Grow your own flowers to bring inside, like sweet williams. Photograph: Gap Photos
Flowers make us feel better. They are the first thing we think of buying for special events or to cheer someone up; they brighten up a room and in many cases fill it with scent, too. But something has happened to the flowers we buy. Like so much in modern life, they have become big business: large flower farms in South America and Africa grow plants on vast scales to supply the year-round demand for cheap blooms worldwide.
While it might seem we now have a wide choice, the cut-flower trade suffers from the same problems that affect the food industry. Just as fruit and veg are grown for their shelf life and ability to survive the distribution chain, as well as their yield and uniformity, so, too, are flowers. Yet while many of us have realised that buying local, seasonal food is good for us and the planet, it seems we’ve yet to think in the same way about the origins of the flowers we buy.
Growing your own cut flowers is a win–win situation. You will know that they have not clocked up great transport distances, contributed to water shortages and habitat destruction, or been grown using toxic chemicals. And, at a time when our insects are struggling to find sources of nectar and pollen, your flowers will provide a vital place for them to feed. Creating your own cutting patch will also open up a whole new world of flowers you can use for arranging, blooms with wonderful scents and delicate ones that would not travel well.
A dedicated spot
You could spread plants like Dahlia ‘Karma Choc’ around your garden or grow them in a dedicated cut-flower patch. Photograph: Alamy
You could dot your cut-flower plants throughout your garden borders so they form part of an overall planting scheme, but there are advantages to having a dedicated patch, however small. It is much easier to organise bare-soil beds than to slot your cut-flower plants in among existing shrubs and perennials, and many annuals benefit from some support, which is easier to achieve in a special patch.
One essential consideration is the amount of light your plot receives. Pretty much all cut flowers need a good amount of sunshine, so there is no point in locating your patch in a shady spot. Shelter is also vital. Strong, gusty winds can do a lot of damage, particularly to new green growth, and they also cause moisture loss: plants naturally lose water through their leaves, but this process is speeded up on windy days, especially if it is hot and sunny. In such conditions, plants can wilt quickly, and new young ones are most vulnerable because their roots have yet to become established.
Preparing your site
Fork over the bottom of raised beds, then fill with a mix of topsoil and compost. If your cut-flower patch is directly on the soil, thoroughly weed the area, fork it over and mulch with compost. If you can get hold of good-quality composted green waste from your council, lay it on the surface – the worms will do the hard work for you. If your soil is on the acid side, a sprinkling of a seaweed and lime mix will help any flowers in the brassica family.
Plan for a small bed
Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) climbing on a wigwam. Photograph: Alamy
I have chosen flowers for a 2.5m x 1.25m bed. They are easy to germinate from seed, and some can be bought as plug plants from garden centres or by mail order. A mix of hardy and half-hardy annuals and biennial plants and a tender dahlia will give you, from late spring to mid-autumn, enough flowers to make posies and fill small vases.
I have suggested the number of plants for each area, but you do not need to stick rigidly to the plan. It’s meant only as a guide. Any new planting will look a little regimented initially, but as the plants develop they will fill out, creating a patchwork of colour.
• For Louise Curley’s shopping list of what to plant for your own cut-flower patch, click here.
This is an edited extract from The Cut Flower Patch, by Louise Curley, published by Frances Lincoln at £20. To order a copy for £16 with free UK p&p, call 0330 333 6846 or go to theguardian.com/bookshop.