1. Autumn Prep Module

Sowing Success

When to plant seeds for a season full of flowers

Paula, Mill Pond Flower Farm

A Year of Planting.jpg

The key to a season full of flowers, is a well planned planting strategy. The diagram above shows a planting plan across 12 months that aims to have flowers and foliage available for sale from the beginning of March to the end of October in a UK climate. If you are growing in a different part of the world, your growing seasons may be different.

Any book, seed packet or expert will tell you to plant flower seeds in the Spring, starting around March, or waiting until the soil is nicely warm. They might add that some can be attempted in September, but very few will advise planting in October, November or December. 

While growing flowers for sale for a number of years, I've been watching and noting how nature does it. There is an unwritten law in flower farming that states the strongest plants are the ones that are self seeded, the ones that pop up in late spring and do so much better than the ones we carefully plant, cosset and nurture, protecting from winds and hailstones. The 'volunteers' just appear, grow away and flower beautifully. I usually find them in sheltered spots in late March, already with a few months growth behind them and unbothered by the cold and wet of a British winter, so think about working on imitating nature, to grow the earliest and strongest hardy flowers possible.

For us, there are different things that volunteer themselves on each of our plots

For Carol

Top 5 volunteers: Nigella, Poppies, Borage, Honesty, Cynoglossum

For Paula

Top 5 Volunteers: Nicandra, Cornflower, Poppies, Borage, Feverfew

For Claire

Top 5 volunteers: Feverfew, Corncockle, Cynoglossum, Clary Sage, Phacelia

Question : Which things are volunteers on your plot?

Achieving strong Autumn sown plants for cut flowers

sowing sunflower seeds.jpg

There are two ways to achieve good strong autumn sown plants for cut flowers:

  1. Collect self sown seedlings

    Learn to recognise the early stages of cut flower plants. They will self seed in your plot (if you haven’t cut and sold every single stem!) and a keen eye for seedlings will ensure you can make the most of your naturally growing seedlings, moving them to a safe place where you can grow them on and harvest them efficiently.

  2. Sow seeds in autumn

The most important issue in autumn sowing is to choose the right plant. The criteria for the choice of seeds is: 

  • those that will happily self seed outside - very hardy annuals such as Godetia, Cornflower, Nigella, Calendula, Linaria, Icelandic poppies, Corncockle, Nicandra, Sweet peas

  • tricky germinators that often take a long time to appear - Orlaya, Bells of Ireland, Larkspur

  • hardy perennials needing a period of cold - Astrantia, Delphinium, Helenium

Most hardy annual seeds do need to be germinated in warmth, so a period of time in a heated propagator might be needed to get them growing. However, the key is to make sure they stay cool once germinated so there is no chance for leggy or weak growth. Slowly does it, with plenty of opportunity to develop strong roots and the plants are ready to shoot off at the first sign of spring. Get them going nicely and you can feel that Spring is already on its way, even before the weather warms up!

On this advanced course, we're assuming that you've sown seeds before, but if you want a reminder of the key points, here are a couple of Claire’s How To videos.

The key thing with all seedlings is not to "check them". This means stopping growth by letting them dry out, get too wet, get too cold or too hot, or get root bound. This last one means that seedlings need to be pricked out either into warm ground, or into larger module trays and pots for keeping under cover over the winter.  Key points are covered in this video

Each year we all discover new and different hardy annuals that we find are great for sowing early, but here below is a list made between the 3 of us of suggested varieties suitable for Autumn sowing

Seedling Identification

We've said that learning what seedlings look like is important for getting strong volunteer plants. It helps when you've been going for a few years and you've got plans of what's been in those beds before, but for now, we're going to give you some visuals of some of the plants that are most likely to pop up on your field if you've grown any of them before.

Cornflowers, Larkspur, Gypsophila, Poppies


The most productive hardy annuals

We've given you a whole list of hardy annuals that can be sown now, and with the right conditions will make it through the winter, and will be ahead of anything that gets sown in early spring, with larger root systems, and so the ability to produce taller and stronger stems. 

But which ones win in terms of stem numbers to sell in that all important late spring window, when customers are interested in our flowers, but the season is only just started?

These are the ones that Claire thinks are the most productive.

Orlaya grandiflora - Laceflower

florists orlaya.jpg

The first year I grew Orlaya I sowed a whole packet of seeds, but only managed to grow 3 plants. These were planted in my polytunnel and cosseted. From 3 plants, I sold 57 stems to florists, and I have pictures of them in bouquets that I made in late June, so I guess at least 20-25 stems a plant were produced. Now I sow one batch in September which get planted outside and covered in environmesh over winter, and I interplant my polytunnel ranunculus with Orlaya plants sown in October, grown in 7cm modules over winter, and planted into the beds between the ranunculus plants in March. I’ve tried growing them as Spring sown plants, but never manage to get as tall stems as those that have overwintered, so I’ll stick to Ammi for later in the year.

 Centaurea cyanus - Cornflowers

Cornflowers germinate fast, and get good root systems quickly. For that reason they are ideal for Autumn sowing, and need pricking out within 5 days of germination. This usually means 8 to 10 days after sowing them.

Cornflowers field.jpg


I get the best and strongest plants when I space them well, - just 3 plants across each of my 90 cm beds.

These Autumn sown plants get excellent root systems and grow tall, meaning that by mid-May I have plenty of flower buds coming.

By late May, they are strong and tall plants with up to 20 flower stems per week per plant, Usually I give up picking late June, not because they aren’t still producing hundreds of blooms each week, but because I can’t keep up with the picking/ dead heading.

Daucus carota - Flowering Carrot

Row of Daucus dara.jpg


Daucus carota which is probably correctly named as a biennial rather than a hardy annual is a great umbellifer that follows on from where Orlaya finished flowering in Mid June. This Carrot family flower is another that needs winter protection from rabbits, but if you can prevent them nibbling then this is another plant that you are likely to give up picking because you can’t keep up with it, rather than because it runs out of steam. It’s one that you think has only got a few stems ready, and then before you know it you’ve got 65 gorgeous flowers in your hand.

