Garden Poppies – colourful and extravagant

Individually the delicate, tissue paper like flowers of the Poppy may be quite fleeting in nature but on mass they can provide a beautiful and vibrant show over many weeks. In a meadow style planting they also provide that much needed movement as they gently sway in the summer breeze.

The Poppy family (Papaveraceae) offers the gardener a range of annual, biennial and perennial species in an amazing spectrum of colours that span yellow, pink, scarlet, deep plum, orange, blue and white. Certainly not all poppies are red!

Papaver rhoeas (Common Poppy)

Despite the adoption of modern agricultural practices and the reduction of our native poppies in the countryside we do still see the occasional field full of red poppies as we drive across the Cotswolds in summer.

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Probably more common in the garden setting are Shirley poppies. These were initially bred from field poppies by the Rev. William Wilks, vicar of Shirley in Surrey in the late 1800’s. He selected a range of white edged flowers that have now been developed into a range of tones.

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Papaver rhoeas ‘Falling in Love’

Papaver rhoeas is an annual herbaceous plant usually flowering in late spring and into summer.

Papaver nudicaule (Iceland Poppy)

Another common garden plant is the Iceland Poppy. It originates from sub-arctic regions and can grow to a height of 1-2½ feet. It is the poppy most frequently grown as a cut flower and is also a charming garden plant.

P. nudicaule (nudicaule meaning bare stemmed) is a perennial that is most commonly grown from seed as an annual. Sown at 18-24º C the tiny seeds will germinate in 7-12 days. These seedlings can be pricked out into modules to grow on and then be planted out when conditions are suitable.

Interestingly Iceland Poppies do poorly when the temperature rises above 21º C. The plants flower from mid-spring to mid-summer and usually produce 10-15 stems before being checked by warmer temperatures.

Papaver nudicaule dsc00913

Papaver somniferum (Opium Poppy)

The Opium Poppy is an attractive, upright annual herbaceous plant that can grow to a height of around 100cm. As a garden plant they have been bred in a number of colours in both single and double forms although we have found the double forms are sometimes too heavy to stand upright on their stems. The foliage has a characteristic blue-green glaucous apprearance and they seed themselves freely around our garden.

The seed heads are particularly attractive and can be used both green and dried in flower arrangements and wedding buttonholes.

Photo credit: Ventnor Botanic Garden

Papaver orientale (Oriental Poppy)

The Oriental Poppy is a very hardy perennial poppy growing to a height of 3 feet with a spread of 2 feet. For us it is a very reliable spring flowering herbaceous plant that produces a large number of large, hand-sized flowers. The large fleshy stems and foliage will often need staking to keep them looking at their best.

They originate from the Caucasus, north eastern Turkey, and northern Iran and in the wild grow on rocky slopes and dry meadows. Originally orange these plants now have cultivars that come in a wide range of colours. We have found the white varieties are particularly prone to damage if we get a lot of rain and can look like a sad, soggy hankerchief at times.

Oriental poppies combine well with other plants in low herbaceous borders. One of my favourite parts of the garden combines these pink oriental poppies with aquilegia, ox-eye daisies, purple flag iris, lime-green alchemilla and dusky pink valerian.

It is worth mentioning that by mid-summer the foliage and flowers of P. orientale will have died down entirely and will need to be cut back. To continue the display into late summer it is important to surround these poppies with other later flowering perennials.

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Eschscholzia (Californian Poppy)

Grown well Californian poppies can produce a spectacular show of delicate, bright orange blooms complemented by equisite blue green foliage. Ever since seeing the wonderful display at East Rustan Old Vicarage in Norfolk I have been trying to grow these in our own garden – but with only limited success. Native to California, these hardy annuals grow in dunes, rocky hills and roadside banks and I can only think that our soil and conditions here in the UK Midlands are a little too damp to allow them to thrive.

East_Ruston_Old Vicarage Garden
Eschscholzia – East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden, Norfolk – June

Meconopsis betonicifolia (Himalayan Poppy)

We have found the beautiful blue Himalayan Poppy to be somewhat of a challenge to grow successfully. It is something that Carol’s grandfather, Fred Mason, grew successfully in his garden in Bolney in Sussex for years. Although we have tried on a number of occasions we have never managed to keep this perennial poppy going from year to year.

Its delicate, true blue petals are truely enchanting and a definite showpiece when you are successful however.

As the name suggests blue Meconopsis are native to the Himalaya and Western China. They grow in alpine meadows, woodlands and on screes and like cool, damp summers. Although we have cool and damp winters our summers here are increasingly hot and dry and our clay soil holds little moisture in the heat of the summer. The reference books indicate that Meconopsis need plenty of water in summer and as little as possible in winter which does not sit at all well with our conditions. However, there are plenty of other Poppies that we can grow very successfully.

Scheinmohn (Meconopsis betonicifolia) 5863

Meconopsis cambrica (Welsh Poppy)

To illustrate the point above a related Meconopsis, the yellow Welsh Poppy, grows very successfully here at Waverley. It is the only Meconopsis that is native to western europe. It is a short -lived, delicate perennial that seeds itself freely.

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Cultivation

In general poppies are easy to grow and like sun or semi-shade in moist but well drained soil. I think they look at their best if planted in generous clumps.

