Looking for a garden project this spring? In a new series, Maura Sheehy of Maura’s Cottage Flowers shares her tips to create a wildflower “cutting garden” to supply you with blooms all summer long.
When she reached the first hills of the Italic Mountains
This cutting garden project doesn’t require prior knowledge, involves very little physical work after initial ground preparation, and costs very little money. It is ideal for those who love to have fresh flowers in their homes and are, at present, probably buying these flowers in the local supermarket on a weekly basis.
The idea of managing a garden can be daunting if you are a complete novice, but by undertaking the cutting garden project you will see how much time, money, energy and dedication you will be able to give to gardening as a hobby. The project will begin in March and the plot should be productive until October. Two hours a week is the most it should require to keep everything under control, so any time you have 20 minutes to spare, you can escape to the garden.
For the purpose of keeping things as easy as possible, the cutting patch will be stocked with annuals only, as it will help keep costs down and if, at the end of the season, you find it is not for you, at least the whole area can be put back into grass. If you are an experienced gardener, however, you can also include some bulbs, perennials, shrubs and hedging plants to use in floral arrangements.
Play in the dirt because life is too short to always have clean fingernails” – Garden Therapy.
Just about anyone can try their hand at this project, whether you are an enthusiastic 10-year-old or have just retired. You will be paid handsomely in an abundance of flowers that will delight the senses. So, be prepared to be dazzled by the colour, swept off your feet by the amazing scents, look forward to the taste of edible petals (details in a future column), learn to appreciate the earthy touch of the soil and anticipate the delight of some peace and quiet that will only be disturbed by a visiting bird or insect in the months to come. So, let’s get started.
1. Measure it out: The cutting patch can be any size or shape you want, but I would suggest a small plot to begin with, such as 3ft x 6ft. Georgie Newberry suggests a bed 9ft x 12 ft in her book The Flower Farmer’s Year. Straight lines tend to work best in a functional area such as this, as it allows easy access to all the flowers and it is easier to stake taller varieties when they are grown in straight lines.
2. Pick a plot: Take a little time to decide on the best location for your cutting garden. I always find it easier to work with nature, so figure out the area in your garden that gets the most sun (a south-facing aspect is preferable). If the area also has protection from the wind, it will make growing flowers much easier. If you feel that wind may be an issue, this problem is easy to overcome with wind barriers such as recycled palettes or ask in your local garden centre. You will also need a water source near the patch. If you can place the bed near a patio or the back door you will have the added bonus of a beautiful scent wafting through for several months.
3. Prepare the soil: If you like to keep the garden neat and tidy, a raised bed might be a good idea. However, you can grow directly into the garden soil. Prepare the soil in the cutting garden plot in advance, making sure to remove weeds and larger stones. A crumbly soil is what you will ideally have after this initial preparation. If you have an overgrown area, it will require a little more effort, but the setting up of any garden bed should be a job you need to do only once, so be prepared to give it your best shot.
Make sure the area is moist before you begin groundwork. The one item I would suggest investing in is a good garden fork and hoe. Then pull on your gloves and get stuck in. If you take one section at a time and start with the bigger weeds, you will see a difference very quickly.
4. Banish those weeds: The advantage of starting this project in March is that a lot of weeds will have died back during the winter and it will be relatively easy to weed. I would suggest laying a sheet of clear plastic on the plot for a couple of weeks after initial weeding. This will encourage any weed seeds to germinate as the soil begins to warm up and by the time you will be ready to put your young plants into the soil, most of the weeds will be removed.
If you find that you have more difficult weeds like creeping ivy or briars, you will have to cover for a long period of time. Old carpet is great to lay on the area, or use a bark mulch for a more natural look.
5. Consider a raised bed: If you are taking over a grassy area, rather than digging out the grass, consider covering the entire area with cardboard and building a raised bed on it, as this is a quick way to get started. A raised bed can be built on site by cutting and securing the desired sized timber frame and then securing the bed by driving in corner posts (make sure to cut these posts diagonally so that they are easy to hammer into the soil) and screw them to the frame. Why not ask a friend or your partner to get involved if you need an extra hand?
As an organic gardener, I tend to recycle when possible, so I use old scaffolding boards for my raised beds. However, you can buy high-grade pressure-treated timber or, indeed, a raised-bed kit in your local garden centres. The height of the board varies between six to 10 inches. Some people treat timber with flax oil. This protects the timber as it is water repellent and also seemingly deters slugs.
The final ingredient is some topsoil. Ideally, soil needs to be soft, light and airy so that roots can easily access the necessary nutrition. If you feel your soil quality is poor, you can either buy in some screened top soil and/or add some good-quality compost (homemade or shop bought) to the bed. Remove any large rocks as they can also be obstacles for young roots. Do not overfill the beds with soil; fill it up to about three-quarters full. As a quick check for depth, try the knuckle test: you should be able to sink your finger into the soil right up to your knuckle. Raised beds have many advantages:
- If you have heavy clay soil, it will heat up quicker and will have better drainage.
- If your soil is very poor, by building a raised bed you can improve your soil.
- They can be built to suit the gardener’s needs, eg if you have a bad back or are in a wheelchair, a higher bed can be built to make tending the flowers easier.
However, if you have a sandy soil, it is not a good idea to build raised beds as the soil will dry out too quickly in warmer weather. You can simply mark out the bed with a few posts and garden string. A reasonable soil will be suitable for all of the flowers listed except the sweet peas, as they like the addition of a well-rotted manure or compost to their growing site. They will need extra support such as a wigwam, which we will look at later in the series.
Tips for picking your flowers
Choose varieties of flowers that will just keep giving and giving all summer long. Many of the annuals listed are known as “cut and come again”. The more you cut, the more they grow and they will thrive with just a little care and attention. Ten is a very good number of varieties to start with.
1. Cosmos: Popular annual with a slender shape, ferny foliage and large flowers.
2. Cornflower: Popular wild flower, known for its deep blue hue.
3. Nigella: Also known as “love-in-a-mist”, this delicate flower attracts bees and self seeds easily.
4. Ammi Majus: Boasts a lacy appearance in bloom and makes a really great filler.
5. Sweet Pea: A nostalgic favourite, the range of colours and heady scents cannot be beaten in the cutting garden.
6. Antirrihinium: Also known as the snapdragon, this colourful flower is one of the easiest plants to grow.
7. Straw flowers (helichrysum): The most popular of the “ever-lasting” flowers, it resembles a double daisy and bears strawy petals.
8. Calendula: Best known as the marigold, this self-seeding summer flower will also brighten up a salad.
9. Poppies: The red “ladybird” variety adds cheer to any bed.
10. Larkspur: Known as the “poor man’s delphinium”, an excellent cut flower in a beautiful range of colours.