Ammi majus - Queen Anne's Lace

Ammi majus is another umbellifer that really benefits from Autumn sowing. The difference in height and so stem length from Autumn to spring sown plants is terrific. With the strong bold Autumn sown plants producing a lot more stems per plant, and plants putting down lots of growth over the winter. 

Ammi Major.jpg

Lathyrus odoratus - Sweet Peas

The last one on my list which is an absolute must for piles and piles of Spring flowers are Autumn sown sweet peas. Now admittedly these are best grown in a greenhouse or polytunnel for early blooms, but late September or October sown sweet peas can be flowering outside in sheltered areas by June. They can be kept in pots until late February or early March, and then are hardy enough to be planted even if we get late frost. The last couple of years I’ve been selling a good proportion of my blooms as sweet pea trails, which keeps the blooming even longer.

bucket of sweet peas.jpg

Review your Year and Start to Plan

Where to start and how to organise your plot

Plans of Millpond Flower Farm

Plans of Millpond Flower Farm



Carol, Carol’s Garden

The two main limiting factors for most of us are space and time. Money comes into it, but usually the cost is a function of space or time. So our planning will focus on these two factors

1. Space - How you make best use of the space you have, to grow the crops that your customers want to buy

2. Time (and energy!) - How to spend your time & energy in the most productive way, to reduce waste and to keep your health and sanity! 

If you're starting from scratch with a bare field or plot, then you're lucky! Most people develop their sites gradually and have to work around existing features. So we will assume that you already have a layout of some kind. Its easy to accept inconvenient routes or time-wasting habits without really looking at the effort and time that you might be wasting, as well as the plants that are in the wrong place. We will cover plot planning in a bit more detail later, but autumn is the perfect time to identify problems, time wasters and lost opportunities.

Its important to realise that there is no ideal plot layout - you need the techniques to work out your own, for the way you work and for your customers.

Saving Time and energy

You will hear us referring to lean systems quite a lot, or Japanese ‘just in time’ management. These are highly developed management systems for big manufacturing industries, but we can learn from them too, for our small businesses. Much of it requires you to take a step back and look critically at the way you work, to identify the good practices as well as inefficiencies in the way you work. We do make constant adjustments and adapt circumstances, so we forget they're there. The amazingly successful British Cycling Team used a principle of ‘marginal gains’ - making small changes to make small gains all add up, especially if you do those activities lots and lots of times. 


Paula had a long standing fence through the middle of her plot, from when some of it had sheep on. There was a single gate in the middle, so every time she needed to go from one half to the other, she had to go through this single gate. It had always been there, so she adapted to it. When she looked properly at the extra time it took, (often carrying buckets or plants), she decided to take the fence out, saving lots of time and energy. 

instagram post about fence.jpg


Look rationally at the layout of your site. Especially in terms of how you are travelling round and where you are spending time walking up and down the plot. Walking is good for you, but uses lots of time and energy! The more you grow and the more often you walk these routes, the more the few extra steps start to matter.

Question : Is there anything obvious to you straight away, that you can change to reduce walking distances?


Getting yourself organised

All the tools have a home to go back to….

All the tools have a home to go back to….

Being efficient and having Lean Systems is all about being organised. This is not rocket science. Its really about having places for things, keeping stocks, thinking ahead - all those things that busy parents cope with all the time, but we don't apply to our businesses! 

We can usually adapt to things ourselves - you might remember where you left the rake if you're the only person using it. But as your business grows and you start to have other people helping you - whether this is your partner, children, volunteers or staff - all these casual habits come to the surface and can become big time wasters. Nothing was more frustrating to me than walking round 2 acres looking for the rake that someone had left out, always under time pressure. 

So start to record how your time is spent, and especially where you've wasted it. Recording this when it happens, and you're tired and frustrated, gets it out of your system. I have a whiteboard in the shed and everyone is encouraged to write down anything that has made them feel like they are wasting their time. It can make for slightly uncomfortable reading, but as its public, we tone it down a bit. Then in Autumn, we go through it and decide what we can do to reduce the chance of it happening again. This can be as simple as having a rule to collect up all tools at the end of the day and put them back in the shed. Every day, no exceptions. Or growing fewer cosmos because you spend too long deadheading them. Or getting staking done early before everything falls over and you're trying to struggle with a load of wet, flat cornflowers.

Our Time Wasters list on a whiteboard in the shed….

Our Time Wasters list on a whiteboard in the shed….


Start a log of learning points through the year - whether in a notebook, on your phone or, in my case, a whiteboard in the shed. Any occasion when you realise you've wasted time, done an unproductive job, spent ages deadheading, or chucked good flowers on the compost, make a note. Then, when you are feeling more constructive and have some time, work out what you need to do to reduce the chance of that happening again. If you have helpers of any kind, encourage them to contribute (if you dare!)

Look too at your stocks of materials - compost, string, floristry sundries. and whether you can have a method of managing stocks. Just in the way people managed their larders when shops weren't open all the time! Holding too much stock can be expensive and you risk items going out of date or perishing. Holding too little means you've got to go out to buy replacements more often, or pay delivery, or risk wasting time because you've run out. There isn't a correct way, but you need to develop a system that works for you. I order horticultural supplies once or twice a year, in spring & sometimes autumn too. That way I get fresh compost and everything I need, and can get free delivery. I try not to have to ‘top up’ during the year.

Start a list of time wasters! Try not to be too hard on yourself (or others!) but when you're frustrated because you've spend ages doing a ‘quick’ job or whatever

Are any of the following irritating time wasters for you?

