July 21, 2011

Choosing a plot for your cutting patch

Right, time to get down to the nittygritty of choosing a plot for your cutting patch.

There are several key questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge, and here they are:

1. Do I want to create a new, dedicated plot just for cut flower growing?

2. Or, instead, do I want to add some cut flower growing to existing flower beds?

3. How decorative or purely functional do I want my cutting patch to be? Is it visible from the house or main area of the garden?

4. How much space do I have/what quantity of flowers do I want to grow?

5. Realistically, how much work do I want to put in?

6. How much sun does my proposed plot receive?

7. What is my soil like?

8. What is my local climate like in terms of temperatures during the year, rainfall, and wind?

9. What are my favourite flowers, and what do I value most, scent/colour/form/vase life?

10. What is my budget?

The answers to these ten questions will determine how to proceed. Lets flesh them out a bit.

Really, the first decision is whether to create a brand new border/ area of an allotment etc in which to grow your cut flowers or whether you want to incorporate cut flower growing into planting that already exists. I have done both and they both provide lots of blooms for the garden and the vase.

Having a dedicated growing area has several advantages. Firstly it can be designed from scratch to be efficiently laid out to make growing and harvesting as easy as possible. As I will explain further, growing cut flowers in orderly lines or blocks, with paths between to make picking both easier and less damaging to the plants saves an awful lot of time and agro. It could be on a big scale on a large allotment or kitchen garden or dedicated growing field, such as the one below belonging to Jan from the fabulous JWBlooms.

Jan is a pro grower, so it is unlikely you will want such an extensive plot, but the rows for growing and picking mean that weeding, harvesting and jobs like staking are very much more straight forward than they would be in the hugger mugger of a garden border. So, if you have space on an allotment or other garden area where you can place functionality and efficiency first, then I would go for planting in rows, well spaced for easy picking, with paths that avoid the need to tread on, and thus compact the soil. And for much of the year it will look gorgeous, here is an example of a functional but really pretty patch at Foxtail Lilly.

The only place where I have been able to add a cutting patch in my garden is in an area visible from the big drawingroom windows of our house and slap bang in the middle of our garden, so I didn't feel I wanted to do an allotment style patch of regimented rows and weed supressing membrane etc because it would look too different to the rest of the garden and jar the view a bit. However, I do put up with the odd bare patch and less than border-perfect style, so it is a compromise I guess, but one that seems to work ok with the rest of the garden view. In hindsight though I could have made it both more ornamental and more functional! I will tweak it over the next few years in both respects, and that is part of the fun of a garden, it is always evolving. Below is a picture of my cutting patch at the beginning of May, and you can see it almost passes muster as a regular flower bed. It is a similar shape as other borders near it in the garden.

border next to the cutting patch is a similar shape
By high summer, it is a bit of a riot!

What I hope these photos show is that I chose the shape of the cutting patch to reflect and blend in with the other existing borders in the garden and the flowers are grown in drifts rather than rows in order to more resemble the planting style in the rest of the garden. It makes it less easy to harvest but was a price I wanted to pay for ascetic reasons.

This is really worth considering carefully because whilst there will be times it all looks ravishing, there may be other times when it all looks a little patchy - say for example when a section of annuals has gone over and  leaves a glaring bare patch until the new crop grows in its place. Remember, this is a plot which you will want to pick heavily from, and not worry about leaving some empty areas now and again, so if you can place the cutting patch in a position that this won't bother you, you will probably pick more freely, which is after all the whole point really! Although it will be ablaze with colour for weeks, it is helpful to think of your cutting patch rather like a kitchen garden, a place for produce first and beauty a close second, otherwise you might be hesitant to pick. Don't want that!

Suggestions for making a cutting patch look more like a regular flower bed include:

plant in blocks or drifts rather than rows

include perennials, annuals and bulbs in your scheme to provide continual flowering and interest

choose colours that complement the rest of your garden

include a few plants you have in other parts of the garden to help the cutting patch blend visually

choose supports for your plants that are decorative aswell as functional - attractive willow structures,

decorative stakes etc rather than uglier functional plastic varieties

make the shape of your cutting patch blend with the shapes already existing in the rest of your garden

If you don't want to make a new flower bed at all, try adding cut flower varieties to existing flower beds. In a later post I will provide a long list of suitable plants, annuals, perenials and bulbs, all of which can be added alongside plants you already have. If some old plants have outlived their place in your garden, have become diseased or just don't work for some reason, when you replace them, use the opportunity to slot in more flowers that are good for cutting. You can see in this flowerbed I have snuck in some flowers that are cutting superstars, white scabious and drumstick alliums, sedums, nigella and alchemilla mollis and other varieties that I cut all summer long for bouquets. It is a cutting patch by stealth and I am amazed by the bucket loads of flowers I harvest this way, it is so achievable. With sympathetic cutting that respects the shape of the plant, no one would even notice the picking, infact often the picking encourages more flowering depending on the plant variety.

scabious, sedums, alliums

I sneak in lots of alchemilla mollis for cutting until late summer
Remember too, if you only have a balcony or rooftop to grow your flowers on, all the same principles apply, just on a small, container-based scale. For inspiration about the abundance can be grown in a tiny space, click on the link to the NYC rooftop grower, Marie at 66squarefeet.

