Cut flowers

Cosmos on trial

Cosmos 'Lemonade' ©

I grew some of the new cosmos on my trial ground this summer - with mixed results, I have to say, although some of that was my own fault.

I was especially interested in growing the two new lemony yellow varieties, ‘Xanthos’ and ‘Lemonade’ (above), side by side but also grew ‘Cupcakes’ and ‘Cupcakes White’, ‘Apollo White’ and ‘Capriola’ plus an impressive form of Cosmos atrosanguineus, Eclipse (‘Hamcoec’) which we’ll get to another time.

With ‘Capriola’, I messed up. I put the plants too close to a newly planted, dark-leaved hybrid elder that grew prodigiously, made over 2m high in its first season and bushed out to elbow the cosmos aside.

At the other extreme ‘Cupcakes White’ was superb. It was rather leafy at first, and not as early as ‘Xanthos’, ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Apollo White’, and started flowering at about 90cm with the purest white cups. Some flowers were simply cupped, some had a ring of slim, shorter petals around the golden eye. Lovely.

Cosmos 'Cupcakes White'‘Cupcakes Mixed’ turned out to be mostly white, but with a few flowers in magenta pink or palest rose and one in magenta pink with a crimson center. Not a very effective display, frankly.

‘Apollo White’, and indeed the others in the series, has made its mark in overtaking the Sonata Series as the gold standard in dwarf single cosmos. The whole Apollo Series was superb in the Royal Horticultural Society trial last year. Reaching 50-60cm, ‘Apollo White’ began flowering early but in early October started to collapse for no apparent reason. Still excellent, though.

Now we come to yellow-flowered ‘Xanthos’ and ‘Lemonade’. Basically, they’re the same. OK, British-bred ‘Lemonade’ was a little later into flower, a little leafier at first, perhaps with occasional pink tints slightly more pronounced. But, especially as summer wore on, you’d be hard pressed to say which was which without checking the labels. Both were strong yellow at first, maturing to soft yellow with a white center. Lovely. Dead headed every few days they both flowered well into October.

Next year? 'Cupcakes White' and 'Lemonade' - but I'll have to give them more space, that will be a challenge...


Grow, Cut, and Arrange

A spring arrangement from Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein (with Julie Chai)
Our gardens are full of flowers and we like to have them in the house too but so many of us fail to make the best of our cut blooms. Which are the best flowers to grow for cutting at home? How should we grow them? How should we treat them to ensure they last as long as possible? How should we arrange them for the house? An inspiring new book by the owner of Washington State’s Floret Flower Farm aims to answer all these questions for gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic.

Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein (with Julie Chai) is a lovely looking book. Organised by season, the challenge has been to adapt large scale commercial techniques to the needs of home gardeners. Few of us grow on the scale of Erin’s farm and none of us have the experience of growing so many different flowers. She wants us to do more than simply cut what we have plenty of and stick them in a jar.

Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai is published by Chronicle Books at $29.95/£21.99.Which are the best? Erin does not say “grow this” or “grow that”, she simply covers a huge variety of flowers and leaves it up to you, from roses and sweet peas to flowering carrots and hellebores. However, I was very surprised to find that calendulas, annual asters and Shasta daisies are left out entirely. I’ve been enjoying one or the other – and sometimes all three – in a jug on my kitchen table for months.

How to grow them? The climate in Washington State is closer to the climate of the UK than it is to the climate in much of the rest of North America so although her cultural advice is excellent, growers in many parts of the US will have to adapt to their own conditions. I’d never heard the surprising advice to leave dahlia tubers in the ground for the winter but to divide them every year because otherwise they'll become too heavy to lift! Not in Britain!

How to make them last? There’s excellent advice on caring for cut flowers and for every flower covered there’s an invaluable Vase Life Tricks section which is perhaps the most universally valuable part of the book. This is the part I’ve used the most.

How to arrange them? Each seasonal section includes very useful step-by-step illustrated guides on how to create a series of arrangements in a variety of styles. Oddly, the individual pictures are quite small while a great deal of page-space remains empty. Seems a waste...

This is an elegant and very useful book, full of valuable advice presented attractively. But the fact remains that there’s no one book that provides all guidance we need. And no asters?!

Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai is published by Chronicle Books at $29.95/£21.99. 



