An overview of this useful and interesting on-line course
In my book, a rose is supposed to smell, otherwise what's the point? Apart from it being beautiful to look at of course, an unscented rose is like Wallace without Gromit, or cheese without pickle. There are many small, artisan flower producers out there who are growing bunches of beautiful, seasonal flowers to sell. None of them contain scentless roses which have flown halfway round the world.
Over the past few years there has been a resurgence of interest in growing your own flowers for cutting. I'm not sure whether statistically it's taken over from our love of vegetable gardening, but judging by the activity on the #Britishflowers thread on Twitter on a Monday evening, I wouldn't be at all surprised.
Charlie Ryrie of the Real Cut Flower Garden (www.cutflowergarden.co.uk) has been growing her own cut flowers in Dorset for over ten years. I recently enrolled on her course "The Cutting Garden: How to grow Plants & Flowers for the House" on the MyGardenSchool website of online gardening courses:
The course is divided into four, weekly video lessons, each of which comes out on a Saturday. From my point of view, this was ideal since I was able to watch whilst doing the ballet run on a Saturday morning and, for that matter, watch again as many times as I wanted to on whichever device I chose. The lessons are also backed up by well-produced notes with inspirational photos, which can be downloaded as PDFs and/or can be read on an e-reader.
The lesson for week 1 was entitled Starting Out, in which I was encouraged to have realistic expectations about my intended cutting garden. The vital questions included - how much time do I have to spend maintaining it and picking the flowers, where will the best location be, what sort of flowers do I want to grow and why am I growing them - just for the house or do I want to grow enough to sell?
Each weekly video lecture is followed by an assignment and the first one was to do a survey of the intended site, followed by a rough plan of beds, paths, location of water, shelter planting, compost bins etc. and to upload some photos.
There is a virtual classroom in which you can chat to other course attendees and into which your assignments are uploaded for comment by the course tutor. This generally worked very well, with the technical issue surrounding the uploading of JPEGs rather than PDFs being resolved by technical support reasonably quickly. I found it very helpful and reassuring to chat with other attendees and to receive their comments on my assignments, as well as Charlie's.
The lesson for week 2 was Plants For All Seasons in which a whole year's cut flower growing was covered from winter flowering shrubs through summer flowering annuals to autumn flowering dahlias, and everything inbetween. It was really useful to learn not only which varieties and cultivars to choose, but also to gain insights into how to grow them successfully. The week 2 assignment was to plan which plants would go where in my cutting garden plan.
Being a garden designer, I am used to doing planting plans for perennials, shrubs and trees and successional planting such as using spring bulbs and autumn flowering dahlias in the same spot. However, when it comes to successional planting of hardy and half hardy annuals for a successful cutting garden, it is a completely different kettle of fish. The trick is to treat your cut flowers as a crop and to plan their sowing so that your cutting area is as productive as possible. This means, for example, that you MUST sow some hardy annuals in the autumn to get flowers in early summer. It also means that you need to be have seedlings waiting in the wings to slot into beds as they become vacant.
The lesson for week 3 was entitled Maintenance and dealt with the nitty-gritty of how to cultivate and improve your soil, how and when to sow and plant, how to grow and support your plants, when to cut back and when to prune and how to deal with possible pests and diseases.
I found Charlie to have an easy, informative style of delivery in the video lectures and her feedback on the assignments was both prompt and comprehensive.
The final lesson in week 4 was Using Your Garden Flowers in which we learned when to pick our flowers for the longest vase life and at what stage in their flower development they should be cut. Cut flowers need to be prepared differently depending on their specific characteristics, for example, Euphorbia stem ends need searing briefly in just boiled water to stop them exuding their milky sap. We also learned what equipment we would need for cutting and arranging our beautiful harvest. I think I would have benefited from a quick run-through of how to arrange the flowers with some tips on how much foliage versus flowers to use, since I am no florist. However, I realise that this could easily become the subject of a whole new lesson.
The creation of a cutting garden for myself has been on my To Do list for a long time and I have to admit to owning more books on this subject than I have on garden design! However, my notion of wafting through borders, trug in hand, snipping blooms here and there has been replaced by a concrete action plan of what I'm going to grow, where I'm going to grow my beautiful blooms and how I'm going to organise and sustain my new cutting patch. I now also feel that I have the knowledge and confidence to start designing cutting gardens for my customers.
I would thoroughly recommend this course if you want to get on and create a cutting garden. However, since the cost of the course is more than that of two or three books on the subject, it would be sensible to choose a time when you have four weeks to properly commit to the assignments. The virtual classroom really works and I found myself looking forward to each new week's lesson and challenge. In addition, the feedback you can gain from an expert is invaluable.