Gardening: Be your own florist

Over the next four weeks, Sarah Raven will be offering a step- by-step guide to transforming an ignored corner of your lawn or vegetable plot into a cutting garden which will supply you with flowers for most of the year. In part one, she describes how to clear a patch and prepare the soil
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The Independent Culture
WOULD YOU like to have a houseful of home-grown flowers from next March to next October? Cut flowers in every room of the house, every week for seven or eight months of the year? You'll start with baskets of hyacinths, tulips and wallflowers in the spring, move on to poppies, marigolds, sweet peas and sunflowers in the summer then tobacco plants, phlox and larkspur in the autumn. And the more you pick, the more they will flower.

If this sounds appealing, you must start preparing soon. You will need a sunny, sheltered spot which is easy to clear, measuring at least 7ft by 9ft. A corner of the vegetable plot is ideal, but you could steal an area of the lawn, or a bit of a flower bed which is looking a little empty. It's useful to have a tap nearby: you will need lots of water to settle the plants in.

You can deal with the annual weeds when you're preparing the soil, but perennials must be eradicated before you start. If you garden organically, as I do, you can't use the weedkiller glyphosate. If you're not in a hurry, carpet the lot with black plastic and wait until the weeds have died off next year. Otherwise, the only way to get rid of them is to turn the plot three or four times with a hired rotavator, leaving a couple of weeks between rotavations.

Every section of root is a potential plant, but plants with a tiny root are smaller and weaker. The first rotavation will cut up the roots of the weeds. Then, just when they start to grow and show green, clobber them again and then again, until they disappear. This should get rid of couch grass, docks and ground elder, but it is less good at killing bindweed and marestail. If you have these, don't even attempt it. Choose a different patch.

Soil conditioning and fertility are key to success. What you want is soil that has a light, crumbly consistency, which is easy to work. You also want it rich and well- drained. In a month or so, in the late summer and early autumn, you will be sowing lots of seed. The soil you're aiming for should look and feel like apple crumble topping, with an approximately equal mix of loam, grit and organic matter.

You can achieve this in a very short time, however bad your soil, if you add the right ingredients. If you garden on heavy clay, or poorly- drained peat, you have a potentially fertile soil, but it is often sopping wet. Plants find it difficult to push through and hate sitting in a pool of cold water through the winter and early spring. Many of them will just rot away.

Rub some soil between your fingers: clay is smooth, slimy and often bluey- grey. Peat is treacly-black. Water won't drain away instantly in either soil. The opposite is true of sand and chalk. You will normally see the lumps of chalk through the soil. Sandy soil is rough to touch and you can make pits easily with your hands.

If your plot is on clay or peat, you need to add barrow-loads of washed inland sharp sand to lighten the soil. You should dig in lots of compost on a clay soil, too. The organic material will feed the soil, the earthworms and microbes. They are key to the health and productivity of your patch. The inland sharp sand will break up any heavy clods.

Inland sharp sand is much cheaper than horticultural grit. Don't make the mistake of ordering builder's sand: it is too fine and won't break up the lumps nearly as well.

Carpet the patch in a 2in layer of grit and further 2in of mushroom compost or, even better, your own home-made stuff. Then dig or rotavate the whole lot in. It's miraculous: the consistency changes immediately and it becomes a joy to work. If your top soil has lumps 2 or 3in across, you're nearly there. All you need now is a rake. If the lumps are bigger than this, repeat the whole process.

If you're on a light, freely-draining sandy or chalky soil, you have the opposite problem. It's light and easy to work, but water drains straight through it, leaching out the goodness in the soil. You need to enrich it with lots of slimy, sticky organic material such as farmyard, pig or horse manure. The problem with farmyard manure is that it often contains a potential forest of weeds, so it is best to dig it in, keeping the seeds away from the light.

If you have the energy, dig over the patch in a series of trenches. Dig one out to the depth of your spade and line the base with the manure. Dig the next, placing the soil you remove over the top of the manure in the trench next door, so burying it deeply away from the light. You can use a rotavator, but do make sure you mix the manure in well.

Once your soil is ready, mark out paths with spray paint or dry sand poured from a bottle. I would go for four rectangular beds with their central corners chopped off to allow room for a central sweet pea tepee. You want to be able to reach every plant and make the paths wider than 18in to avoid treading on things. Cover the paths with a 2in layer of washed inland sharp sand if on poorly drained soil, or sterile compost on sand or chalk. This will act as a mulch over the paths and prevent the germination of annual weeds.

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

a.. if you*ve got baskets and pots of annual bedding plants, petunias, pelargoniums or nicotianas, they will be flowering thick and fast by now and will need dead-heading every few days. With petunias and nicotianas, just pull off the dead and dying flowers. With pelargoniums, you need to use scissors or secateurs. Cut the flower and stem back to the bud below. Also, remember to give them a balanced liquid feed every couple of weeks to build them up and prolong their flowering season.

a.. Euphorbias, with their bright acid-green flowers are some of my favourite plants in the garden and for flower arranging too. Their colour is perfect to mix with rich crimsons and purples, and it*s brilliant with whites, blues and yellows as well. I also love the orange-vermilion coloured Euphorbia griffithii varieties which are superb in late spring and also colour up in ochre and red in the autumn. If you are using them for cut flowers, use gloves to pick them, so you don*t get covered in their milky sap. Lots of people are allergic to this, causing irritation to the eyes and an exzema-like rash on the face. As soon as you get the cut euphorbias into the house, sear the stem end in boiling water for 30 seconds. This will seal the sap in, and will prevent the flower water turning cloudy and white and protect you as you arrange them.

a.. Euphorbias are one of the easiest plants to strike from cuttings, so you can multiply your collection many fold and now is the perfect time. Remove several non-flowering side-branches 2-3 inches long. Pinch out the tip and remove all the bottom leaves. Push three or four cuttings, spaced a couple of inches apart, into a gritty mix of about two thirds compost, one third vermiculite or washed inland sharp sand. Keep them in a warm, light place, watering them regularly and they will root in about two weeks. Pot them on into individual larger pots and then put them out in the garden when their roots have filled those.

1 Petunias, pelargoniums or nicotianas will need dead-heading every few days now. With petunias and nicotianas, just pull off the dead flowers. With pelargoniums, use secateurs. Cut the flower and stem back to the bud below. Give them a balanced liquid feed every couple of weeks to prolong their flowering season.

1 Acid-green euphorbias look wonderful with brilliantly coloured flowers. The orange-vermilion coloured euphorbia griffithii varieties are superb in late spring and colour up in ochre and red in the autumn. Use gloves to pick them, so you don't get covered in their milky sap which can cause irritation to the eyes and an eczema-like rash on the face. As soon as you get the cut euphorbias into the house, sear the stem end in boiling water for 30 seconds. This will seal the sap in, and prevent the flower water turning cloudy as you arrange them.

1 Now is the best time to take cuttings from euphorbias. Remove several 2 to 3in non-flowering side branches. Pinch out the tip and remove the bottom leaves. Space three or four cuttings, a couple of inches apart, in a gritty mix of about two thirds compost, one third vermiculite. Keep them in a warm, light place and water regularly. Pot them on into individual pots in a couple of weeks, and then into the garden.

1 NEXT WEEK: HARDY ANNUALS FOR YOUR CUTTING GARDEN

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