You may have noticed that growing cut flowers is a bit of a passion of mine. I first came across the idea that I could turn over a patch of land purely for the purpose of growing flowers to cut when I discovered Sarah Raven’s book The Cutting Garden. Inspired I used a part of my garden to cut flowers and then when I took on my allotment last year I decided to devote 3 beds to producing my own blooms. I love it; the sense of satisfaction is immense and I get huge pleasure from giving away bunches to friends and having the house filled with flowers. So it might have been a long way to go for a day, Wales to East Sussex, but when I was asked to attend a press day at Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden it was just too good an opportunity to miss.
Sarah Raven’s name is now synonymous with cut flowers and her style of naturalistic, billowing and slightly unkempt arrangements, that are the antithesis to the uniform, stiff and well-behaved bouquets on offer from most florists. It all started 18 years ago when she was working long hours as a doctor in a local hospital. With a young family she was looking for a way of earning money which gave her time to see her children and that idea was cut flowers. She had just moved to a farm in East Sussex and had land at her disposal so she trialled the idea of growing flowers as a business. She realised that maximising the productivity of every square inch of ground would be essential if her idea was to be a success. At the time no one was growing annuals, they had completely fallen out of favour but Sarah saw their potential; the key being the sheer number of flowers they produced over a season. Her business soon grew not just from selling flowers but also to teaching, writing and TV presenting, inspiring people like myself to grow their own cut flowers.
As part of the day I was given a taster of the cut flower course she offers. Even for myself who has read and reread her books many times there was plenty to learn. Her 2 acre garden maybe substantially bigger than most but after nearly 2 decades of trialling which plants are most productive, her knowledge makes it easier for those of us with limited space to maximise its use. For plants to gain a place in her garden they have to meet certain criteria, such as time from planting to harvesting, the length and size of the harvest, the cost of growing and their versatility. The idea she is working on at the moment is what she calls ‘plant lasagne’, the layering of plants in the soil to cram even more into a space. Similar to planting different bulbs in a container at different levels, Sarah is currently growing artichokes, alliums and dahlias in beds producing high quantities of flowers and also an edible crop. I loved the colour contrast of redbor kale and the pinky/apricot coloured Tulip ‘Menton’ that were growing in her vegetable garden and is an idea that may well make its way onto my allotment.
The Cutting Garden at Perch Hill has four seasons which are dictated not by the actual season but by the plants that dominate that period. So season 1 is all about the bulbs with some biennials thrown in and runs from March to mid May, season 2 lasts from mid may to mid July and is the time for hardy annuals, which Sarah sows the bulk of in the autumn. Between mid July and September, season 3, the half-hardy annuals, tender perennials and dahlias take over. The final season can last, in this milder part of Britain, right up until Christmas and is the time for dahlias and chrysanthemums. This different way of looking at the growing season will certainly influence my planning for my own patch.
A tour of the garden and a taster of her vegetable growing course were equally fascinating and informative but the icing on the cake was a demonstration of creating a hand tied bouquet in her inimitable style. Tips included holding a mass of flowers if you only have small hands, the easiest way to tie the bouquet without it falling to pieces and how to create a sieve with the foliage to give the bouquet structure.
I left with masses of notes and a head swirling with ideas. Maybe next year I might have to devote a fourth bed to cut flowers!!
For more information about Sarah Raven, her garden and courses visit her website. Perch Hill is open on selected days throughout the summer.