  • Leaky buckets going back in the stack again

  • Tools not where they should be

  • Leaky hoses

  • No clean plant labels

  • Losing plants to pests

  • Having to cut 5 more stems at the end of the day

  • Running out of materials

Looking back over the past season

Autumn is a great time to review what you have grown and the way you have used your space and time through the year, while its still quite fresh in your mind, and to collect info to work on in winter. 

Review your physical plot and your space

Here are a few techniques for understanding how you use your space and time, and identifying ways to improve:

  1. Identify space which is entirely unproductive or under producing. Can you reduce it or completely change it? eg paths are unproductive space, but you need some. can you make them smaller, or will that compromise access? What little odd shaped beds are you not using properly?

  2. Does this space need to be maintained? Can you reduce the time and money required to do this eg mowing paths? Can you get rid of the grass, or are you prepared to pay the price for nice green, non-plastic paths?

Put simply, the way to make the most of your space is to make as much of it as productive as possible, and to be growing the right things at the right time in the right quantities. Easy?! Its all about identifying waste - wasted time, bed space, flowers, money. Once you know where this is happening, you can start to address it.

Complete the End of Season Space Review Worksheet - keep it to use when we look at plot planning in more detail in Module 3

Review what you have grown this season and what you could change

It’s a good idea to regularly review what you've grown - walk round your plot and write down/photograph/video: What you've grown, the quantities, varieties, colours

  1. Note especially how many of each variety you want next year, and how much bed space they will need.

  2. What were you short of - colours, shapes?

  3. What was unhappy in its spot - too dry, too shady, too sunny? Could you move it somewhere else?

  4. Which beds did you visit most often - ie your best/most favourite flowers?

  5. Which spaces are not earning their keep?

Complete the End of Season Crop Review Worksheet:

Planning for winter

We will cover planting plans later, but you might still need to do a plan for autumn planting now. Just do it - how much space each crop needs, how long will it be there, what will you replace it with. It doesn't need to be fancy, here is my polytunnel plan for winter: I use post-it labels so I can juggle them round until I've got everything right - nothing too tall for the space, or crowding neighbours, early crops coming out in beds that I need to replant in May etc. Making sure compost, irrigation, supports, membrane are in all the right places.

Sometimes, something as simple as a paper plan with post it notes, can really help you when planning - this is my working autumn Polytunnel plan. Sketched layout with permanent and last years crops on, all the crops on post-it notes, so I can juggle them round until I’m happy - the right amount of space for each, best sunny/shadier/damper beds for each, clearing and replanting times worked out, not planting in the same beds as last year. I don’t use the same plan every year because i’m changing the balance and the mix every year. So a sketched plan is fine. It works, and I can easily adjust it if I need to.

polytunnel post it note.jpg


The Biggest Surprise

Picking into buckets in a towed trailer. Saves time and energy.

Picking into buckets in a towed trailer. Saves time and energy.


Picking! No-one realises how long it takes to pick flowers. This is the single biggest job of most growers week, and is usually condensed into just 1 or 2 days. When you are only picking small quantities, it seems ok, but as you grow, it becomes the most challenging thing to organise. You can’t pick too early, you have to consider the weather, you might be juggling lots of different orders. There is loads of scope to improve your efficiency and reduce the time you spend on this. Now is a great time to look at this and plan to improve your methods for next year.

• If you're carrying buckets, get a trolley. If you're already pulling a trolley, upgrade to a machine of some kind - I have a mower/tractor & trailer, Paula has a quad bike.How far are you carrying flowers? As you get bigger, distances get further. Think about frequency of picking and volumes of flowers/foliage.

  • I have dahlias nearest to the shed because they produce a lot of buckets of flowers that I have to carry back to the workshop.

  • Crops that have a very short picking season can be furthest away eg peonies, spring flowering shrubs.

  • Try grouping plants by season eg. summer perennials together, all evergreen foliage together, spring shrubs together and maybe near the biennials...There are so many variables in planting plans, but this is another to consider.

• When you’re writing your picking lists, order them by location - pick in one area before another. I print picking sheets from a main spreadsheet and in the heat of this summer when we had a short space of time to pick masses of flowers, I even started sorting the list by a location code the night before, to speed us up.

• Moving between crops is the biggest time waster, if you have 2 orders for the same flowers, ensure they are all picked at the same time.

• Have a system for buckets - we have clean ones only in the workshop, ready to use, all used ones go out by the washing area, ready to wash. If anyone has a spare few minutes, they can just wash any buckets there, they know they need washing.

Another trailer full of flowers - packing ordinary florists buckets into a closed trailer so they won’t fall over.

Another trailer full of flowers - packing ordinary florists buckets into a closed trailer so they won’t fall over.

Propagation - Bulbs, Corms and Claws

Propagation - Bulbs, Corms and Claws

Claire, Plantpassion

Early Tulips.jpg

Annual or Perennial?

Spring Bulbs are key focal flowers to start off your season, but they are an expensive item to purchase, so the question I'm most often asked is. 

Do I grow bulbs as annuals or perennials?

The answer is  -  it depends.

Unlike when grown in a garden situation, I don't want a bulb that comes back, to just give me a splash of colour from a distance. I want a bulb stem that is long, and a flower that is stronger, and larger than my customers can buy from a supermarket, so that I can sell them at premium prices.

I also don't want an increased risk of pest and disease. If a bulb will give me those attributes on their 2nd, 3rd or 4th year, then the answer is, yes, I grow them as perennials, and either plant them in amongst other herbaceous perennials so they come up through the plant growth, or I plant them in beds dedicated to one type of bulb. 

If the answer is no, - i.e the length of stem gets shorter, they are not reliably bigger flowers, and the stems aren't as strong. Or if growing them in the same place increases the risk of pest and disease, then I grow them as annuals.

Annuals - These are all types that I have found will not give good enough results in following years to give saleable stems.

