Why grow your own cut flowers?
Why should anyone put in the time and effort to grow their own cut flowers when they are so readily available to buy? The wonderful thing about a global trade in cut flowers is that we can purchase them at any time of the year — we can fill our homes with colour or send a floral gift to a friend or relative, even in the depths of winter. But that global trade comes with more than just the cost of the flowers themselves — there is a social and environmental cost that we must also consider, as with all of the purchases that we make. Growing your own flowers is just one way to help make a difference.
The other undeniable reason for growing your own flowers is for the pure joy of it. It is a salve to our lost connection to seasonality and all of the pleasure that being in tune with the seasons brings. The natural world is a provider of inspiration, and growing and arranging seasonal flowers can result in the most beautifully considered combinations of flowers that you would never usually be able to purchase together.
Making a sustainable choice
Earth has seen a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which has led to a rapid warming of our atmosphere. The effects of climate change on our planet are all too evident: extreme weather events and years of record-breaking heat are creating challenging conditions for life across the globe. Yet our levels of consumption continue to rise, leading to widespread and well-documented environmental degradation.
While a lot of work has been done by the industry to improve conditions on flower farms, there is a long way to go. The ‘slow flowers’ movement is the antithesis of the fast, immediate and unsustainable global trade in cut flowers. The ethos is similar to that of the slow food movement, which encourages us to think about how our consumption impacts on people and the planet; slow food embraces the connection between the food on our plates and the food producers.
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It aims to promote the protection of the natural environment while rejecting unsustainable food production processes. In the same way, the slow flowers movement aims to make closer connections between flower buyers and flower farmers, focusing on provenance and supporting seasonal, locally grown flowers that are farmed in a sustainable or regenerative way. The movement wants people to reconnect with the pleasure of using seasonally available blooms and to value growing processes that put the welfare of people and the planet first.
Grow with the seasons
Floral arranging is an art in which all of the elements of colour, movement, rhythm and light come into play through the medium of flowers. When you grow your own cut flowers, something different comes into flower each week through the growing season. Every week is an opportunity to celebrate the changing nature of our gardens and to explore the diverse range of plant material that we are able to grow.
The UK has a long record of plant hunting, breeding and research as a result of its imperialist history; this means that today, our gardens are filled with plant species from across the world which have greatly enriched our outdoor spaces. There is a convenience to conventional floristry practice that means that you design first and then purchase the flowers you require to create your arrangement. Working solely with seasonal flowers can present a particular challenge (and disruption) to your creativity — it’s a very different proposition to work solely with floral material gathered at the peak of perfection in that moment, rather than buying in specific varieties of flowers to carry out a design recipe.
You’ll notice that there is something that feels just right when you have varieties that would naturally flower at the same time of year arranged together in a floral display. Spring beauties, such as tulips, sit comfortably among fellow spring flowers like narcissi and fritillaries, but can seem a little out of place when arranged with summer’s roses, agapanthus or veronica. Working with seasonal floral material will lend your arrangements a real sense of the garden, bringing the outdoors inside in the truest sense. It’s a joyful experience to gather and arrange a vase of blooms that reflects the essence of your seasonal garden; a moment of the year captured in flowers.
What makes a good cut flower?
We are so lucky to have thousands of varieties of flowers to grow in our gardens, with seed catalogues and plant nurseries offering many tempting choices. With so much floral material to choose from, how do you decide what to grow and which varieties to combine in order to create your seasonal arrangements throughout the year?
Not all plants that are grown in our gardens are suitable for cutting. Some simply don’t hydrate well once cut, which means that they are completely unsuitable for the vase. Varieties of pear once in full leaf, for instance, don’t take up water easily and the leaves wilt horribly. Hyacinthus non-scripta (English bluebell) plucked from the garden (never from wild spaces) will only last a day, as they are also difficult to keep hydrated, while Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebell) will last a week in the vase and fill a room with a honeyed scent in mid-spring. Understanding which specific plants and cultivars hydrate well and are good for cutting is the key to the success of your cutting garden.
Species that do not make good cut flowers:
- The flowers of pyrus shatter (drop) quickly, it has an unpleasant scent and is difficult to hydrate.
- The catkins on bare willow stems in winter work well and are beautiful, but in full leaf in summer, stems will not hydrate.
- Elder is difficult to hydrate and has no vase life, while the fruits split and stain surfaces easily.
Vase life is a key factor to consider. Some flowers, such as chrysanthemums, may have a vase life of between seven and 14 days, and give you well over a week if looked after carefully. If longevity is your priority, then careful research will tell you all you need to know about the varieties that will fulfil this requirement, and there are many flowers that will last at least a week once they’ve been cut and conditioned properly.
Some flowers have a fleeting vase life, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are less suitable for cutting, particularly if you are growing them for your own enjoyment. The pleasure that the heady scent of a garden rose brings for a couple of days is worth every short moment, and the graceful fall of the petals is all part of its joy.
In fact, scent is quite often a defining factor in vase life; it is intrinsically linked to the senescence of flowers (the process by which a bloom matures, fades and dies). The stronger the scent, the shorter the vase life is likely to be. This is why many flowers that are purchased from shops have no perfume — the scent has been bred out of certain cultivars in order to extend the vase life, particularly those stems that are shipped for sale across the world. Growing highly scented blooms in the garden allows us to enjoy every element of the cut-flower experience, even if only for a short time.
Some flowers don’t hold on to their petals once cut, and although the stems hydrate well, the petals fall after a couple of days in a process called ‘shattering’. Branches of spring blossom are particularly prone to this, as is Lunaria annua (honesty) when it is in flower in spring — this is best grown for its seedheads rather than as a fresh cut flower. It is lovely to enjoy the fleeting beauty of certain varieties as long as you don’t mind clearing up the mess they leave in their wake.
The length of a flower’s stem plays a part in any arrangement. A decent stem length means that your floral material is more versatile and you will be able to create all manner of arrangements with it. A minimum length of 45cm (18in) is preferable for making up bouquets and longer stems will be necessary for larger arrangements. When buying, check the final heights of your plant selections, and try to avoid anything listed as a compact variety as these will usually produce stems that are too short to be useful in lots of contexts. Short stems have limited uses, but can be delightful when arranged in bud vases. Pruning woody shrubs at the right time of year can help to produce excellent long stems for floristry work.
Growth habit is equally important: a tangled mass of stems can produce some unusual and interesting shapes, but these may be quite difficult to arrange with. Straighter stems are easy to use, although the occasional kink or twist can create a sense of movement and enliven your floral design.
Scent is that elusive element that transforms an arrangement into something special. It is scent that triggers a memory or an association for me, as for many others. As this is a quality that is often missing from flowers that are bought in shops, I always recommend growing as many scented flowers as you can to fill your home with floral perfume. Just one stem of flowering jasmine tucked into an arrangement will fill a room with its fragrance.
Grow what you love
What flowers do you actually love? Which varieties make your heart sing? Whatever they are, check that they are a useful flower for cutting, and then make them the focus of your cut flower garden. Don’t grow plants you don’t like just because they may fit some arbitrary floristry rules — you’ll never end up using them in arrangements. Think about the varieties, colours, shapes and scents that delight you, then fill your home with flowers that you have grown with love. The wonderful thing is that we all love different things and there is a favourite flower out there for everyone.
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Extract taken from Cut Flowers by Celestina Robertson, £12.99 Frances Lincoln