The annual species ( such as P. rhoeas ) do not like to be transplanted and so are best sown where they are to flower. It is important not to cover the tiny seed as they need light to germinate. As cornfield plants they are naturally colonisers of disturbed ground and the seeds can survive in a dormant state for many years before being exposed by ploughing. They will then germinate rapidly if conditions are right. This is also the reason why they are associated with battlefields where the ground was distrurbed by the bombs, grenades and troop movements.

Biennials or short lived perenial species (such as P. nudicaule) are more tolerant of being transplanted. We sow these on the surface of trays of multi-purpose compost (again not covering the seed) in an unheated greenhouse. When the plants are big enough to be pricked out we plant them up into larger modules and allow them to grow on. The modules are them transplanted out when conditions are right trying not to disturb the roots if at all possible.

The larger perennial species (such as P. orientale) are best propagated by root cuttings in the winter especially if you wish to retain the characteristics of a particular cultivar. They are unlikely to come true from seed.

Many poppies will self seed freely if the conditions are right. We have not found them to be at all invasive and if they do happen to seed themselves somewhere they are not wanted they are very easy to remove.

Cutting and conditioning

It is possible to use poppies as cut flowers but they do need to be cut at the right stage, prepared and conditioned appropriately to get the best out of them. We do not find them particularly long lasting but they do certainly add a definite country feel to any bouquet.

Poppies for the vase should be cut when the flower buds are beginning to break and the colour is just able to be seen. If they are fully open they will be difficult to condition.

The base of the stems should be seared in boiling water for 20-30 seconds before topping up the vessel with cold water. The stems should then be left to condition in a cool place, out of direct sunlight for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight. The searing process reduces the flow of the milky sap (latex) which would otherwise bleed out and clog up the xylem vessels which transport the water up to the flower.

Winter arangements

It is worth highlighting that many types of poppy produce interesting seed heads that are also excellent for autumn and winter arrangements (along with the seed heads of nigella, teasel, honesty and dried hydrangea flowers).

In our ceramics we have also found that poppy seed heads can be used to make some interesting botantical texture effects that will be picked out by using oxides or suitable glazes.

Further reading

“Specialty Cut Flowers” by Armitage and Laushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)

“The Cutting Garden” by Sarah Raven (ISBN 978-0-7112-3465-9)

“The Flower Farmers Year” by Georgie Newberry (ISBN 9780857842336)

“100 flowers and how they got their names” by Diana Wells (ISBN 1-56512-138-4)

“A-Z of perennials” Consulting Editor: Lizzie Boyd (ISBN 0-276-42087-X)

“A-Z of annuals, biennials and bulbs” Consulting Editor: Lizzie Boyd (ISBN 0-276-42089-6)

“Perennial Volume 2: Late Perennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (ISBN 0 330 30936 9)

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Clematis in all its glory

Rather like old friends our clematis return each year and delight us. They have increased in number and size over the years and these long-lived plants quietly creep around the trees and shrubs and emerge reliably each year. We love collecting new varieties and luckily many have enjoyed the conditions in our garden.

It is a pure joy to suddenly come across that first bloom of the year from a clematis that has been quietly surviving over the winter. The large buds develop and then, there it is, the first perfect flower.

'Niobe' climbing amongst a white Philadephus
‘Niobe’ climbing amongst a white Philadephus

For other smaller flower varieties like C. montana it is the spectacular show provided by a large cloak of thousands of flowers in delicate pink that sit wonderfully amongst the white lilac tree and our purple leaved Prunus padus. You don’t seem to notice how far it has spread until it blooms. There is a danger that a strong clematis might well overwhelm a smaller tree but there is no doubt the effect is dramatic.

Clematis montana climbing amongst the red foliage of Prunus padus
Clematis montana climbing amongst the red foliage of Prunus padus

Distribution in nature

Britain has only one native species of clematis (C. vitalba (Old Man’s Beard)) but there are over 250 species¹ distributed mainly in tropical or temperate regions. Most are natives of the northern hemisphere with several native to Europe. As well as the very familiar large flowered hybrids that grace the garden centres there are a number of smaller flowered species that make highly desirable garden plants.

Clematis alpina - one of the earliest clematis in the garden flowering here in in April
Clematis alpina – one of the earliest clematis in the garden flowering here in in April

A member of the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup family), clematis come in a wide range of blue mauves to purples but also white through pink to shades of red, burgundy and also yellow. The petals of Clematis have been replaced by colourful sepals. Typically these are in fours or eight but some (eg. Clematis ‘Niobe’) have six. Through a careful choice of cultivars and species you can have clematis flowering in your garden from spring through to autumn.

Clematis are not commonly grown for their scent but we would not be without our C. x aromatica which climbs over our rope rose arches and provides a lovely waft of ‘vanilla’ scent across the garden in the evening. A strategically placed seat and a glass of wine are all you need to enjoy the experience to the full.

Clematis 'Daniel Daronda'
Clematis ‘Daniel Daronda’

Clematis in the garden

One of the essential benefits of clematis is that they exploit the vertical dimension of the garden. They climb over their hosts by using their leaf stems. Given an appropriate support, they can rapidly cover a trellis or other structural feature. Variety ‘Nelly Moser’ with its large pink flowers is also very comfortable growing against a north facing wall.