Once you have decided what kind of plot you are after, you need to check a few things: the type of soil you have (is it heavy clay, sandy, free draining, compacted etc?), how much sun the area receives each day and your general climate are crucial because all these factors will influence which plants will thrive and which will struggle.

A cutting patch has a few main requirements, the most important being good levels of sunlight. Annuals in particular, but most plants really, need good daily light levels. It won't really work if your proposed area is in heavy shade, or only receives dappled light because most flowers that are best for cutting need a sunny aspect. There are some that do ok in shade, but aim to find a sunny location for your cutting patch. Look at your soil too, you are aiming for healthy, well draining soil, full of worms and organic matter. If your soil is heavy clay (like you could squish handfuls of it into shapes with it when it is wet) or if, on the other extreme it is really light and sandy and poor, mix in some well rotted manure or compost to get the soil healthy and full of nutrients for the task ahead. For really sticky clay soil, try digging in some grit or inland sharp sand to encourage drainage. It really will make a huge difference. It is also important that your site is not in a wind tunnel, staking is a boooorrrring job, so less you are fighting the elements in a windy, exposed spot the better. Finding your lovingly grown plants knocked flat to the ground is gutting, so a sheltered spot is ideal.

When it comes to choosing plants also bear in mind your local climate because it is always advisable to buy plants that suit your conditions. Obvs. I don't grow anything very tropical because I don't want the faff on storing them/protecting them over the winter. If you have polytunnels and a greenhouse or the like, this will give you options. I don't have either and I hate losing plants, so I only grow a few tender plants that can't cope with freezing temperatures in winter. A bit of planning saves heartache I have discovered the hard way!

Available budget and available time/energy are also key - be brutally honest, otherwise your bank manager and your muscles will be moaning at you and who wants that?!! And for another blindingly obvious thought, really consider which flowers and colours you love the most, and would like to see in your home or give to friends, grow what you know really appeals and decide what are your priorities, colour, scent, shape or vase-life.

I hope this has given you some things to bear in mind if you are thinking about upping the cutflowers you want to grow. Just check those 10 questions, and you are good to go!

Thanks for your lovely comments about last week post. There were  some other great cut flower blogs suggested,  all really worth a look - realcutflowergarden.blogspot.com and flowershopstories.blogspot.com aswell as the oxfordshire based Green and Gorgeous cutflower business which has a blog too. 

I was also asked a question about how to keep achillia upright, a good question!, and I will tackle the subject of staking properly in another post. Planting close together, and using hazle sticks works for me, but there are other methods too. xx


  1. oooh lots to think about ! thank you!

  2. Well done Belinda.

    I an v. jealous that your ladys mantle blooms all summer long. Ours is just a spring fling.

    But the point of this is to learn, not to linger over what grows longer, right?

    Scabiosa. Why do I never plant this?

    xo Jane

  3. I love your garden, you have such a wonderful backdrop to all the lovelyness. I am looking forward to the list of good cutting plants.. my garden is sadly lacking this year so needs re-thinking x

  4. Great tips! And I LOVE all your photographs :)

  5. You are so fairy. I took a summer course at the Flower School in NY. I have learned so much more from you and Erin. Today, 4 acres are being cut into patches for spring bulbs etc. Even though you have never been here, you are all over it. So you see you travel even when you do not know you :-)
    Thank you a thousand times!

  6. Belinda, this post is totally inspirational - thank you for a great post.

    Lovely photos as ever!


  7. How I would love to have a large cutting patch like above in my garden. The photo's look great!

    Happy weekend!

    Madelief x

  8. Belinda, this all looks fab! I don't have time to take it all in at the moment. I will re-visit when I have more time, love Linda x

  9. Thanks for all the helpful hints. You've given me a lot to think about with beautiful photos.

  10. Finally found time to come for lesson 2 and am so glad.

    Are you familiar with the "zones" in the U.S.? I wonder if there is a way to relate your climate in England with our zones. Like Jane, my ladies mantle is gone in just a couple of weeks, so one thing I would like to do is plant things that can stand our hazy, hot and humid summers. any thoughts?

  11. A beautiful and thorough post, as usual. Makes me wish I got out to garden more these days! I will continue to live vicariously.

    Been thinking of you and your family, of course. Thank you for providing the lead to Camila Batmanghelidjh's insightful essay, as well as your most recent report of more positive responses to the troubling events.

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