Testing new varieties in my trial garden

Part of my new Northamptonshire trial garden.  Image ©

Back in March, I started to create a trial garden, a test garden if you like, in Northamptonshire. The idea was to grow new, recent and upcoming varieties so I can report on them from experience as well as grow cut flowers and vegetables. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

During winter, my friend and helper (and artist) Carol Parfitt made a start by digging out bindweed and just about everything else that was growing in the plot leaving me a clear canvas. Then I made a series of rectangular raised beds using 15cm (6in) pressure treated boards, each bed is 1.2m (4ft) wide with 60cm (2ft) paths between.

The soil is good: old English cottage garden soil that has been improved with soot and compost for generations (not to mention, in earlier days) enrichment from pigs and chickens. Most of the new beds had soil improver added.

Things were a little late getting going, after all I was making beds long after planting and sowing time for many varieties. But as soon as each bed was ready, plants and seeds went in. Then I’d make the next bed, and more plants went in.

Weeding has been a big issue, the tiniest slivers of bindweed root will grow, after all, and moving soil around exposed the seeds of annual weeds which soon germinated. But regular weeding has kept them down and only what Brits call the Duke of Argyll’s Tea Plant (Lycium barbarum) has proved a lasting problem. More about that another time.

The trials of leucanthemums and cosmos and clematis and calendula have been fascinating. Leucanthemum ‘Real Glory’ (below) has been a real star. We’ve had more cucumbers and tomatoes and zucchini than we could cope with (though not enough lettuces). Cut flowers have filled our tables and windowsills and been given away and there’ve been successes and failures amongst the American varieties I’ve been growing in Britain for the first time.

Through the autumn I’ll be discussing some of the results of this year’s trials here and also on my Plant Talk blog for Mr Fothergill’s. Please check back and take a look.

Leucanthemum 'Real 'Glory'. Image ©

Developments in sweet peas

Lathyrus belinensis, discovered in Turkey in 1987A couple of interesting sweet pea developments to tell you about.

First of all, the hybrid made by Keith Hammett between the familiar sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, and L. belinensis (click to enlarge), discovered in Turkey in 1987, has been formally named by RHS botanist Dawn Edwards – Lathyrus x hammettii.

Keith worked for many years using L. belinensis with its yellow and orange flowers, to create a yellow flowered sweet pea – he started by crossing it with ‘Mrs Collier’ - and that work continues. But along the way it has, rather surprisingly, led to the development of some impressive reverse bicolours, sweet peas with the standard paler than the dark wings; ‘Erewhon’, which I discussed here a couple of years ago, is perhaps the best example so far. A full account of these hybrid and their origins was recently published in the Royal Horticultural Society magazine The Plantsman.

The other, perhaps even more startling development, relates to sweet peas as cut flowers. As you can see Long stemmed sweet peas from Japandfrom the picture (click to enlarge), a Japanese grower has managed to create sweet peas with extraordinarily long stems. I’ve yet to find out quite how they did it – not being fluent in Japanese is, of course, an impediment. But whether it’s new breeding or new growing techniques it would be interesting to know quite how they did it.

Burning bush: fall foliage for cutting

Gladioli, amaranth and burning bush at Rachel's wedding. Image ©GardenPhotos.comHad a jolly time at my niece’s wedding on Saturday up in Woodstock, New York (where the festival famously wasn’t) and, as ever, spotted something of horticultural interest. The bold floral displays at the ceremony featured gladioli in autumnal orange with purple amaranthus and all backed by – burning bush, Euonymus alatus. Click the image to enlarge it and see the foliage more clearly.

It’s not often that we see Euonymus alatus used as cut foliage. It makes a spectacular feature in the landscape with its brilliant fall color and is also being mentioned as a worrying invasive. But not many people have the bright idea of using it for cutting. And one of the appealing things about it is that the older leaves color first so that at along one branch the foliage color changes from purple-tinted green at the tips to puce or brilliant scarlet at the base and this creates possibilities of harmonies with a range of colors.

