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Required Reading: ‘The Cut Flower Sourcebook: Exceptional Perennials And Woody Plants for Cutting’


Required Reading: ‘The Cut Flower Sourcebook: Exceptional Perennials And Woody Plants for Cutting’

March 24, 2023

How did we become so disconnected with the natural world? Perhaps it has to do with having too much choice. Even in a place like England, with its enviably long growing season and perfect conditions for gardening, people choose not to grow their own fruit, vegetables, and flowers, buying them instead from a supermarket. And yet with flowering material, gardens and hedgerows are much more interesting, if only we could make the connection.

The Cut Flower Sourcebook lives up to its promise, offering invaluable advice for anyone beginning to grow their own plants for cutting, as well as prospective flower farmers. The author, Rachel Siegfried, is a grower and florist who uses the seasons’ parameters as a spur to creativity. With her partner Ashley Pearson, she started Green and Gorgeous Flowers in Oxfordshire, England, 15 years ago, doing innovative (yet quite traditional) things like selling at the farm gate on Saturday mornings. Now there are many more competitors, but hers is the cool, level-headed voice, demonstrating that beauty can also be found in slow-growing and permanent plants, reducing work and environmental damage.

Above: Rachel Siegfried making full use of crab apple trees in blossom. Photograph by Rachel Siegfried.

“Trees and shrubs are the foundation of our planting on the flower farm,” says Rachel. They act as a structural foil for the flowers, in a parallel role to the one that these “woody cuts” play in an arrangement. They are also vital for shelter, along with cutting hedges. “One of your first jobs will be to establish the direction of the most damaging winds and plan a shelter belt for fast-growing woody cuts to protect your planting,” she advises. Deciduous trees and shrubs planted as hedges have an advantage over evergreens because of their blossom, autumn color and berries. Native crab apple, Rosa glauca, Viburnum opulus, native spindle and hawthorn all grow on the farm.

Above: Climbers are trained against reinforced steel mesh at Green and Gorgeous Flowers, Oxfordshire. Photograph by Eva Németh.

Rachel’s advice is to plan a cutting garden that is separate, visually and practically, with perennials growing in blocks of crops. Plant choices should depend on what you are able to grow, rather than what you want to grow. But it’s not all hard work: There is shopping to do, at plant fairs and nurseries. “It is so worthwhile to seek out these places and all their treasures if you want to create a difference in your work.” Rachel buys in small quantities so that she can trial everything before bulking it up.

Above: Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, the last daffodil to flower in spring, coinciding with early Solomon’s seal. Photograph by Eva Németh.

Narcissi last for years and, like perennials, shrubs, and trees, do not require a lot of input. She calls this “growing with natural ease.”Almost half of the book is given over to a plant directory, which is as engaging and matter-of-fact as the initial narrative.

Above: Protecting a cutting garden from drying wind and exposure to cold is one of the first considerations. Shown here, peonies sheltered by an old hawthorn hedge of 13 feet, mimicking the effect of a walled garden. Photograph by Rachel Siegfried.

Peonies are prized as long-lived, hardy plants, despite their short flowering time. Rachel suggests growing a selection, with blooms beginning in late spring through to  midsummer. The plant directory advises on times to cut for the longest vase life, and in the case of voluptuous, extravagant peonies, it’s “at the marshmallow stage.”

But blooms aren’t everything, as this book convincingly demonstrates; it’s useful to look at the life cycle of a plant, considering it for pre-bloom foliage (such as the glaucous ferny leaves of Thalictrum ‘Elin’ in early spring) and post-bloom, with berries and seed heads. In which case, grow plenty of these plants, so that they can be harvested at different stages.

Above: Hardwood cuttings, “the most relaxed way of propagating new plants,” if you are prepared to do it slowly. Shown here (left), Ribes, pushed into a gritty trench, which will be backfilled, leaving just the top third of the cutting exposed. Above right: the result, a year later. Photographs by Rachel Siegfried (left) and Eva Németh (right).
Above: “All of my favorite tools seem to be Japanese.” Rachel’s most used hand tools, a bamboo hand rake for picking up debris, flower snips for precision cutting in dense planting, and a razor hoe for weeding in tight spots. Photograph by Rachel Siegfried.
Above: Pale sweet pea and darker ranunculus are brought together by the mid-tones of honeysuckle, the accent material here. Photograph by Rachel Siegfried.

The “Garden in a Vase” chapter demonstrates just that—how to distill what is going on outside (in refreshingly low-key vessels, available at the farm gate shop). Since arrangements are broken down into four key elements: framework, supporting material, focal and accent flowers, it is important to grow sufficient material for each category, from framework branches “that speak of the time of year” to accent grasses and climbers with finer detail, and stems that add movement.

Above: “For the risk averse, perennials and shrubs are a good fit.” Photograph by Rachel Siegfried.
Above: The Cut Flower Sourcebook: Exceptional Perennials and Woody Plants for Cutting by Rachel Siegfried, from Filbert Press. Published in the UK this week, and available in the United States from May 23. The author will be giving a talk about the book at the Garden Museum in London on April 4.

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