  • Tulips - all types except

    Menton,

    Queen of the night,

    Viridiflora,

    Dordogne

  • Allium Cowannii - may flower for 2 years but not as strongly

  • Allium Spherecephalon  - will flower for several years but heads go from golf ball sized to marble sized.

  • Narsissus Paperwhites 

  • Hyacinth

  • Tritelia

  • Ranunculus

  • Gladiolus the bride (can get 2 years if in a poly tunnel)

Perennials - These are all types that I have found will give just as good or better results in their 2nd, 3rd and 4th years. Most of these I dedicate full beds to, planting them close together.

  • Alliums - varieties Purple sensation, Christophii, nigrum, Mount Everest, Nectaroscordum, 

  • Narsissus - varieties Cragford, Cheerfulness, Geranium, Winston Churchill, Double Ducat, White Lion, Thalia, Peublo, 

  • Dutch Iris - Sapphire beauty, White Excelsior, Eye of the tiger.

  • Gladiolus Nanus

Autumn bulb planting

Autumn planted bulbs are a wonderful way to make sure that you have key focal flowers for March, April and May.

The key bulbs for each month are 

March

  • Anemones (polytunnel / p/t)

  • Hyacinths (p/t)

  • Early Tulips (p/t)

  • Muscari

  • Narcissus

  • Leucojum

April

  • Tulips (p/t and outside)

  • Anemones

  • Ranunculus (p/t)

  • Narcissus

May

  • Tulips

  • Alliums

  • Iris

  • Fritallaria

  • Anemones and

  • Ranunculus

Anemones and Ranunculus are dealt with slight separately, so there is information about them in the next 2 sections. For all the others, unlike in a garden, I plant them in trenches, rather than individually or in small groups

Here’s my video for how I plant Tulips

For all bulbs, you'll need a free draining soil.

We plant all our perennial bulbs  in beds specifically for bulbs. By the time the foliage is dying back, the beds will be getting weedy (because you'll have turned over the soil to plant them bringing up weed seeds). So we just strim off the worst weeds, and cover with weed membrane. - This will be in July / August for Alliums and Narsisscus and slightly later for Iris. The weeds will die back under the membrane, and by the time you take the cover back off in January / February the shrivelled weeds can just be raked off the surface - keep a close eye to take off the cover as soon as the bulbs begin to peek out, otherwise the tips will be harmed by raking.

Anemones for early spring sales

Anemone montage.jpg

Anemones are a beautiful spring flower, and as such are important for any flower farmer that wants early spring sales. 

I've grown them in both the polytunnel and outside, with various results, so here are some of my suggestions

  • Buy from a reputable supplier, and if they cost more, they will be larger and better corms

  • Chit your anemones (details below) which will ensure that you know which way you should plant them

  • Plant them as early as possible, so that they get established before winter, as long as your ground is free draining.

  • They are a favourite of mice, voles and squirrels, so ensure you have taken appropriate measures to protect them

  • They will need a good amount of moisture to flower with long stems, so this might be a crop worth putting irrigation on.

Chitting Anemones

Anemone corms are small, dark and knobbly, and very hard to know which way up they should be planted. To help with this, if you chit your anemones, they will grow roots and start to shoot, which makes them easy to plant as it is obvious which way up they go.

To chit the anemones.

  1. First soak them. Ideally this would be in oxygenated water (i.e you leave the tap dripping so there are air bubbles in the water) however as my barn has no main drains, only a soak away, I've found that you can quite happily soak the anemones for a couple of hours, drain the water away (we tip the corms into a sieve so the water is caught in a bucket) and fill with fresh water. We do this for a day.

  2. Put the soaked corms in damp vermiculite in a frost free place

  3. Within 10 days to 2 weeks, you have chitted anemones that look like the one below.

Anemone chitting.jpg

Now it's easy to see how to plant them either in the ground or in pots or module trays if you need extra time to clear the bed.

Ranunculus

ranunculus pink picotee.jpg

Before I started flower farming, I bought some ranunculus. Soaked and planted them in pots, and had them growing in the greenhouse. 

When I got my field in January 2013, they were planted into bed 4 (after cornflowers, ammi, euphorbia/ marigolds). 2 days later, I went back to find they'd been eaten, the first of my field casualties - probably to deer.

Luckily, I hadn't managed to plant all of them, so i still had a couple of trays of pots left, and i learnt my lesson quickly, and covered them in netting from then on in. 

They formed a big part of my first buckets of flowers.

(this photo is from a blog post i wrote in Early June 2013)

first crops.jpg

They've been a key part of my Spring offering ever since then.

I now try and get 7 weeks of flowers, from early April through to the end of May, by staggering my plantings, and using the protection and early warmth of the polytunnel and growing them outside (with protection!)

Here's what we do

  • Soak the ranunculus -using the same method as for the anemones.

  • If the bed isn't perfectly ready at this stage, then I chit the ranunculus just like the anemones.

    • Note i've found that chitting ranunculus isn't as necessary as anemones. They are easy to spot which way is up, and if you leave them chitting for too long, the stems get brittle, which means they can be broken when planted. I've found that the quality of the claw is more important than chitting, but i often do it, just to make sure they are alive.

  • Make sure you've written plenty of labels, for the beginning and end of where each variety is planted, one claw looks exactly like another.

  • Use a pipe or measure and work out where you will plant them - We use metre wide beds and plant 5 across each bed. The plastic pipe has sharpie marks where we need to plant them.

  • Move backwards down the bed, creating a shallow trench 5cm deep, planting in the claws, and covering them up.

  • If rain isn't forecast then water them in

  • Cover with netting, environmesh or caterpillar tunnels depending on your circumstances

(Here's what we did earlier! - Slideshow of the steps listed above Modelled by Mum, Dad and my niece Emma - click to move onto the next picture)

picture 1 - The crops  were ripped out, then covered.

picture 2- This is what it looked like straight after we took the plastic off.
We then marked out paths, and hoed the beds (the plastic compresses the compost)

We ensured we won't have to weed the paths, by laying Newspaper (free, recycled) (The Telegraph is the best, as it's larger and thicker!, Guess which paper my Dad reads.) and wood chips (free recycled by a local tree surgeon) .