Clematis 'Nelly Moser'
Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’

Most of the clematis we have growing here at Waverley are deciduous however there is one, C. armandii, which is evergreen. This is a tough old plant and wants to survive. Its supporting tree was felled over ten years ago but even after a ruthless prune it still flowers every year and clambers through the remaining lower shrubs.

Evergreen Clematis armandii
Evergreen Clematis armandii

The most successful of our clematis are growing amongst other mature trees or shrubs and they climb their way up to the light. They don’t seem to mind the competition and many books indicate that the roots need to be kept shaded and cool. Where we have clematis growing up supports in more formal flower beds we make sure they are planted amongst herbaceous perennials to ensure that the root area and base of the plant is kept in the shade during the summer months.

The general advice is to plant pot grown clematis deep² so that if the plant is damaged or contracts wilt it will regrow new shoots again from under the surface. When preparing the planting hole for a new clematis you should include plenty of organic matter.

Clematis montana 'Tetrarose'
Clematis montana ‘Tetrarose’

There is a lot written about pruning clematis. For us the simple and easy to remember phrase “if it flowers before June do not prune” works well for us.

Cutting and conditioning

Clematis can make a wonderful addition to any floral design. Its trailing habit adds something not offered by many flowering plants suitable for cutting. Growing a stem that trails effectively does require some forward thinking otherwise you end up with a tangled mess to unravel. Some of our clematis grow across a rope arch and individual strands are allowed (encouraged) to hang down naturally in preparation for cutting.

As with most flowers they are best cut in the cool of the early morning and placed into cool water to condition for at least 24 hours. To get the best vase life cut into older wood.

The stems last well and can be effectively added to long table arrangements to trail down the front of a top table. We probably use the smaller C. montana more often for this kind of arrangement.

Trails of clematis montana
Arrangement with trails of clematis montana and asparagus fern

There is no doubt that Clematis add something very special and different to the garden. Many look delicate but they are really very tough and resilient plants if you give them conditions that they can thrive in. Choosing your varieties carefully can provide on-going interest throughout late spring and summer and into autumn.

Clematis 'Jersey Cream' creeping amongst a trellis of dark ivy leaves.
Clematis ‘Jersey Cream’ creeping amongst a trellis of dark ivy leaves.

Further reading

¹ “A comprehensive guide to Clematis” by Barry Fretwell (ISBN 0 00 414017 6)

² “Growing Clematis” by Nicholas Hall, Jane Newdick and Neil Sutherland (ISBN 1-85833-163-3)

Scabious – the essence of an English Country Garden

Picture yourself in July, the sun is shining and you are taking a gentle amble down a quiet country lane, the warm breeze is reflecting off the track and the blue field scabious (Knautia avensis) are gently moving in the wind.  The butterflies and other insects are quietly working their way amongst the roadside flowers enjoying the rich nectar.  Smiling yet?

Certainly if you are looking to create the look and feel of a meadow in either your garden, at your wedding or in your floristry arrangements then the inclusion of summer flowering scabious is an absolute essential.  They are nectar rich and excellent at attracting a wide range of butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects and they provide a loose, open and natural feel to any arrangement.   With so many species and varieties to choose from you are spoilt for choice.

The naming of Scabious and its relatives

Often referred to as pincushion flowers due to the beautiful detail of the stamens, the name ‘Scabious’ is believed to be derived from ‘scabies’.  In medieval times the plant was reportedly used to treat the severe itching that results from this disease.

The term ‘Scabious’ is commonly used across a number of related genera; Scabiosa, Knautia, Cephalaria and Succisa.  They belong to the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae (although many references still refer to them belonging to the teasel family, Dipsacaceae, which I believe has now been merged with Honeysuckle family² ).

Scabious 'Oxford Blue'
Scabious ‘Oxford Blue’ sits beautifully within this birthday bouquet of whites, blue and yellow. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Getting them started

We usually sow our scabious seeds indoors in half trays of damp compost lightly covered with vermiculite.  I usually cover the trays in cling film until the seedlings start to emerge so I don’t have to worry about watering the trays before the green shoots appear.  We rarely sow straight into the ground as too many of our precious plants succumb to slugs and weeds.  You can sow throughout April so if you want to try these charming plants there is still time.

Once the seedlings are large enough to handle we prick out into modules or trays of compost until the weather is warm enough to harden them off and plant them out.  Don’t be tempted to plant them out too early or they will just sulk.

Willow heart
Dark burgundy Scabiosa atropurpurea, blue ageratum and yellow rudbeckia decorating a hand-made willow heart. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Growing them on

Typically scabious like full sun and well drained soil.  We tend to plant out at one Waverley standard trowel length apart (c. 9 inches).   Growing the young plants in modules makes this so much easier and prevents excessive disturbance when they are planted out.

We do find that some scabious can be a bit wayward and need to be supported if you want long straight stems that are good for cutting and arranging.  We support many of our flowers in the cutting garden using horizontal pea netting.  By stretching across the bed using canes we can raise the height gently as the plants develop.  The holes are big enough to place your hand through for cutting and if you buy a good quality netting it can be used again and again, year after year.

If you want to keep them flowering, keep cutting.  They will flower all summer long until the first frosts cut them back.   However, if you do miss some the seed heads are also very attractive and can make a interesting addition to late summer arrangements.