Fall color on two plants of Euonymus alatus maturing at different times. Image ©GardenPhotos.comA feature worth keeping in mind is that many of the plants we grow are seedlings, so no two are exactly the same. The result is that different individual plants reach the peak of their fall color at different times. The foliage from two plants growing side by side in our Pennsylvania garden (right, click to enlarge) shows one at peak of color and one still some way off. This is a great advantage for cutting as it ensures that material is available over a longer period but in the garden, and especially when grown as an informal hedge, a mix of brilliant red and almost green foliage is much less effective than a continuous dazzle of scarlet.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of invasiveness. It grows naturally in China and Japan but planting burning bush is banned in Massachusetts and the plant is cited as invasive in Connecticut but I don't think it will ever be the menace of plants like Japanese knotweed because the deer eat it. The plants in the unfenced part of our garden ahave been eaten bare to about 5ft//1.5m and seedlings never grow more than a few inches before being eaten.

But, if you’d rather be cautious, there’s the varieties ‘Rudy Haag’ and Little Moses (‘Odom’) which set almost no seeds so are far less likely to spread. But, for cutting, they have the disadvantage of being dwarf and slow growing, as do most of the other named sorts including ‘Compactus’, ‘Fire Ball’ and ‘Timber Creek’.

Euonymus alatus fruits and autumn foliage. Image ©GardenPhotos.comBut burning bush has two other attractive features, both more noticeable when stems are cut for the arrangements and after the leaves have finally fallen. The winged stems of mature branches are a striking feature and while ‘Blade Runner’ has broader wings than other varieties var. apterus and ‘Compactus’ are less noticeably winged. And then there are those reddish purple fruits which split to reveal orange seeds. They last well and line the branches in winter.

I couldn’t find any info on how to treat cut burning bush stems to ensure they last as long as possible in the vase. My usual bible on cutting woody material is the invaluable Woody Cut Stems For Growers and Florists by Lane Greer and John M. Dole (available from and from but it concentrates on evergreen Euonymus species. So if anyone has any thoughts on how to ensure the fall foliage of Euonymus alatus lasts well in the vase, please post a comment.

British sweet peas for American gardeners

More Scent': probably the best scented sweet pea of all. Image © Keith Hammett
A month or two back I discussed American varieties of tomatoes that British gardeners can order from across the Atlantic. Time now to return the favor, and point out the British sweet pea specialists who will send sweet pea seed across to gardeners in North America. Many will only send to Europe.

But first, it’s only fair to point out that there are two US-based sweet pea specialists. Sweet Pea Gardens in Maine, who I visited when working on my book on sweet peas, have a good range. Enchanting Sweet Peas in California also specialize in sweet peas. Also, Renee’s Garden in California has listed a good range for many years, along with seed many other fine flowers.

So, I’ve checked all the British mail order sweet pea suppliers and these five specialists will send seed to North America and also have easy online ordering.

Eagle Sweet Peas
Carefully chosen Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including a steady flow of varieties raised by at the nursery.

English Sweet Peas
One of the largest wholesale suppliers of sweet pea seed to retailers, they also have their own online retail site listing a large range of old-fashioned, modern Spencers and dwarf types.

Kings Seeds
Founded in 1888, they list a fine range of varieties although the website is a little clunky and old-fashioned.

Matthewman’s Sweet Peas 'Clementine Kiss': a uniquely orange sweet pea developed by Dave Matthewman. Image © Matthewman's Sweet Peas
Thirteen consecutive Gold Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, focusing on high quality Spencer sweet peas for the garden and showbench – including some excellent varieties that Dave Matthewman has raised himself such as 'Clementine Kiss' (right, click to enlarge).

Owl’s Acre Sweet Peas
I discussed Owl’s Acre in an earlier post and, in particular, their series of dwarf varieties for container. They also list a wide range of old-fashioned types, modern Spencer types and winter-flowering varieties.

A number of other suppliers are worth considering, but do not have online ordering; they need you to download and print an order form and send it in by mail.

Kerton Sweet Peas
Carefully chosen Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including varieties raised by at the nursery.

'Deborah Devonshire': a lovely picotee sweet pea from Myers Sweet Peas. Image © Myers Sweet PeasMyers Sweet Peas
Carefully selected Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including varieties raised by at the nursery including 'Deborah Devonshire' (left, click to enlarge), and some old-fashioned types.

