Gardening: Pick of the bunch

When it comes to making a cutting garden, annuals are the best choice of plants, says Sarah Raven. They are inexpensive, have a long flowering season and the more you pick, the more they flower.
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The Independent Culture
ANNUALS OUTDO every other plant that you can grow for flower arranging. The first and most decisive factor is that the more you pick, the more they flower.

I've just done a trial to prove it with my favourite Calendula `Indian Prince', a bright orange flower with crimson undersides to its petals. I had two lines: one from which I picked every week, and another which I left alone. I have been picking from the former for three months and it's only just beginning to look tired. The other line flowered for six weeks and then ran to seed.

Another advantage of annuals is their long flowering season. Many that flower in the late spring continue until the arrival of the autumn frosts. No perennial can compete with this. Take the bright-blue spikes of Salvia viridis (Syn S. horminium) which lines the paths of my cutting garden - in May you can mix them with Calendula `Indian Prince', or the bright yellow and orange Calendula `Artist's Selection Mix', and they are still good for arranging with dahlias in late autumn. It looks like lavender, but flowers for four times as long.

The same is true of the acid-green flowered Euphorbia oblongata (syn E. palustris `Zauberflote'). I often pick this in February to arrange with snowdrops and hellebores, and will still be harvesting small side branches after the autumn frosts. And then there's my favourite hardy annual of all, Scabiosa atropurpurea, or the pincushion plant. I picked a bunch from this on Christmas day last year.

Perennials are much more expensive than annuals. To make a small cutting patch the size of a large double bed will cost you several hundred pounds and you won't have many flowers to show for your money in the first, or even second, year. And if you want to propagate the plants yourself to save money, it will be more like four or five years before you're picking bucketfuls of flowers.

Spend pounds 15 or pounds 20 on 10 or 12 packets of annual seed, on the other hand, and your patch will be crammed full of flowers in its first year. Lots of these plants have large seeds which are easy to collect and many of them, such as the beautiful love-in-a-mist, or Nigella damascena, are prolific self-seeders anyway. Invest in one packet and you won't need to buy any more. If plants appear somewhere you don't want them, just dig them up and transplant them to your cutting patch.

The self-seeding Cerinthe major `Purpurascens', with its silver leaf and hanging purple-blue flowers, is one of the most fashionable plants this year. Its foliage is perfect for flower arranging, lasting for months in the garden and over a fortnight in vases. It looks marvellous planted next to a mixed strip of blue and crimson-black cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus `Black Ball' and `Blue Boy'. They'll flower in early May and the three plants will provide you with an instant flower arrangement.

With annuals, everything is flexible. You won't be stuck with plants you don't like. You can experiment with a couple of new plants every year, adding them to ones you love. You might like bold and brilliant colours this year, but may prefer softer shades in a couple of years.

The final argument in favour of annuals is that they are ideal if you garden organically. With all the health and vigour of short-lived plants, they rarely suffer from pests and diseases so you won't have to worry about mildew, blackspot or aphids.

Hardy annuals will thrive if you get them into the ground in late summer. I sow mine any time between 15 August and 15 September, and the plants far outdo annuals sown at the more conventional time of mid-April next year. Sowing into warm, moist soil over the next few weeks means germination is quick and plants will form huge root balls through the winter creating larger, more productive plants. Ammi majus, for example, the lovely, more delicate form of cow parsley, will reach 7ft if grown now and only half that size if left until April.

Now is also a better time to sow as things are fairly quiet in the garden. April, in contrast, is frantic. Don't, however, try and sow any earlier than the middle of the month. The plants may try to flower this year which will exhaust them, and they won't survive the winter.

Sarah Raven also runs courses on how to make a cutting garden. Tel: 01424 838571

and arranging flowers on her farm in East Sussex. You learn about the best plants to grow in the morning, pick from the cutting gardens and arrange flowers in the afternoon. Next year, she will be teaching in venues all the way round the country. She also compiles a specialist cut flower catalogue, including the annuals mentioned above. Contact Sarah Raven*s Cutting Garden, Perch Hill Farm, Brightling, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5HP Tel 01424 838239 Fax 01424 838571

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