Then with the paths made either side, we could plant the ranunculus.

You can't make out the sharpie marks in this photo! We use a trowel, to measure how far apart each row is, we try for 20cm apart.

They are then covered gently with soil, and obviously the last step is to cover them in enviromesh to keep the worst of the weather off them.

Question : With this method, how many ranunculus could you fit in your beds?

Planting in crates

To extend your bulb season, and to help with space issues, I've always tried planting some bulbs each year in crates, troughs and pots. 

planting crates.jpg

The most important aspects of your container are, 

  • can it drain?

  • and hold enough water ?

  • can it be moved ?

A lot of winter bulbs need cold to start them off, so the last one is actually important. You will need to keep them outside to ensure they get cold, and then bring them inside or give them some shelter, so that growth is speeded up and you can get a longer / earlier period of flowering.

Growing and Dividing Perennials and Shrubs

Propagation - growing and dividing perennials and shrubs

Paula, Mill Pond Flower Farm

Choosing Perennials for your patch

perennial montage.jpg

Perennials and shrubs can be the backbone of your cut flower enterprise. When well established they can be a relatively low maintenance crop, providing good quantities of stems across the whole season. They can give colour, shape, height and texture. The huge variety of perennials and shrubs can give you scope as a grower to develop your own style and identity by choosing particular varieties to grow as cut flowers.

Some growers might choose to specialise in a particular plants, growing larger quantities to supply to florists or wholesalers of flowers such as peonies, delphiniums, physocarpus or astrantia. 

What to consider when choosing your perennials and shrubs:

  • Will it cut well? (More on this in Module 9)

  • Do I have a market for the flower or foliage? (Much more on this in Module 2)

  • What Soil Type does it like?

  • What Soil pH does it need?

  • Right plant, right place – where does it need to grow?

Some perennials will be better grown as annuals by cut flower growers, depending on the soil type and climate. For example, Claire grows achillea as an annual in Surrey, as it’s not so productive in year 2 on her chalky soil. However, in Scotland on heavy clay it takes a year to actually get going so is a short-lived perennial. I usually get two years before it needs replacing by seed grown plants or cuttings. Anthemis tinctoria is only properly productive for a year though, so I tend to grow new plants from seed every year, or collect self-seeded plants in the winter.

Perennial propagation

Sowing seeds

Most perennials can be grown well from seed.  The best time to sow is when the plants naturally set seed – for spring flowering perennials that’s usually in the summer, summer flowering in the autumn and autumn flowering in spring. A lot of seed companies give very general advice on perennial seed sowing, so it’s worth doing a bit of research to find out if there are any particular requirements for the seed you’re sowing. 

Many perennials for cooler climates need a period of vernalisation or cold, and just won’t germinate without it. Others don’t respond well to the general advice for seed sowing. 

I followed the instructions for sowing achillea for years (plant in spring, in warmth 18-20 C) with very little success until Claire told me to ignore the packet as they like to grow in cool conditions. Now I have full trays of achillea! 

tray of achillea.jpg

Division

Most gardening books recommend dividing perennials, which is fine if you’re dividing them because they’ve got too big. The year after division usually results in fewer flowers however, as the plant has been significantly disturbed, so it’s worth bearing that in mind when you’re growing for cutting. 

General advice is to divide Spring/early summer flowering perennials in the autumn and late summer/autumn flowering perennials in the Spring. However, time constraints in the spring mean that I usually move or divide perennials in the winter, starting with the earliest flowerers and moving through to the later ones. 

Taking cuttings

Lots more plants for free! Many perennials can be propagated by cuttings and this leaves the main plant undisturbed. It’s also a great way to create more of a particularly good specimen as the offspring are clones of the main plant. 

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Our Top tips for productive perennials for your soil type

Late May bouquet, with mostly perennials, - Delphinium, Centaurea, Geum and Dicentra (plus ranunculus, bluebells and mint)

Late May bouquet, with mostly perennials, - Delphinium, Centaurea, Geum and Dicentra (plus ranunculus, bluebells and mint)

Perennials are great for 

  • Times of the season when annuals are just getting started or just finishing - e.g May/ June and October

  • Keeping flowers going in hot dry periods and wet cold periods

  • Having a 2nd flush

  • Don't go over quite as quickly, so better if you don't pick every day

  • Reliablity, in permanent plantings.

  • Lower on maintenance, although will need splitting occasionally

  • Often less common in wholesalers so florists are keen on using them

Our best growers

Clay soil type - Paula in Scotland

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 Lupins : Grown from seed,  mine are all Russell Hybrids. Very easy to propagate each year from seed, and reliable. We start to cut in late May, and they go on until July, then usually a 2nd flush September/ October. If you sow seeds in the spring, they usually flower August to September in their first year.

Astilbe : My best variety came from a landscaper (gift) - others have been bought as plants from local wholesalers Mac plants,  so they are recommend for this area. They flower July to August and they do well in damp soil. Very popular with florists and if there are any left, they dry really well.

Delphiniums : All grown from seed, - most are Belladonna varieties. Shades of blue are stronger than the white plants (which are the florist's favourite) They flower June to August and then a 2nd flush late August to September (smaller flowers) - The first batch can be huge flowers, so hard to transport. 

Hellebores : Stars of the early season, these grow well in heavy soil. Need a quick weed in early Autumn, but then get on with growing and flowering. They bulk up quite quickly so they can be split in Autumn, or Spring. 

Echinops: Grown from seed, these are hard to get rid of if moved, as they can be multiplied by root cuttings, so we've now got 2 clumps. Very reliable in blue and white. Prolific, easy to grow and dries well. 