Lilac Scabiosa atropurpurea and seedhead
Lilac Scabiosa atropurpurea and seed head (right).

Cutting and conditioning

Scabious are very straight forward when it comes to cutting and conditioning.  As with most flowers they are best cut in the early morning before the sun gets too hot.  Cut straight into clean fresh water with floral preservative removing any leaves that lie below the water surface and leave to condition in a cool place for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.  They can be used with floral foam.

The stage of development at which you cut is quite critical if you want to achieve a long vase life.  If you cut a flower that is too mature then the flower will soon shatter and the petals will fall.  It is quite difficult to describe the correct stage in words and so I have tried to illustrate this with the following two pictures of Scabiosa atropurpurea.

Scabious flowers slightly too mature for cutting.
Scabious flowers slightly too mature for cutting. The central florets are all open and the pollen is very visible. Will have a reduced vase life and petals may fall prematurely.
Ideal cutting stage for Scabious.
Ideal cutting stage for Scabious. Central florets are still in bud whilst the outer florets are open

Floriography

Many flowers have traditional meanings and their inclusion in bouquets or posies indicated a particular sentiment or emotion.  Scabious generally signifies ‘unfortunate love’ with Sweet Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea) more specifically meaning ‘widowhood’.

Scabiosa atropurpurea

We grow a lot off this S. atropurpurea in the flower garden.  It comes in a wide range of wonderful colours from blue, white, violet, crimson and burgundy.  The darker colours in particular are set off beautifully by the white stamens.  It has a sweet honey like scent and has the common name Sweet Scabious (but is also known as the mourning bride scabious so you may wish to reflect on this if using it in wedding bouquets!).

Although strictly a perennial it is said to only be hardy to zero degrees centigrade.  In our garden in Warwickshire (UK Midlands) it rarely survives the winters and so we treat it like an annual sowing fresh plants each year.  It grows very quickly and flowers throughout the summer if you keep cutting.

When deciding where to plant it think Mediterranean.  Like many flowers if you add too much fertiliser or water you will suppress flowering and get lots of lush foliage instead.

Deep burgundy scabious
Deep burgundy scabious with its white pin cushion stamens makes a striking contrast in this celebration bouquet with dahlias, phlox, liatris and antirrhinums. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Scabiosa caucasica

Scabiosa caucasica is much hardier than S. atropurpurea and is said to be hardy to -18°C.  It originates from the Caucasus, Northern Iran and North Eastern Turkey growing in subalpine meadows and rocky slopes ¹ . Like many Mediterranean plants it is the dampness that will kill it in the winter rather than the cold so it needs to be in a well drained position in the garden.  It is reported¹ to be short lived on acid or wet soils and prefers a chalky or limy soil in full sun.

S. caucasica  has a much flatter flower with a more pronounced centre than S. atropurpurea.  The stems tend to be much sturdier than S. atropurpurea and this makes it an excellent cut flower.  S. caucasica is probably one of our favourite meadow style flowers for incorporating in our country style wedding bouquets at Honey Pot Flowers.  A beautiful flower.

Scabiosa caucasica
Beautiful blue and white country style wedding bouquet incorporating pale blue Scabiosa caucasica, white peonies, blue nigella and white astilbe and veronica. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Knautia macedonica

This is a deep crimson scabious producing many small flowers throughout the summer. It is truely perennial in our garden and is hardy to -20°C or less.  In the wild it grows in scrub and open woods¹.  K. macedonica has been a bit of a labour of love for us having tried on many occasions to germinate it from seed with little success.  Eventually we succeeded and it was worth the effort.

Our treasured plants do however seem to be very tasty and we have to protect them in the early months of the year from both slugs and snails.  Claire Austin does describe it as rabbit resistant although we find we have to protect the young plants from rabbits in the early months.

A charming little plant that adds something very different to the summer garden.  Not terribly useful as a cut flower but lovely in an informal border.

Knautia Knautia macedonica Flower Insect 1626px

(c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Cephalaria gigantea

This one is perhaps something of an impostor in this list.  It is something we have tried to grow from seed on a number of occasions without success.  However, it is such a beautiful plant that I am sure we will try again to get one established.  There is a wonderful specimen in one of our local National Trust properties at Upton House.

As the common name Giant Scabious suggests, C. gigantea is a big plant growing into a large clump of some 6 feet in height.  It is a hardy perennial producing delicate, pale yellow flowers, from June until September.  It is probably not something for the small garden.

Unlike the other scabious listed above, C. gigantea  grows naturally in wet meadows and by streams and is a native of the Caucasus and Northern Turkey¹.

Giant scabious - Flickr - S. Rae
By S. Rae from Scotland, UK (giant scabious) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 

References

  1. “Perennials:  Volume 2 Late perennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (ISBN:  0-330-29275-7)
  2. LuontoPortti / NatureGate

 


Honey Pot Flowers are wedding and celebration florists based in Warwickshire in the United Kingdom specialising in natural, locally grown seasonal flowers. We grow many of our own flowers allowing us to offer something very different and uniquely personal.

Dahlia – signifying dignity and elegance dahlias make striking garden plants and excellent cut flowers

The Dahlia flower represents dignity, elegance and a commitment and bond that will last forever.  They are therefore ideal cut flowers for celebrating love and marriage and we use them extensively in our wedding and celebration flowers (www.honeypotflowers.co.uk).

