Pretty and Practical

Winter flowers aplenty from the food garden.

Alice Spenser-Higgs

If you are hooked on the pleasure of picking your own grown veggies and herbs, why not extend that to cut flowers that will fill your home with colour in winter? A cutting garden fits easily into a veggie garden because it needs the same conditions; plenty of sun, a level site, well-composted soil and good air circulation to prevent fungus disease but also some protection from draughts in winter. Likewise, beds can follow the same layout: rectangular with narrow pathways in between for ease of access and space to work.

Planning tips

  • Plant the same variety of cut flower in a bed or section of a bed. It is space efficient and easier when it comes to cutting.  Group varieties with the similar sun, water and drainage requirements in the same area.
  • Annuals and perennials should be planted separately because annuals have a much shorter production period and will be changed seasonally. Allow space for successive crops of spring, summer, autumn and winter flowering annuals to be planted together.
  • Plant tall flowers towards the back and smaller ones to the front so that the taller ones don’t shade the lower growers.

What makes a good cut flower?

They should be easy to grow, flower prolifically and produce sturdy or long, straight stems, says Marlaen Straathof of Kirchhoffs Seeds. “The stems need to be a good length but, “she adds, “they don’t have to be ultra-long because when I buy cut flowers the first thing I do is cut the stems to fit the vase and I am sure most people do too.”

One of her favourite winter cut flowers is pansies, which produce long enough stems to make a beautiful low table arrangement that doesn’t force people to peer at each other around them.

Also, choose varieties that last well in the vase, hold their flower shape and make a statement, with bold, large, colourful or well-formed blooms.

Winter cut flowers for the food garden

If the family’s taste doesn’t run to extensive plantings of cabbage, broccoli and kale, filling the beds with flowers will be a winner all round. It is another way of practising crop rotation too, by giving the soil a break before the next summer crop of tomatoes and other veggies is planted.

Climbing sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are a great space saver and provide a heady perfume. Heirloom varieties have smaller flowers but a much stronger scent. Prepare the soil to a depth of 50cm (either a hole or trench) with lots of additional compost, well-rotted manure, and a handful of agricultural lime per square metre. Sprinkle iron chelate at the bottom of the hole and add superphosphate or bonemeal for root development. Set up the trellis before planting so that the plants tendrils can cling to it as they grow. When plants are about 18cm high, pinch off the top leaves. This encourages strong basal shoots. Never let the roots dry out, but also make sure that the soil does not get waterlogged. Fertilise again when the plants start to flower.

Calendula officinalis doubles as a herb and its petals are edible. Grow in full sun in fertile soil and water regularly. Plants grow up to 30 cm, with orange or yellow full-petalled daisy-like flowers. The stronger the colour of the petals the higher their medicinal value. Infuse the petals to make an anti-bacterial mouthwash or gargle for a sore throat or use it to bathe eyes to relieve conjunctivitis.

Dianthus barbatus interspecific varieties are generally short-lived perennials that can be grown as an annual. This type produces round heads of flowers on long, straight stems above dark green glossy foliage. ‘Amazon’ ( up to 60cm) has brilliant, neon coloured flowers while ‘Jolt’ is shorter (50cm) but is more heat tolerant so will grow through to summer. The hybrid ‘Sweet’ series grows even taller, up to 90cm and its long-stemmed flowers are fragrant and last very well in the vase. Staking is not necessary and they are ‘cut and come again’ flowers that bloom repeatedly. Grow in fertile soil that drains well and in full sun.

Delphinium has earned pride of place in the cut flower garden because of its majestic, royal blue flower spikes (white, pink and light blue as well). Planted during the cooler months it will flower in spring and early summer, so it is worth making a place for it. Plants like morning sun and afternoon shade, consistently moist soil that is mulched to keep the roots cool. Fertilise when plants start growing in spring. After cutting off spent flower spikes, fertilise and water and plants will bloom again in autumn. It is a short-lived perennial.

Larkspur (Delphinium Consolida) is a traditional cottage flower that is regarded as an annual version of delphinium. It also produces spikes of flowers in shades of blue, pink and white but its foliage differs, being finer and more fern-like.  Plants don’t have quite the same majestic quality of the delphinium. Chill the seed before sowing and plant out in autumn so that the roots are established by winter. Plants will flower in spring.

Pansies offer a huge variety of colours and the larger flowered varieties like Matrix and Mammoth grow up to 20cm with individual flowers about 9cm wide. They can be planted as a border in front of other cut flowers or around the vegetables. Sun, fertile soil, and regular watering is all they need.

Phlox Paniculata is the phlox cut-flower variety and plants carry large beautiful clusters of scented flowers on sturdy stems. The flowers attract butterflies. Regular cutting or removing dead blooms encourages more flowers. They grow in ordinary garden soil (not too fertile), are water-wise, and should only be fertilised once, otherwise, they get too leafy and flower less.

Ranunculus is usually grown as a spring bulb and not regarded as a conventional cut flower. The Maché series, however, is available as young plants, and their strong stems make them good cut flowers. Their mature height is 40cm and the blooms are large and brilliantly coloured. Grow in full sun in soil that drains well and water regularly.

Snapdragons (Antirrhinum Majus) are also traditional cottage garden flowers and the tallest variety, aptly named Rocket, grows 70 to 90cm high, and is available in eight individual shades as well as a mix. For good stems, plant in full sun, in well-composted soil. Water well to get established and then taper off to regular, deep watering around the base of the plant. Overhead watering is not recommended. Remove dead flowers and stake if necessary. If cut back in spring it will act as a short-lived perennial and flower again in autumn or winter.

Sunflower (Helianthus) ‘Galilee Adami’ is a winter variety that blooms within 75 days. It has large flowers (16 to 18cm in diameter) and grows upright, between 1.3 and 1.7m with a strong stem. Side shoots produce smaller blooms that are even better for the vase. It is easy to grow, but needs space; ideal for the back of the food garden where there is plenty of sunshine.

Stocks (Matthiola Incana), like sweet peas, offer a delicious fragrance. The ‘Katz’ series is a cut-flower variety that grows up to 80cm high with a good range of colours; shades of purple, pink, yellow and pale apricot. The blooms last well when picked. They grow well in sandy soil (ideal for coastal gardens) and will tolerate heavier soil if plenty of compost is added. They prefer morning sun and will flower longer if watered and fed regularly.

Routine care

  • Fertilise once a month with a potassium rich fertiliser, such as 5:1:5, 8:1:5, or Vigorosa.
  • Water early in the morning and do not water every day but rather give a deep watering once or twice a week, depending on weather conditions. Whatever irrigation system is used, make sure that it won’t water-log the blooms.
  • Spray regularly with organic insecticides to prevent sucking insects like aphids and thrips, as well as beetles that damage blooms.
  • Pick regularly and deadhead to encourage the maximum production of more flowers. This prevents the plant from forming seeds which slows flower production.

Good to know: When picking, carry a bucket of water and put the cut blooms straight into the water. Flowers can be arranged immediately or kept in a bucket filled with water in a cool, dark room overnight. This allows the stems to absorb as much water as possible.

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