Chalk soil type - Claire in Surrey

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Phlox: My best variety is a pink one that has been multiplied many times from a garden plant. Easy from divisions, scented, and ball headed in July before the Dahlias start, this is an amazing flower for me to grow a full 10 metre bed of plants. (I’ve actually got 40 m planned for next year in many colours!)

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Centaurea : This blue and white perennial cornflower starts in late April, and flowers all through May. It then has a 2nd flush in September/ October at a time when blue is a scarce colour. With 5- 10 stems coming from each plant each week, it's not as prolific as the annual forms, but is easy to look after.

Geum : The bright oranges and reds of Geums are a wonderful late spring colour burst. Their only problem for me is that they are a deer's favourite snack - Protect!

Leucanthemums : Daisies were never my favourite flowers in gardens, but i've found that they are a total favourite in brides DIY buckets, and they last in the vase so much longer than they look like they should. Easy to divide and multiply, i've got both single and double varieties, and they give me 4 weeks of colourful flowers

Hellebores: I wouldn't want to start my season without Hellebores. Both at home and the farm i can enjoy the flowers myself for a few weeks in early spring, and then sell the flower heads when they start to go to seed. A couple of quick 10 minute weed sessions a year, and a bit of leaf mould are all they need to keep them wonderfully productive.

Sandy soil type - Carol in Cheshire

Achillea from seed, also easy to grow from division

Achillea from seed, also easy to grow from division

Achillea: Very long season from Mid July to October in a wide range of colours, very reliable. Easy to grow from seed and division. Very drought tolerant, and needs staking here.

Astrantia: Has to have the very best conditions we can offer here - the dampest and with a bit of shade at the hottest part of the day. But, we get a long season of flowers - from June to October, if we keep cutting all the flowers. You can grow it from seed, but it goes into dormancy, so it needs to be very fresh seed, or exposed to cold over winter, or sometimes both! Or you can divide it, but we’ve found that it can sulk if you divide in winter, better when it is growing well eg late spring.

Nepeta: I grow Six Hills Giant. It loves the conditions here, and thrives even in last year’s drought, on sandy soil in full sun, with zero watering. It flowers June-July and again in Sept to Oct if you cut it all back after the first flush. Very easy to propagate from divisions or cuttings.

Marjoram: I grow several marjorams and oreganos. My favourite is an ordinary marjoram which has a dainty white flower. It is good in bouquets and out of water (strip leaves off first), so it’s a great gyp replacement. Propagate from seed, division or cuttings. We have a patch in the tunnel which grows 70cm tall and flowers late July, outside it grows 40-50 cm and flowers Aug- Sept. and it’s scented!

Mint: Absolutely everyone seems to love mint. We grow lots of varieties, to have different leaf colours and different flower colours, different periods of flower. They all need a moist soil and some shade here. We sell and use masses. Cut down any unused flower stems after they’ve gone over and you get a second flush of green stems to use for foliage. With a good mix of varieties, you can be cutting continuously from May to October. My favourite for scent is applemint, but that does suffer from mildew in dry spells.

Shrubs - Planting and moving

Planting Shrubs

Autumn can be the best time for planting or moving shrubs. They can often be bought bare root, and the cool temperatures will give them time to get established with plenty of moisture in the soil. 

If you’re buying plants, for best results look for locally grown from at least as far north as you are based. It’s a lot to expect from a shrub to adapt to a much colder climate.

Once planted and watered in, try to mulch well. A good mulching will provide the roots with steady moisture and an insulating layer from the worst of the ice and snow. It’s amazing the difference a few inches can make to the temperature – on a frosty morning, try taking the temperature of the ground and then 4 or 5 inches below soil level. The soil temperature is well maintained even on the coldest of days and that’s where the roots of your shrubs are resting. Mulches keep the temperature even, weeds at bay, and are also a great moisture retentive barrier for the summer. The difference between mulched and bare soil this year was striking and, although we can’t guarantee heatwaves every year, the unpredictability of the weather makes mulches a long term buffer against extremes. 

Top 5 in Clay-  Paula in the Scottish borders

Birch

Planted as whips about 15 years ago, we're fortunate to have a good supply of birch. The trees grow quickly and we're in the process of coppicing them to allow more cutting. Birch is my top seller of all flowers and foliage - it's good out of water and is sold for wreath bases in the run up to Christmas. A long term option for shrubs but a very good one. Once it's growing it requires no attention but does like moist ground.

Escallonia

I've bought a white flowering variety (Iveyi) and also have bushes grown from donated cuttings that flower red and pink. It grows quickly and well, forming arching stems of dark green glossy leaves. Once planted and if cut regularly for foliage it needs no real care. 

Jasmine

I've had one plant growing in the corner of a polytunnel for the past 7 years and cut hundreds of stems from it every season. I've added a wall of new plants growing up wires to increase availability. Fed a couple of times a year and cut regularly and hard as soon as it's in leaf, a star performer and really popular with florists. 

Eucalyptus

Mostly grown from seed, a couple of plants bought in and a few purloined from Carol Siddorn's Cheshire plot. They all do well and I've cut a few hundred stems from them in the past few weeks. Most are gunnii or parvifolia but I've also grown dalrympleana from seed this season and it's doing well. They don't seem to mind the cold and wet and are providing a good hedge to protect other shrubs.

Ligustrum

We had some very old Ligustrum (privet) that I tried to dig out but couldn't get rid of it. It's now one of our most useful and profitable shrubs! It's tough as old boots, semi-evergreen so can be used early in the season, good out of water, and increasing in popularity for florist orders. It needs absolutely no care.