At this time of year (March) we begin to dust off the overwintered dahlia tubers and start them into growth.  As they flower from June until the first frost blackens the leaves, the once unfashionable Dahlia creates a wonderful summer and early autumn show throughout the flower garden.

The choice of colours is unrivalled and ranges from white, red, pink and purple through to yellow and orange with many shades in between.  Equally there is a huge range of sizes and forms ranging from less than 10cms in diameter to the huge and rather unwieldy ‘dinner-plate’ varieties at over 25cms.  Breeding programmes have created many forms which now include singles, waterlily, collerette, anenome, pompon, ball, semi-cactus, cactus, decorative, orchid, and peony flower types to name but a few.  There is probably a style, size and shade to meet just about every colour theme and requirement.

Late summer bridal bouquet of country flowers featuring white and lilac dahlias with yellow, lilac and blue set off with pops of yellow and fresh green. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers
Late summer bridal bouquet of country flowers featuring white and lilac dahlias complemented by yellow, blue, pink and fresh green. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Origin

Dahlias are tuberous perennials originating from the uplands and mountains of Mexico and central america.  The edible tubers were reportedly grown as a food crop by the Aztecs.  As they are mostly unscented they attract pollinating insects through their bright colourful flowers.

Starting Dahlias in the spring

There is no doubt that growing high quality Dahlias takes some time and effort, particularly if you want to maintain and develop your investment in plants over a number of years.  At this time of year we bring out the dahlias that we lifted last autumn and overwintered in our flower studio.  Although some will perish we find that the majority will survive if the tubers are cleaned and air dried and then individually wrapped in newspaper in covered trays and boxes.  Because we have got rather carried away over the years we now have so many tubers we just don’t have the room to lift and store every plant.  We therefore allow some to take their chance in the garden covering them with straw and cloche plastic over winter.  (We have written about how we do this in a previous article)

In March we check over the lifted tubers for any rot.  If the damage is not too great it is often possible to remove one or two diseased tubers from a larger clump and they will still grow well.

The tubers are planted into individual large pots or crates in moist compost before bringing into a warm (15-18 °C) and light place indoors to encourage them to shoot.  It is important to pinch out the tips of shoots once they begin to get going.  This will help the plants to bush up and make a better shaped plant as well as reducing the risk of damage when you come to move the plants into the garden.

Large white waterlily type dahlias are central to this colourful entrance garland at Swallows Nest Barn near Warwick. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers
Large white waterlily type dahlias are central to this colourful entrance garland at Swallows Nest Barn near Warwick. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Propagation by division

There seems to be a difference of opinion on when to divide tubers if you want to split large clumps to create more plants.  The RHS indicate that this should be done in the spring whilst others (eg. Floret Farm) advise that it is best done after lifting in the autumn.  The important things to remember is that each portion must have a flower shoot and roots if it is to grow on and develop successfully.

This year, purely for practical reasons, we divided in the autumn.  The clumps had got so large that they were difficult to effectively lift, clean and dry off before we set them down for the winter.

Taking cuttings

It is possible to take cuttings from your overwintered dahlias once the tubers have sprouted and the shoots are ≥2 inches long.  This is again an excellent way of multiplying up your favourite varieties.  We place the cuttings in small 3 inch pots of a free draining mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite (3 to 4 cuttings round the edge of each pot), water in, cover with a plastic bag and place on a warm window sill.  They will root in just a few weeks if looked after.  Once roots have formed we would then begin to remove the plastic cover slowly allowing some air into the bag for a few days before removing completely.

Soon you will have far more plants than you know what to do with and you can share with your friends!

Planting out

Dahlias can develop into large plants if they are grown well and need to be spaced at least 18 inches apart.  Ideally they like to be planted in full sun with ground that retains moisture but is also well drained.  On our wet clay soil we tend to plant on slightly raised beds to provide better drainage.  We only plant out the growing tubers when all risk of frost has passed.  However, you do sometimes get caught out and keeping some horticulture fleece at the ready to quickly throw over the plants to see them through a late cold snap is usually sufficient.

To get strong, lush plants that flower freely all year you need to water well and feed regularly.  The RHS suggests feeding with a high potash liquid feed every 2 weeks from July to early September.  I have to admit that regular feeding is not one of our strengths.  Let us just say we are now better than we used to be!

Most of our Dahlias will need to be staked and supported at some point to ensure we get good straight stems that we can use in our bouquets and arrangements.

Peachy pink dahlias are the feature bloom in these christening arrangements. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers
Peachy pink dahlias (Jowey Winnie) are the feature bloom in these christening arrangements. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Pests to beware of

One advantage of starting the tubers indoors is that the plants are big enough to cope with the onslaught of slug and snails.

For those we leave in the ground the challenge is greater.  You do really have to keep on top of them until the new shoots get away.  Tidy up any old bricks, stones and straw where slugs and snails can hide during the day.  A regular dose of biological control nematodes ( eg. Nemaslug) can also help.  We are also delighted that the flower garden is home to toads, frogs and newts and keeping some longer, moist grass areas in the flower garden seems to encourage them.

Later in the year the battle will be with earwigs which will damage the leaves and eat the flowers.  Interestingly we have found that white Dahlias seem to be particularly tasty but we don’t know the reason behind this.