Roger Parsons Sweet Peas
Large range of all kinds from the holder of Britain’s Plant Heritage National Collection of Sweet Peas (and other Lathyrus species)

Somerset Sweet Peas
Carefully chosen Spencer varieties for the gardener and exhibitor, including a fine selection of exceptional varieties developed by Keith Hammett including 'More Scent' (top, click to enlarge).

So many superb sweet peas, and some excellent, dependable British suppliers. And of course British gardeners can enjoy them too.

Success (and failure) with new cut flowers

Digitalis 'Illumination' in hand-tied bouquet. Image ©Tracey MathiesonI’ve always been interested in flowers for cutting that are new, or a little out of the ordinary. So every now and then I turn up at Foxtail Lilly (the home-grown cut flower shop with its vintage home accessories, run by my friend Tracey Mathieson) with a few plants for her to try. Sometimes she looks at me a little doubtfully, sometimes she’s instantly enthused.

Plants of the all-green Dianthus ‘Green Trick’ were very favorably received last spring and later in the year I was pleased to pass on a few plants of that lovely new hybrid foxglove Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’ for her to try as cut flowers – and see if they got through the winter.

First, the good news. Three groups of Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’, in different parts of her garden, all came through the winter with no losses and they were just coming into flower for her very successful National Gardens Scheme open day in June (right, click to enlarge).

Later, Tracey made up some hand tied bouquets (above, click to enlarge) and they lasted well through five of the hottest days of the summer (no air conditioning) “Well, in this heat they lasted five days!! So, possibly much longer, if cooler! They stayed quite upright too!!” So many exclamation marks – she really liked them. Digitalis 'Illumination-Pink' seen through Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' at Foxtaill Lilly. Image ©

I also took her a few plants of the recently introduced all-green coneflower, Echinacea ‘Green Jewel’ (below, click to enlarge). Unfortunately, they were a big disappointment. They looked great when I took them round, in flower, last summer but none of the three plants survived the winter in her cutting garden. So that was that. Perhaps with extra crisp drainage…? We’ve had the same problem with ‘Green Envy’, with its green-tipped petals – gone. Good drainage in winter is definitely the key.

British gardeners can order a collection of all three Illumination foxgloves - ‘Illumination Pink’ and ‘Illumination Chelsea Gold’ and ‘Illumination Raspberry’ - from QVC. They will be available in North America soon. If anyone spots a US mail order supplier, please let me know.

British gardeners can order plants of Dianthus ‘Green Trick’ from Thompson & Morgan, the similar ‘Green Ball’ should be available in North America soon.

American gardeners can order plants of Echinacea ‘Green Jewel’ and Echinacea ‘Green Envy’ from Great Garden Plants. British gardeners can order from The Walled Garden Nursery.

For more on Foxtail Lilly take a look at their website or their Facebook page.
Echinacea 'Green Jewel'. Image ©

The violet capital of the world


When a friend from near Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, mentioned that their local movie theatre was showing a documentary film about the huge violet growing industry in the area I thought: “What? ’ve got to see this.” It seemed such an odd place to be the violet growing capital of the world.

The film is Sweet Violets, written, produced and directed by Tobe Carey and it’s a fascinating look back at what was once a thriving cut flower industry – all centered on Rhinebeck and a few nearby villages.

“It has been remarked, jocularly,” said The Garden magazine in 1903, “that every second building in Rhinebeck, NY is a violet house, and that they are now beginning to build others between…. This aggregation boasts of upwards of sixty violet growing establishments… No healthier plants, finer flowers or heavier crops can be found anywhere in the world.” And then it turns out that just one company, Julius Vonder Linden, grew violets in sixty four greenhouses and that at one time there were four hundred violet houses in and around the small town Rhinebeck.

The usual size for a violet house was 24ftx200ft so that’s a lot of violets. Ten thousand flowers a week was reckoned to be an ordinary yield from one greenhouse and at peak season a quarter of a million blooms might be shipped by train from nearby Rhinecliff station to New York City in one day.

Interestingly, there seem to be divided opinions on which were the most popular varieties: ‘Marie Louise’, ‘Frye’s Fragrant’ and ‘Duchesse du Parme’ are all mentioned as the most widely grown.

The film features reminiscences by former growers and members of their families, some delightful old cards and posters featuring violets and many period photographs showing the violet houses and how the violets were grown.