Top 5 Sand - Carol in Cheshire

Eucalyptus : It somehow seems a bit of a foliage cliche now, and it’s so widely available - but you really can’t beat the scent and character of freshly cut eucalyptus. I’ve always loved it and will always have some if I can. We have lots of E parvifolia and E gunnii which are reliably hardy here (survived -10.5C here last winter), as well as some other more interesting species. I’ve grown all of them from seed, they don’t easily take from cuttings if at all.   I cut it from Sept to end April, most of them back to a pollarded stem, and then let it regrow for the summer. I have some on a different cutting regime to get stems that I can use during summer and autumn before the main crop is ready. Less efficient, but gives me stems out of the normal season. In the photo, you can see pollarded ones in the foreground, un-pollarded behind. If we start cutting too early in the year it will be too soft and may wilt - and you loose the extra growth potential compared to leaving it til late summer/early autumn

Physocarpus : we grow three varieties of this and it’s the strongest colours we have in summer. It’s brilliant with dahlias for hot schemes as well as more muted palettes. There are loads of new varieties available now. Previous year’s wood will flower in late spring, followed by good, textural coloured seed pods. It needs good conditioning as it can wilt if cut too soft.

Spirea : we have 6 varieties of Spirea, but the best are any of the white ‘Bridal Wreath’ ones which flower in spring. If you plant different types, in different locations, you can get a good succession of flowers from early May to mid June. Most of them drop petals, sadly, but as it’s white, it looks quite pretty.

Abelia grandiflora : this is probably my favourite shrub. It is hardy here, but is occasionally damaged by cold winds winter - though all plants have survived to -10C. It’s main season is Sept - Oct and later, when it has lovely coral bracts and pale pink flowers. I sometimes pick off the pink flowers and just use the bracts, which last well out of water.

Rosemary : This has always been hardy here, but we did lose a couple in a cold windy winter. I mainly grow Miss Jessop’s Upright as it has good long stems, but I also have an ordinary culinary one for buttonholes etc. We have had Rosemary beetle for the last couple of years, but I don’t yet know how bad it’s impact will be. This is the single foliage I am most often asked for.

Top 5 Chalk - Claire in Surrey

Senecio: Officially called Brachyglottis, but I hate that name. I was given some donated cuttings from a Garden society plant sale when I first arrived at the farm. In year 3, 2 plants (cost, nothing) gave me a total of 130 stems. So I've added 80 more plants.  I don't like the flowers, but then I cut it so hard, it never gets a chance to flower on my field. My florists love it for bridal bouquets, and you can pick it almost all year round. (Although if the deer have a nibble in spring, it's fine again by July)

Physocarpus : The nine bark took a couple of years to get established on my chalk, but now it provides a wonderful colour foliage, and although I'm sure it isn't as vigorous as on chalk or in Carol's sand, it does well enough to merit a decent area of our shrub bed.

Rosemary : I sell hundreds and hundreds of stems of this to florists, and I use it regularly in farewell flowers and in my own bouquets. Wonderfully scented, it is great for straight stems, and it seems that the harder you cut it the better it comes back. I also have rosemary beetle. Regular picking off by the teen (teenage son) is my method of defense.

Hypericum : When I was planning my flower farm, I visited Arjen Heuse who was flower farming at that time in Sussex. He introduced me to the berried Hypericum and I've loved it ever since. I bought 5 PBR varieties, but I have 6!, Salmon, Peach, Red, Green, Black and Cream. Florists love them all, and they are a great late summer addition to DIY buckets.

 Viburnum: My favourite Viburnum is Tinus, which provides me with flowers and seed heads for the first bouquets of the year, and glossy green foliage for late Autumn. I'm sure if it was growing with Paula it would be 7 ft tall, but I've found that 30-40cm stems are brilliant and can last 3-4 weeks in a bouquet.


Getting Ahead in Autumn

Ways to get ahead

Carol, Carol’s Garden

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Spring is always frantic. If the weather is OK, there is loads to do outside and you can end up working yourself into the ground before the season has really even started. If the weather is bad, you can’t do anything - and if we have snow and frozen ground into March, then the window to get field work done is very short. Autumn is often mild. even if there are frosts, they aren't penetrating and the soil remains warm, usually damp and workable. This is a great time to get a head start on spring and to get as much done now before the weather closes in.

Now is the traditional time for the ‘big clear up’. Although ornamental garden advice is to leave dead heads for birds and overwintering insects, you will not have time to clear everything in spring. So clear all those spent crops. You can preserve places for wildlife by stacking at least some of the stems in a sheltered place. We have a heap near the compost, then we just shred it and add it to the compost in spring. 

It is also a good time to move any perennials or shrubs if you are reorganising beds, or to plant new stock. Do it now, and they have time to establish over winter. There are exceptions to this, already covered.

Sometimes if the weather is good, there will still be crops flowering, but sacrifice may be needed if you want to be completely organised for next year, particularly for tunnel crops. Cosmos, Dahlias, Rudbeckia, Calendula, Amaranthus, Scabious are all crops that may still be flowering, but not at good enough quality or quantity.

Paula and Carol have been harvesting and drying flowers

Claire has been strimming and covering with fabric.

Black plastic covering on Claire’s field in winter.

Black plastic covering on Claire’s field in winter.

Mulching and covering

I was taught, many years ago, by a life-long organic gardener. He had lots of stories and sayings. One thing he said, which I've tried to follow, is to always keep your soil covered. He was talking about soil health. Weather will slowly degrade soil which is exposed to it. Hot, dry ,windy weather will dry it out, and erode it - and microbes cannot survive in dry, moving soil. Too much rain will wash away nutrients and organic matter. A light-blocking cover will help to reduce this and will prevent weed seeds from germinating and will, eventually, kill perennial weeds. The more comprehensive the light block, the more effective it will be. Excluding light (also called occultation) will kill seedlings within about 4 weeks; most perennials in a full growing season, but tough perennials with big root reserves might need a full year or even longer. More on weeds later!