Photoperiod

Armitage and Laushman report that day length has a direct influence on both flowering and tuber formation.  Long days of 14 hours cause faster flower initiation but day lengths below 11 hours and greater than 16 hours have a negative impact.  Short days (12 hours or less) result in tuber formation.

Breaking tuber dormancy

For many growers one of the reasons for lifting tubers in the autumn is to protect them from excessive cold temperatures over the winter.  It is interesting to note that cold temperatures (around zero degrees centigrade) are however important in breaking tuber dormancy (Armitage and Laushman).

A bright and colourful collection of country flowers with feature dahlias in small jars create a striking table centre piece for a rural country wedding. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers.
A bright and colourful collection of country flowers with feature dahlias in small jars create a pretty table centre piece for a rural country wedding. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers.

Cutting and conditioning

Dahlias can make spectacular cut flower arrangements if harvested at the correct stage and conditioned properly.

If the flowers are cut too early Dahlias buds often fail to open effectively.  Equally you want to cut the flowers before the outer back petals begin to show signs of age.  Petals will drop rapidly if the flowers are too old and so picking the flowers when they are at around 75% open is ideal.

The ideal time for cutting is in the early morning before the summer sun gets going.  It is a lovely time to be out there in the flower field with your secateurs. The flowers once cut should immediately be placed into deep warm water and left to condition for a couple of hours.  We use ‘flower food’ to increase vase life and some growers (see Linda Beutler) also advocate hot water treatment prior to placing in cool water.

We have noted that some varieties are more suitable for picking than others.  For some varieties the flower will ‘shatter’ as you reach forward to cut them! We have found variety ‘Wizard of Oz’ particularly prone to this.  Good for petal confetti however!

Bridal bouquet in burgundy, blue and white topped with a striking pheasant feather. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers. Photograph by Amy Bennett Photography
Autumnal wedding bouquets using deep burgundy dahlias (Karma Choc and Dark Spirit) contrasting with shades of blue flowers and glaucus foliage. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers. Photograph by Amy Bennett Photography

Treated well, Dahlias will give you months of pleasure throughout the summer and into the autumn months.  The more you cut the more they will flower and it is important to keep on top of the dead heading to keep them flowering freely.

As the season progresses will will share some further pictures of the star blooms of the summer.  Early spring is such an exciting time of year planning for warm summer days to come!

Further Reading

“Cut Flower Garden” by Floret Farms (ISBN 978-1-4521-4576-1)

“Specialty cut flowers” by Armitage and Lushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)

“Garden to vase” by Linda Beutler (ISBN 978-0-88192-825-9)

 


Honey Pot Flowers are wedding and celebration florists based in Warwickshire in the United Kingdom specialising in natural, locally grown seasonal flowers. We grow many of our own flowers allowing us to offer something very different and uniquely personal.

 

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose)

The fact that so few herbaceous plants are winter flowering makes the show of Helleborus orientalis around the Honey Pot Flowers garden particularly special at this time of year. With large flowers from dark aubergine through shades of pink to white, these flowers make you stop as you wander around the winter garden turning over the downward facing flowers to look at the exquisite markings on the ‘petals’.

Hellebores do not have petals in the normal sense of the word as their petals are really sepals (modified leaves that typically protect the flower bud).

Cultivation

To be honest once Hellebores have established they are very undemanding herbaceous perennials. They like areas of part-shade in our garden and seed themselves freely. When mature the plants do not like to be disturbed but careful transplanting of the seedlings (digging them up with soil so as to not expose the roots) allows you to distribute them throughout the garden.

You can also propagate larger plants by division in early spring if you have a particularly beautiful specimen that you want to bulk up. Your self-sown seedlings are unlikely to come true to colour (but half the fun is seeing how they will develop).

To show off the flowers at their best in the garden we usually remove the sad, dying leaves at soil level in January to expose the flowers. As well as exposing the flowers this helps reduce the spread of disease. The fresh new leaves will grow back again during the spring and look great throughout the summer.

Rich aubergine coloured Helleborus orientalis
Rich aubergine coloured Helleborus orientalis

Cutting and conditioning

With so few flowers around in the early months of the year, Hellebores are very valuable for winter arrangements. Because the flowers face downwards their full beauty may not be evident. For dinner table, coffee and side table arrangements simply taking the flowers and floating them in water face up in a clear crystal glass bowl can make a stunning display showing off all the varied colours and delicate markings.

table decoration of Hellebore flowers floating in water
Simple but effective table decoration of Hellebore flowers floating in water

It has to be said that many people find the conditioning of Hellebores a challenge. There seem to be a range of views on how this is best done.

Armitage and Lushman in “Speciality Cut Flowers” indicate that you can achieve 10-14 days in the vase. Stage of harvest seems to be particularly critical and they suggest for fresh flowers Hellebores should be cut when the stamens first become visible. For drying, flowers can be cut at anytime but particularly when the seed capsules become visible.

Sarah Raven in “The Cutting Garden” advocates putting the bottom inch of the stem in boiling water for 20 seconds and then plunging it into deep tepid water. With this treatment she indicates that the stems will stay fresh for 3 or 4 days (considerably less however than the vase life offered in Armitage and Lushman).

