As a change from my usual Monday vase, and for this week only, I am reviewing my recent visit to a large scale flower farm. As this subject is so relevant to what we do here every Monday I am still linking up with Cathy at Rambling In The Garden and hope that there is something useful here for everyone with a cutting garden, large, small or tiny.
Back in the dark days of January I found myself scrolling through my Instagram feed early one morning and stopping on a post advertising a wedding flower course to take place over the longest days in June. The course offered a full day learning about the mechanics of running a flower farm on the beautiful Green & Gorgeous Flower Farm, followed by a second day being shown how to make beautiful wedding bouquets by The Garden Gate Flower Company who are 2 of my favourite farmer florists. It was a sight to warm my chilly January heart and I signed up without delay at a time when June seemed a lifetime away.
The reality is that my much anticipated course has come and gone all too quickly. I set off last week for the Oxfordshire countryside on a rainy Monday afternoon and found myself back in the car driving home after a whirlwind couple of days all too soon. Readers my head was spinning on that drive home – so much to take in and digest. I have decided to split the two days over two posts, so that I can concentrate fully on what I learnt over each day.
Whilst Peonies & Posies is all about growing cutting flowers on the domestic scale – enough for yourself with some left over to share with family & friends, Green & Gorgeous is a large scale flower farm and as I digest all that I have heard I need to assess how to apply what I have learnt to my own much more moderate flowery needs.
Day 1 was all about flower farming – Green & Gorgeous is a cutting garden on a truly grand scale. Spread over 6 sprawling acres this flower farm grows beautiful flowers and foliage in quantities it is hard too imagine without actually walking the farm yourself. Green & Gorgeous is run by an extremely dedicated and hard working couple – Rachel & her husband Ash. Day 1 of the course was run by Rachel – a confident, knowledgable and immensely practical lady.
The biggest secret of their successful growing probably lies in the collection of covered polytunnels which provide a year round protected growing space. Whilst I have experimented on a small scale with growing flowers under cover in my greenhouse I had not appreciated just how many varieties of flowers will perform better under cover if you have the space and these tunnels are huge!!
These are no ordinary polytunnels – as you can see from the support structures they are immense.
In the late winter and early spring they would have been packed with tulips, anemones and ranunculus growing protected from the wind, rain and chilly temperatures. Now they are home to early flowering hardy annuals which are already coming to the end of flowering life just as my garden flowers are starting to pop.
I cannot begin to imagine having to harvest this lot – it is hard enough with my own small row of indoor sweet peas.
Even roses and perennials are grown under cover. This structure is called a Spanish tunnel and has raised sides and open ends but provides protection from the rain giving the roses a much better chance of success. After a failed peony crop this year Rachel is planning to move some peonies under cover to see how they perform.
Once away from the tunnels the farm is laid out in a series of areas dedicated to growing flowers, shrubs and berries of all kinds. The boundaries are planted with a wonderful natural hedge providing a great selection of foliage and all the flowers are grown in long rows keeping each variety separate. As Rachel was clear to explain this is a farm and not a flower garden, so the most practical way to grow and harvest flowers on a large scale is in straight rows. That is not to say it is not beautiful though – the sight of all these lovely flowers on such a large scale is truly delicious.
Above you can see the newly planted dahlia bed in the foreground with the cornflowers below growing in amongst wind breaks and support netting.
For me seeing these ranks of delphiniums was a pivotal moment. I grow a few of these beautiful stately flowers in my garden borders but the idea of growing them in rows like cabbages had not occurred to me – even though the season is short I would love to be able to fill a large vase with these beauties at least once a year and I think they would be easier to feed, stake and protect from slugs grown like this rather than competing with other plants in a mixed bed.
These rows of peonies should have been a glorious explosion of beauty but Rachel admitted the peony season had been a disaster with very few making it to the point of sale. You may have noticed that my posts have been practically devoid of peonies this month. I was concerned that my beloved peonies had contracted a virus or fungus as they have preformed so badly this year. The flowers have been misshapen, often brown and even promising buds have opened brown in the vase. Rachel has had the same problems – it would seem that the warm winter followed by very late frosts and so much rain has been a disaster for the peonies. Even the plants that have produced beautiful flowers in my garden have had those blooms destroyed almost as soon as they open by the rain. Rachel is planning to move some of these plants under cover to see if they do better there.