Mulching in autumn will help protect soil from the elements in winter and prepare it for spring. 

You can mulch with:

  • Black plastic. This is the most effective light control. Covering your soil with compost and then black plastic will give you clean, friable soil for spring. You can often get second hand supplies from livestock farms, or buy new. It is tough and can be resumed for many years. When you remove it in spring, you'll probably have a healthy population of slugs, voles and worms under there!

  • Weed suppressing permeable membrane. This is a woven plastic fabric, which allows water through. It does a similar job to plastic, but is better for planting through as it allows water and air to pass to the plant roots. It is not quite so effective as a light barrier and some weeds will root down through it.

  • Organic mulches - these will add different amounts of nutrient, as well as humus to the soil and so will positively improve the structure and water & nutrient holding capacity of your soil. They are not as effective at blocking light from weeds as the barrier methods, but thick layers can reduce weed growth as well as retaining moisture. Ideally, an organic mulch will not bring weeds of its own, ie. weed seeds or roots. So hot-composted council green waste, treated spent mushroom compost, spent hops are all pretty much weed free. Un-composted materials such as straw and bark may bring seeds with them. Manure and home made compost almost certainly will too!

  • Degradeable sheets eg. cardboard, newspaper, cellulose sheets. These will all block light temporarily, until they rot down. There are often used as a temporary barrier until plants are established, or underneath an organic mulching layer.


Freshly delivered Council Green Waste ready for spreading as a mulch

Freshly delivered Council Green Waste ready for spreading as a mulch

Infrastructure: Fencing, supports, irrigation, paths

Attempt by Claire to keep deer out of new perennial beds!

Attempt by Claire to keep deer out of new perennial beds!

I always think of infrastructure type jobs as being good things to do in winter - so sorting fencing, checking rabbit proofing, sorting irrigation, maintaining paths and plant supports - could all be done in winter. But who want to be wrangling with hoses and water in January? So get started on some of this now….

  1. Check your perimeter fences and hedges, are they stock-proof if they need to be? Check rabbit fences for gaps etc. Be ready to make repairs - all the gaps appear as the leaves fall and hedges are cut. Rabbit fences need to be 60cm high, and remember they will jump or even climb if there are handy objects to help them over.

  2. Irrigation might deserve a week of its own! None of us use lots of irrigation, but this will depend on your site and climate. Prioritise those areas and plants which need it most - covered areas (tunnels, etc), thirsty crops like roses, sweet peas, dahlias, newly-planted plants of any kind. Set up leaky hoses or t-tape in the most important areas. Perhaps a walking hose might work (a moveable leaky hose that you can take from place to place as needed). You can get advice from suppliers. Things to consider are:

  • Can you harvest and store more water - either in free-standing water collection structures, or off existing roofs. Unless you can get the water store to be high up so it will feed water by gravity, you will need a pump of some kind to get the water to where you need it.

  • Whether you are using stored water a borehole, or mains water, you will need a means of distributing it to where you need it. This can be a series of leaky pipes, t-tape, pipes, etc, fed from a longer manifold or solid pipe or hose which connects them all up, with valves to turn sections on & off so you can just send water where you need it.

Thank you to Pat Cottam of the Forgotten Garden, who's sent us this picture of her ingenious water collection device. She says "  The biggest problem with these is that they have to be high enough to give you pressure with the drop. We have since put more higher up the field to feed grapes and another tunnel which I use on a daily basis (still no spring water). All the tanks are left open with a pipe at the base attached to all but with a main on off lever. I have a very long hose to fit and can attach pumps also. Also makes a very good sheep shelter! KR Patx

Thank you to Pat Cottam of the Forgotten Garden, who's sent us this picture of her ingenious water collection device. She says "

The biggest problem with these is that they have to be high enough to give you pressure with the drop. We have since put more higher up the field to feed grapes and another tunnel which I use on a daily basis (still no spring water). All the tanks are left open with a pipe at the base attached to all but with a main on off lever. I have a very long hose to fit and can attach pumps also. Also makes a very good sheep shelter! KR Patx

  • Do a rough cost:benefit - the cost of setting it up and of the water vs the time it takes to do the watering manually, and potential lost crops. There are no hard and fast guidelines, you need to judge for your own site.

  • If you already have some irrigation, does any need replacing, fixing. can you make life easier with taps, timers, pressure regulators?

  • Check support structures - posts, netting, wires etc. order in replacements ready for a day when you can get out and work on them.

Which of your beds may need irrigation next year? Make an irrigation plan

Waterbutts with soaker hoses attached. We’d fill up the butts with a hose (while we were doing other jobs) and it would then soak out onto the plants without us having to stand there and water

Waterbutts with soaker hoses attached. We’d fill up the butts with a hose (while we were doing other jobs) and it would then soak out onto the plants without us having to stand there and water

Question: Which of your beds may need irrigation next year? Make an Irrigation Plan.

Tools, Equipment, Stores

Get ahead on your maintenance and stocks before winter. Clean, sharp tools work better and are less damaging for you to use. Sharp secateurs work more efficiently and are less likely to strain your hands. 

So its time to get your shed in order!

Time to check your tools!

Time to check your tools!

  • Sort out, clean, sharpen and check over all your tools. Get any machinery cleaned and serviced, especially if its going to be stored away over winter (lawn mowers?) Do you need to replace any? Now is the time, before you really need them (See video on how to sharpen your secateurs

  • Tidy up all your pots and trays, check you have enough un-broken ones for what you will need next year. Get them stored in stacks so you can find them easily in spring.

  • Check your stocks of sundries and start a list of what you need, (or download our checklist below to do a stock-take) so you only need to make one order or shopping trip - compost, vermiculite/perlite, fertilizers/feed, irrigation components, string, netting, weed suppressing membrane and pegs, small tools etc

  • Get the chimney swept, light a fire, and go and sit by it with a seed catalogue!

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