There also seems to be contradictory advice on the use of “flower food”. Comments from commercial growers in Armitage and Lushman indicate that “they have a wonderful long vase life, 10 days plus easy, and I give no special treatment other than Floralife”. In contrast Linda Beutler in “Garden to Vase” indicates that Hellesbore blooms do not tolerate floral preservative.

Most references indicate that Hellesbores do not last well in floral foam.

Our experience of using Hellesbores as cut flowers is that they are unpredictable. We have had most success when we have delayed cutting the flowers until the seed pods begin to develop. Cutting at this point the flowers are much more reliable and hold up well. Floret Farm’s “Cut Flower Garden” also recommends this approach and indicates that the flowers will last about 5-8 days in the vase.

It can be argued that using Hellesbores in ‘high stakes’ arrangements can be (is) risky. However, they are such charming flowers at a time of year when there is very little and it is well worth practising to perfect your conditioning technique.

Hellebores and tulips
Bouquet of purple Helleborus orientalis with tulips, cherry blossom and flowering currant. Helleborus foetidus provides a splash of fresh green at the bottom right of this picture .

Drying

As well as offering fresh cut stems, Hellebore flowers also dry well and can be used in buttonholes, corsages or wreaths. Gently covered with silica gel they will dry within 2 weeks and can then be stored in an air tight plastic box. They keep their colour well if kept in the dark and can be kept right through to the following Christmas to bring a different touch to Christmas wreaths.

Don’t be tempted to over dry them by leaving them in the silica gel for too long. They will simply suck up moisture when the are removed and will spoil quickly.

Christmas arrangement using dried Hellebore flowers, Helichrysum and Limonium
Christmas arrangement using dried Hellebore flowers, Helichrysum and Limonium

Other species in the garden

The majority of the Hellebores in the Waverley garden are Helleborus orientalis but we do also have occasional plants of the stinking Hellebore Helleborus foetidus. H. foetidus has smaller hanging bell shaped flowers on a tall stem that make a very useful fresh green addition to winter arrangements.

Hardy perennial

Origin: Greece and Turkey (ref: Wikipedia)

Family: Ranunculaceae

Hardiness: H7 (RHS hardiness rating – Hardy in the severest European continental climates (< -20)

Height: 40-45 cm

Flowering period: January to March

Derivation of scientific name:  According to Wikipedia and Witchipedia, the genus name Helleborus comes from the ancient Greek word elein, meaning “to injure” and bora, meaning “food”.

Toxicity:  Poisonous

Floriography:  Slander and scandal

References:

“The Cutting Garden” by Sarah Raven (ISBN 978-0-7112-3465-9)

“Specialty cut flowers” by Armitage and Lushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)

“Garden to Vase” by Linda Beutler (ISBN 978-0-88192-825-9)

“Cut Flower Garden” by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai (ISBN 978-1-4521-4576-1)

How to ensure you get the longest possible vase life from your cut flowers – cutting and conditioning

There remains an entrenched belief amongst the flower buying public that British garden flowers do not last as long in the vase as those purchased from the florist or supermarket.

Inevitably this will vary from species to species but fundamentally those picked and harvested locally should have an immediate advantage.  The vast majority of shop bought flowers will have been grown in Columbia, Ecuador and Kenya, will have flown thousands of miles across the world to the flower auctions in Holland, been transferred overnight to UK flower wholesalers and subsequently purchased by retail florists ready for sale to the public.

There is a certain, and I agree rather idyllic perception, of walking around your flower garden on a sunny day in a large floppy hat and trug, cutting big open flowers and taking them back to the house and placing them straight into a vase of water to grace the rooms of your house.  Unfortunately, as Linda Beutler in her book Garden to Vase quite rightly points out, the reality is that assembling good bouquets and arrangements with a long vase life takes time, planning and patience.

How you handle, prepare and condition your cut flowers is critical.  If neglected or rushed this will indeed lead to disappointment.

The basics

It is important to remember that plants and their flowers are living things that require water, food and good health to prosper.  When you cut the flower you are immediately severing it from the supply of water that will keep the cells turgid, from the food that is normally generated by photosynthesis in the leaves and you will have created a significant wound that will be prone to infection by bacteria and other micro organisms.

Inevitably cutting the plant in this way will be a significant shock and you need to ensure that air and bacteria do not start to block the all important xylem and phloem vessels that will continue to carry the water and food along the stems of the cut flower.

Cleanliness

If bacteria, debris or fungal growth start to block the vessels in the stem it will significantly reduce the longevity of the flower.  It is important that all buckets and secateurs that you use are cleaned prior to cutting your flowers.

Time of day

The best time of day to cut your flowers if first thing in the morning before the sun begins to heat the air.  Overnight the stomata on the leaves will have closed, reducing the transpiration of water, and allowing the cells of the plants and flowers to become fully turgid.  Once the sun comes up photosynthesis begins and the stomata open allowing the flow of carbon dioxide into the plant and the resulting oxygen to escape.  At the same time transpiration of water occurs through these stomata and in hot weather the plant may not be able to draw up sufficient water to replace that being lost.

If you cannot pick in the morning then it is possible to cut during the evening as the air cools and the plants are well saturated with the sugars produced during the day.

Tools

The tools you use to cut your flowers should be clean and sharp.  Remember that you want to keep the vessels open so try to use cutters that will not mash or block the tiny vessels.  Use cutters with by-pass blades rather than anvil secateurs.

