Last week I spent a fantastic day with Sarah Raven learning how to grow and arrange cut flowers. The `Growing and Arranging Cut Flowers Course‘ was held in Sarah’s garden at Perch Hill Farm in Sussex. It was a wonderful sunny day. Now as I sit at home looking out on to my wind swept garden with intermittent drizzle, Perch Hill seems to be a place where the sun always shines, everything blooms and looks beautiful and there isn’t a greenfly or slug in sight! I am sure this isn’t always true!
When we arrived we were offered tea and coffee. However it wasn’t any old common beverage! You could choose a freshly made home-made tea using flowers and herbs from the sunny conservatory and herb garden. This was brewed in a glass tisaniere. I couldn’t believe how much use the team made of edible flowers. I thought the pretty pink pelargoniums were simply pretty flowers and didn’t realise they were used to decorate food and make tea!
At break time we had scrummy cake with edible pelargonium petal decoration. Lunch was also a feast of home-made delights including salad leaves with edible Viola `Heartease’ and Calendula `Indian Prince’ petals. I’ve grown both of these and never considered eating them! Inspired I need to get cracking and sow some Edible Flower seed.
I seem to have got distracted by the edible delights. However I was there to learn and not just indulge!
Planting Flowers for Cutting
The morning was spent discovering how to grow a cutting patch, full of suitable flowers to pick and make beautiful bouquets. When growing cut flowers you have to make different choices than when growing a herbaceous border. The first choice is `square inch productivity’. To get a lot out of a small garden you need very high square inch productivity. Some plants have stupendous blooms, but tend to be one hit wonders. I learnt that a lot of the flowers I love fall into this category. I have recently bought a stunning Peony `Coral Sunset’, which I fell in love with at Chelsea Flower Show last year.
I do know that the flowers are big and showy and absolutely lovely. However the blooms will be far too precious for me to pick them! We learnt that the perfect cut flower is cut-and-come again. This means you pick them and, within days, the flowers have come again. `To get large numbers of buckets of cut flowers from a small plot you need to devote most of the soil to growing cut-and-come-again flowering plants.’
Cosmos is an example of a fabulous cut-and-come again flowering plant. I grew Cosmos last Summer and the blooms went on and on all Summer no matter how many I picked.
Other good choices are sweet peas, cornflowers, zinnias, sunflowers, euphorbia, calendula, dahlias and chrysanthemums. The perfect cut flower plot includes more Hardy Annuals, Half-Hardy Annuals, Biennials and less Perennials. Cut-and-Come-Agains only stop producing when they run to seed, or when they get tired at the end of the season. This is where I went wrong last year. I planted lots of suitable seeds, but was afraid to cut the flowers as I didn’t want to spoil my lovely garden and pick all the blooms. If I had constantly picked my sweet peas and dahlias I would have had more and more flowers. In stead of thinking `What a waste to pick that fabulous flower!’ I need to think `I’m going to enjoy that bloom in the house and have more later on to give away in hand-tied bouquets!’ Sarah advocates rather than dead-heading, pick the buds and flowers earlier and live-head when the plants are in their prime.
I must admit I will never give up my roses or peonies even if they aren’t the most productive plants for cutting. These are my show stoppers which I adore. However Sarah did give me a few ideas of plants to grow I’d never considered before. I am going to try chrysanthemums later on in the year. To be honest they remind me of cheap garage forecourt flowers. However I know they always last in the vase and they provide colour in the late Autumn when the garden is going to sleep. I like the look of `Anastasia Green’ which looks big and bold and very architectural. Nothing like those white and red garage varieties which I dislike. Sarah’s Abundant Chrysanthemum Collection looks appealing. I really can’t believe I am saying that chrysanthemums could look appealing!
At the end of the `Growing’ Section we had a guided tour of the Cutting Garden at Perch Hill. I would love to work here! The garden is beautiful and there are wonderful views of the Sussex Weald. Add in a home-made lunch together with an atmosphere of peace and calm and working at Perch Hill would be my dream job!
Sarah had organised the course in Early May to take advantage of the tulips. Bulbs are not Cut-and-Come-Again, however they do provide a riot of colour and a bit of glamour. This year we have had so much mild weather that the tulips were nearly over and the alliums were in bloom. I did see a kaleidescope of tulip colours in the garden.
These orange and yellow tulips would like great in the Stained Glass Vases on sale in the shop.
I thought I didn’t like dark tulips, but these beauties have proved me wrong! They look so effective against the backdrop of the other jewel like colours. Wouldn’t they look great in those jewel coloured stained glass vases? I also saw a calmer palette of blues, purples and greens in the garden.
Apart from the beds there were pots full of prettiness where ever you looked.
