Without a dazzling display of dahlias and pompom-headed zinnias, and without tobacco plants like the lime-green Nicotiana alata, or the deep crimson, velvety flowers of Antirrhinum 'Liberty Crimson', no cutting garden could be complete.

Sarah Raven has a seed catalogue specialising in flowers for cutting. She also runs flower-arranging courses. Telephone 01424 838181 for details.