Cutting your flowers at the right stage

If you cut your biggest, brightest flowers when they are too mature they will not last long in the vase.  If the bees have got to your flowers and have already pollinated the blooms they will already be moving onto their next stage, dropping their petals and putting their energy into seed production.

For example, all the daisy type flowers, such as Cosmos, Rudbeckia and Ox-eye daisies, will not last long if the pollen has matured and the flowers have been visited by pollinating insects.  The way to tell is by touching the centre of the flower with the tip of your finger.  No pollen should come off and colour your finger.

Many flowers like roses, tulips and daffodils, will need to be cut before they open when the buds are first showing some colour.  Poppies are best picked when the bud is just about to burst open.

DSCF3821
Buckets of conditioned country garden flowers ready for delivery for a DIY wedding reception

Cut into water

We always cut our flowers straight into cool clean water in the field, cutting the stem at an angle to create a greater surface area for the flower to take up water (so that the cut end is not flat against the bottom of the bucket).  We strip off any leaves that will sit below the water surface.  The latter is important as any leaves below the water will quickly begin to decompose and create the infections that we want to avoid.

If the flowers or foliage are cut and then left awhile in the air, air bubbles will begin to be pulled into the vessels and inhibit the free flow of water up the stem and into the flower causing the flower to wilt.

Some flowers that produce a sticky sap (eg. Poppies and Euphorbia) will benefit from searing when they are cut.  Searing the end of the cut stem in boiling water or with a flame will stop these substances contaminating and poisoning the water and will help water uptake.

On woody shrubs and stems the important vessels for water uptake are in the cambium, the living layer of cells between the bark and the dead heart wood.  After cutting the stems at an angle, split the stems vertically up the centre to give as much surface area as possible for the uptake of water.  It may be beneficial to shave back some of the bark to reveal and expose the bright green cambium.

Up early cutting flowers in the morning light
Up early cutting flowers in the morning light before breakfast

Mixing flowers of different types

It is worth being aware that some flowers effect the longevity of other flowers and you should be careful of cutting them into the same field bucket.  An example of this is with daffodils and narcissus and these should be cut into a separate bucket.  The water should be changed every 20 minutes or so to check to see if the stems are still dripping sap from the cut wound.  Keep doing this until the sap stops running and then they can be left to condition.  Once the sap has stopped narcissus can be incorporated into arrangements with other flowers but do not be tempted to cut the stems again or the sap will start to run again.

It is also appropriate to do this with other plants with toxic sap like Euphorbia and Campanula.

Conditioning

This is such an important part of preparing and nurturing the flowers which you will have been lovingly looking after and growing for many months.  It is not to be rushed.

Your flowers should be placed in cool, deep water for at least 2 hours (preferably overnight) before you start to use them in bouquets or arrangements.  Keep them in  a cool room out of direct sunlight whilst they are conditioning.

With woody foliage you will need to condition for at least 24 hours and more if you can.  The tips of the shoots may initially droop but you will find that they eventually perk up if left long enough.  The key message is be patient and you will be rewarded.

There are varying opinions on whether the addition of “flower food” to the conditioning water is valuable or not.  Commercially available “flower food” contains sugars to feed the flowers (now that they have no leaves), help them take up water efficiently and keep the water free of bacterial infection.  This is such a small cost that for us it is simply part of maintaining the good health and cleanliness of the flowers that we have invested so much time in growing over the summer.

James C. Schmidt from the University of Illinois makes a valuable point about the impact of hard and soft water on the longevity of cut flowers.  He indicates that hard waters and those “softened” with a home water softener are unsatisfactory for keeping flowers fresh.  Clearly if you are growing flowers in a hard water area there is little you can do about this but the use of “flower foods” may be particularly valuable in hard water areas (because they lower the pH of the water).

Beware ripening fruit

It is worth remembering that ethylene is naturally produced by all ripening fruit.  Exposing flowers to ethylene will speed up the development of your cut flowers and eventual death.  Don’t be tempted to leave your flowers conditioning in an out house or kitchen where you are storing fruit or other ripening vegetables.

Any finally ….

When your flowers and foliage are fully conditioned you can now let your creative juices flow.  Cut the stems once again as you arrange them to help further water uptake and increase the flower life.

If arranging in a vase try to replace the water regularly to keep your flowers in tip top condition for as long as possible.

When delivering our Honey Pot Flowers bouquets by hand or by courier we always include detailed care instructions and flower food to help the recipient achieve the best from their flowers.  We often get feedback and comments from delighted customers telling us how pleased they are with their long lasting bouquets.

Further reading

It is important to recognise that although there are general principles to observe, ‘one size does not fit all’ when it comes to cutting and conditioning cottage garden flowers.  There is a wealth of additional hints and tips available in the following books where specific flowers benefit from a slightly different or a specific approach.

“Speciality Cut Flowers” by Allan M. Armitage and Judy M. Laushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)

“Garden to Vase” by Linda Beutler (ISBN 978-0-88192-825-9)

“Cut Flower Garden” by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai (ISBN 978-1-4521-4576-1)

“Grow your own wedding flowers” by Georgie Newbury (ISBN 978-0-85784-253-4)

“The Cutting Garden” by Sarah Raven (ISBN 978-0-7112-3465-9)