Creating a Hand-Tied Bouquet
In the afternoon we were shown how to make a hand-tied bouquet, which Sarah made look very easy! We were given advice about picking flowers. One point was to pick flowers last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Plant cells are full of water (turgid) after a period of darkness when levels of transpiration and photosynthesis are low. Turgid cells don’t flop as easily. Cut flowers should be plunged straight into water and not left in direct sun. A flower bucket is a good idea and this one keeps the separate components of your bouquet separate.
Sarah recommends choosing three types of foliage and three of flowers and a divided bucket seems a good idea.
The second step is to Condition the flowers. The bottom two-thirds of the leaves should be removed. Leaves in the middle of the arrangement clog it up and they go mouldy in water. Stems should be seared in boliing water to stop them flopping and increase the vase life. Woody stems need about 30 seconds. Flowers also benefit from having a rest in a cool, dark place before you arrange them. I’ve never seared plants before so I am looking forward to my flowers lasting longer when picked for a posy.
The next stage was to Make a Hand-Tied Bunch with our flowers. Sarah made it clear that organisation was key to success! She laid out the conditioned flowers and foliage in the order she would need them. Sarah also cut a length of string ready to tie up the bouquet. Sarah chose primary foliage to form the scaffolding of the bouquet. Her choice was acid green Euphorbia oblongata. With the primary foliage Sarah made a kind of sieve scaffold to pull the other elements of the bouquet through. She used other secondary foliage of Cerinthe major and Viburnum opulus. The idea was to create a loose, natural, garden style bouquet. Any excessive foliage was snipped off.
For the flowers Sarah chose orange tulips as her main component. This was described as the` Bride’, the flowers which you most admire and have that `wow` factor. These are usually the most expensive in a florist shop and the flowers you fall in love with in the garden. The Bride forms the centre of attention in the bouquet. Sarah combined her Bride with bridesmaids. These flowers are often similar in colour to the main flower, but not quite so showy. Sarah had chosen orange Calendula `Indian Prince’. These flowers are threaded through at an angle through the scaffolding of the foliage.
The last flowers were what Sarah called `Gatecrashers’. These provide a contrast to the other flowers. Obviously if you want a bouquet which is full of calm, peaceful colours then leave the Gatecrasher out! Sarah chose striking purple alliums to contrast with the orange flowers. The purple also picked up on the purple of the Cerinthe foliage.
Once arranged the bouquet is tied with the pre-prepared string.The stems are cut to the same length. Lastly the bouquet is wrapped in waterproof tissue and cellophane.
Finally it was over to us to have a go! I definately learnt by doing and by my mistakes…Firstly I forgot to put water in my bucket, so I was picking flowers in the heat of the day with no water! I think I was feeling like a kid in a sweet shop and was excited to finally pick my own flowers for a bouquet. Some of the foliage had already been picked for us and pre-conditioned. Sarah had advocated organisation. We were slightly pressed for time so I just got stuck in! That meant I couldn’t remember which flowers had been conditioned and which hadn’t. I also forgot to remove unwanted leaves and foliage. I had picked fluffy fennel as foliage, but Sarah said this was not recommended as fennel always flops. I chose to use a different Euphorbia to Sarah as foliage. I loved the bright acid green colour. However it had one strong upright stem and couldn’t be made to form a scaffold to pull the flowers through. I then thought I’d use the Viburnum as a scaffold. I was rather over exuberant and used far too much and had forgotten to condition the stems. The overall effect was I ended up with far too much foliage and leaves in my bouquet and my `Bride’ got lost! In fact I would say the guest foliage took over the wedding and the Bride disappeared from sight! I had so much foliage I struggled to hold the bouquet. The stems were so dense that when I tried to pull the flowers through some of them snapped off.
I chose similar flowers to Sarah – beautiful orange tulips as the Bride, together with orange calendula and ranunculus as bridesmaids. I added in alliums as Gatecrashers. I learnt another lesson. It is helpful to pick flowers of similar length stems. My calendula and ranunculus had short stems and got lost in the bouquet overshadowed by the viburnum.
Finally I had not cut my string and needed assistance to tie up! In fact I noticed other people had similar problems and saw three people were involved in tieing up one person’s bouquet!
I learnt that producing a Hand-Tied Bouquet involves skill and forward planning. It is not just thrown together!
Here’s mine posing back at our holiday cottage in Sissinghurst. The viburnum is starting to flop as I forgot to sear the stems. Some of our bouquets may not be perfectly formed, but the flowers are beautiful and a lovely reminder of a fabulous day. I learnt so much on Sarah Raven’s Course and I look forward to honing my skills over the coming months!