I tend to think of my cutting garden as a place to grow annual flowers. Whilst I have always had the two dedicated peony beds and have recently started to add roses to my larger cutting beds, perennials are not something I have tended to include in the mix. Rachel grows many perennials that are beautiful in flower arrangements in amongst her rows of annuals. Below you can see a profusion of astrantias:
Alchemilla on a large scale:
The beautiful tall yellow scabious cephalaria gigantea:
Plenty of hardy geraniums:
And the lovely flat heads of achillea.
Every corner of the farm was filled to overflowing with either flowers or shrubs or herbs and plenty of vegetables found a space between the rows as well.
Flowers that are not earmarked for the many weddings that Rachel supplies make their way into the Saturday shop which must be a delight for all the local flower lovers.
So having had a few days to ponder on my experience, how will this affect my own cutting garden? Clearly I do not need to produce flowers on anything like the scale that Rachel does. I do, however, like to have material for cutting available for as much of the year as possible and I enjoy having a surplus for odd events such as parties and weddings. I also want my cutting garden to be a beautiful and magical place that I enjoy spending time in.
I think what I will take away is:
- I need to continue to build my collection of shrubs for cutting from – foliage provides the building blocks of any arrangement and the more varieties of shrubs you have to pick from the more individual your arrangements will become. When choosing shrubs think about leaf colour and form, flowers and berries.
- I am going to include more perennials in my cutting beds – this will both reduce the work of continually filling the beds with annuals and also provide a lot of the airy fillers so necessary to bring life to an arrangement.
- When planning my cutting garden in future years I will think more about shapes than flower type. Basically flowers can be described as balls, flat heads or spires. Arrangements tend to look best with a selection of ‘balls’ in the form of roses, peonies, dahlias etc, with a few flat heads such as achillea or ammi and a few spires such as larkspur, stocks or snapdragons. Adding some airy flowers in the form of scabious or knautia to this mix will bring the arrangement to life. I tend to overgrow the flat heads and spires – what I have learnt is that it doesn’t really matter what variety of flower you pick for the spires or flat heads – for example larkspur is interchangeable with snapdragons – so do not be tempted to grow too much.
- Having said that I will have a delphinium bed!! Next year I hope to have at least one large scale vase of delphiniums to share with you – I just need to plan where to put the bed and order my delphiniums!
- Since we moved here I have been planning to plant a herb garden but it always gets put on the back burner. Seeing Rachel’s herbs has moved this plan up my list and I have now finally had a space cleared behind the greenhouse to plan my herb beds. I will be investigating the best herbs to use in arrangements and will report back soon.
- Although I do not have a polytunnel, this year I am going to plant up the borders of my small greenhouse with anemones and ranunculus to see if I can get an early spring crop.
In summary,y my cutting garden is very small compared to the Green & Gorgeous garden, but I know that my garden will be very large compared to the spaces that most of you, my readers, are working with. In a domestic setting growing flowers for cutting is a luxury but if you are the type that loves to have flowers in the house it is a luxury that saves so much money and is much kinder to the planet than buying in imported flowers. I know that most of you share my love of flowers in the home – they really are the finishing touch that breathes life and seasonality into an otherwise static room setting. We love our gardens too though, so cutting from our carefully planned border displays is hard to do. A well planned cutting garden, however small, should make filling our houses with flowers a realistic goal and any visitor to the ‘In A Vase On Monday’ community hosted by Cathy from Rambling In The Garden will soon be inspired to fill vases year round from their gardens.
What I have learnt from Green & Gorgeous is not to be so dogmatic about which flowers form part of a cutting garden and to expand my horizons. I am planning a more varied space with increasing numbers of roses, permanent underplantings of useful perennials such as astrantias, lavender, knautia, scabious etc and smaller quantities of the annuals I love sown on a more regular basis to make a continual supply of these hard to buy flowers a daily possibility. And of course my new must have is the delphiniums – after being so let down by my peonies this year the delphiniums have stolen my heart!!