A broader canvas: Why would a successful art curator give it all up to grow and sell flowers? Because she prefers the cut and thrust of the garden, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online

The only flowers I grow specifically for cutting are sweet peas, which, after a slow start, are still blooming on stems long enough to stuff into a jug. But I'm really mean about cutting flowers from the rest of the garden. Agapanthus? Never, even though they have been blooming in quantity. Lilies? No. I'd rather buy a bunch than rob the garden of them. I'm not alone in this, which is good news for Jane Lindsey, who has built up a good business (Snapdragon) selling cut flowers from her garden in Stirlingshire.

Lindsey has about an acre of flat land around the house and another couple of rougher acres rolling down to a stream, where two sandy and black piglets are rooting around preparing the ground (she hopes) for a mass planting of willow and dogwood. "I do a lot of Christmas stuff," she explains, "wreaths, swags, arrangements. The different coloured stems would be really useful." The flat ground is divided into beds, planted with flowers that Lindsey has found she can grow most easily and which will also last well in a vase.

She started her business in a small way four years ago after abandoning her job as curator of British art at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow. The politics of the art world got her down. So did her basement office. The only time she saw daylight was when she emerged like a mole for her lunch break. So she did an RHS course on gardening, alongside a similar clutch of people wanting to escape from jobs in insurance or teaching or banking. Then she cooked up her business plan.

The germ of the idea came from a friend, bowled over by a vase of 'Carnaval de Nice' tulips. "You just can't buy flowers like that in Glasgow," she said. So Lindsey started selling in a small way, first at local farmers' markets, then via an organic box scheme, where customers could ask for her flowers to be delivered weekly alongside their seasonal fruit and vegetables.

When she and her GP husband moved to their present house, she was able to expand and now has flowers available from April to mid-October. She also does weddings and other events and, with notice, can grow to order: a pink wedding or a purple fundraiser, she'll grow the flowers, then arrange them as well.

For a steady flow of good, cut flowers she depends on five stalwarts: tulips, alliums, lilies, dahlias and gladioli. Tulips are planted fresh each year, the rest stay in the ground. But each of these can provide flowers in an extraordinary range of colours and all last well when cut. The advantage is that Lindsey can produce flowers that more commercial growers avoid - the fabulous parrot tulip 'Rococo', dahlias as dark as church curtains, Turk's cap lilies. "Commercial growers don't do the outward facing lilies because they are more likely to get damaged in transit. That's why breeders developed the upward facing ones. It's not that they are more beautiful. They just take up less space in a box and are easier to transport."

The most outrageous lilies flower in Lindsey's own cutting garden, including fiery tiger lilies at least seven feet high. I love lilies that smell, but Lindsey has learnt that in Scotland they don't sell. "Up here they associate scented lilies with funerals. My regular customers always specify lilies with no scent."

She's also found it's not worth bothering with half-hardy annuals such as asters and zinnias. In her part of Scotland, the growing season is too short and the plants are a fiddle to raise from seed. She does cosmos though, which are great favourites with her customers. They are not commercially viable because they won't stand being out of water. Fresh picked and conditioned, though, they make excellent cut flowers.

When Lindsey started growing, she raised a lot of flowers from seed - "It was the cheapest way of getting a crop" - and she still sows seed of sunflowers, larkspur and cornflowers every year. Cornflowers sell well in Glasgow but "not here in the country. In the country, they think cornflowers are weeds." Sweet peas are winners, especially unusual varieties such as 'Wiltshire Ripple' and old-fashioned 'Matucana' in magenta and purple. Poppies, marigolds and foxgloves are encouraged to self-sow among more permanent plantings and there are huge spreads of apple mint, one of her favourite foliage plants.

Gradually, Lindsey is introducing more perennials into the cutting garden. The initial investment is bigger but, as with her bulbs, she's discovering plants she can depend on to produce a long succession of flowers: scabious, alstroemeria, crocosmia, the big yellow achillea 'Gold Plate', delphiniums, thalictrum.

Alongside those, Lindsey grows big clumps of Stipa gigantea which she loves at all stages of its flowering, and plume poppy, Macleaya cordata. Gardeners have learnt to be wary of plume poppy as it tends to wander all over the place, but perhaps by cutting it constantly Lindsey diminishes its territorial nature. She uses both the buff plumes and the pewter-grey foliage. If the bottoms of the stems are sealed in boiling water, they last a long time in a vase.

The only perennial Lindsey has regretted planting is an artemisia called 'Limelight', lovely till June, hopeless thereafter. It has spread faster than ground elder in one of her cutting beds. "It ought to be sold with a health warning," she says, gazing at the thicket, which she hopes to be able to shift this winter. As always, much depends on the weather. Three of her beds were still under water in May this year as water poured into her garden from the field on higher ground next to them. Her soil, though, is good: more-or-less neutral, some sand, some clay.

Jane Lindsey sells her flowers ready-picked and conditioned. The "shop counter" is a bright green Citroën H van parked in the driveway. Though the house is tucked away, the van means that you can't miss it. Snapdragon is at Sunnyside, Gartacham Road, Balfron Station, Stirlingshire, Scotland. The shop is open every Friday until mid-October (10.30am-6pm) or by appointment. For further details call 01360 660903 or visit the website at www.snapdragongarden.co.uk

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