Strangely, it’s left unclear why so much violet growing should be concentrated in Rhinebeck, in particular, and it’s sad to see such a thriving industry reduced, as the film shows, to one slender bed along the side of one greenhouse now filled with anemones.

But the beginning of the end came in 1926 when a very popular Broadway play, The Captive featuring Basil Rathbone and Helen Menken, used violets as symbol of lesbian love and this is association said to have set off the decline in the popularity of violets. “It just about killed the business,” says one contributor to the film. The rising cost of heating the greenhouses through the peak November to April season in a cold climate, along with changing fashions, hastened the decline.

Now most of the greenhouses are gone and there is just that one strip of violets in one greenhouse from which flowers are still picked for local sale.

In December 1901 the magazine Birds and Nature reported: “With the exception of the rose, no other plant is so widely distributed, and at the same time so universally admired, as the violet.” Sadly, not any more.

You can order copies of Sweet Violets from the Sweet Violets movie website.

Foliage for cutting and for the garden

Physocarpus Coppertina in spring (with irises) and in fall. Images ©
Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will be aware that I’m a big fan of Physocarpus – ninebark as it’s known in North America – and especially of the variety Coppertina (‘Diable d’Or’). And it turns out that I’m not the only one. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers has named Physocarpus Coppertina as one of its three Cut Flowers of the Year.

As soon as I heard this judy went out and cut eight or nine stems from the plant outside my window. OK, we let a few of the stems get dry when the water in the vase got low and we forgot to top it up. But even those stems lasted almost two weeks before they started to look sad – with no special treatment and no flower food. And those whose stems never got dry lasted almost three weeks and even then it wasn’t as if they were dead… just not really looking lively any more. They were in fairly good light and the only change was that they steadily became less bronze and more green. Later, I tried a couple of stems in very poor light – but they didn’t really like it.

Physocarpus Coppertina is a tough and resilient shrub which after a year or two in the garden produces so much growth that cutting shoots for the house won’t make it look thin. In the fall, after a shower, its bronze foliage gleamed beautifully and with Hosta ‘Christmas Tree’ at the base it makes a lovely picture.

But our Coppertina plants have never bloomed or fruited well. They’re in good light all the time but not in full sun for more than a few hours a day – perhaps it’s not enough. But, frankly, it doesn’t really matter. With their amber new shoots maturing to rich bronze and with its proven value when cut for the house, it’s one of the first shrubs I’d choose for a new garden.

The other winners of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers Cut Flowers of the Year award are:
•    Fresh cut flower: Lisianthus 'Mariachi Carmine'
•    Dried flower: Capiscum 'Nippon Taka'

But you know… I really don’t find them so very interesting.

Shrubs and climbers for cutting

9780881928921l Now that growing our own fruit and veg has swept the country in a surge of enthusiasm, it’s sparked a revival in the idea of growing cut flowers. But not just sweet peas, dahlias and all the old favourites.

Back in 2009 a book came out which takes the whole idea a big step farther. Woody Cut Stems for Growers and Florists by Lane Greer and John Dole (Timber Press) is a fat, comprehensive book on growing, harvesting and treating shrubs and other woody material for cutting. From Aucuba to Vitis, although this book is intended for professional growers and florists the fact that it gives detailed advice on such a wide variety of woody material makes the rest of us realise what a vast variety of woody cut material remains relatively undiscovered.

I should also mention that the book comes with a big dose of built-in reality. The first two sections of each entry are Why You Should Grow It followed by Why You Shouldn’t. It’s not one of those books bursting with unrelenting, but unrealistic, overenthusiasm. For example.

On Callicarpa: “All Callicarpa species offer fantastic shimmering purple fruit, the colour of which is absolutely matchless…”

And on Malus: “Crabapples are heavily disease prone. Most types need several years to get established. Flowers are short-lived. Fruits are favorites of bids.”

This real world approach is largely derived from then fact that the authors spoke to a wide cross section of commercial growers, many specialising in woody material, who are quoted throughout the book. So the advice on growing, pruning, selecting varieties, harvesting and how to treat the cut material to ensure the longest life is derived from the techniques of real growers.

Look up Cotinus or Hamamelis or Ligustrum or Physocarpus or Viburnum or one of the other hundred woody plants included and find out how to grow it, harvest it and treat it so it lasts. Suddenly the range of cut material you can grow is hugely enhanced.