The Summer Cutting Garden

There's compost on my computer keys this morning. Thinking about cutting gardens has sent me down to the garden about five times to check out my cosmos seedlings and to sow some rudbeckia and re-pot an agapanthus in passing.

There's nothing better than a bright jug of flowers from the garden on the kitchen table but sometimes one's reluctant to pick from the borders, so an area devoted to flowers just for cutting solves the problem. The idea of a cutting garden is to make it as productive as a vegetable patch by choosing flowers, annuals, biennials and perennials, which have a long flowering period and which produce more blooms when picked regularly. Hardy and half-hardy annuals will do this for you in particular as they need to complete their life cycle in just one season. It really doesn't matter what space you allocate for this exercise, although if you have a larger area to spare you can indulge yourself with perennials like peonies which only flower once in the season but give such pleasure when they do. And peonies like the lovely scented apple blossom pink P.'Sarah Bernhardt' take the breath away. Think of Helenium 'Moorheim Beauty', one of my favourite perennials for the late border and ideal for a cutting garden. Its crinkled petals fold back from the centre like an insect's wings and are a lovely orangey brown. They bulk up pretty quickly and with regular division you can soon have a colony to pick from for months. What more could you want? And dahlias for the latter part of the summer can be grown near your runner beans to increase production by attracting pollinating insects. Try the annual D. 'Bishop's Children' which can be grown from seed and will give you zingy colours and dark foliage.

Bringing flowers into the house also gives you a chance to see the blooms up close and to take in their beauty. As I write this, I have a wine glass full of lily of the valley right in front of me - and apart from the intoxicating scent, I can see the little clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers in such detail.

Once you have established where you intend to have your cutting garden - preferably in a sunny spot - you can either plant in ordered serried ranks as you might do with your vegetables, which makes picking easier and means that shorter plants aren't overwhelmed by taller varieties, or throw everything in together. And whereas certain flowers might not suit your borders, I think you can jumble things up in a cutting garden in a rumbustious and free fashion without worrying about colour.

The seed catalogues are, of course, overwhelmingly tempting, and you can get carried away, but try to choose plants that will give you a good show. Some of the favourites in annuals are favourites for a reason. The range of cosmos now is tantalising. I'm trying C. 'Antiquity' this year which open crimson and then fade to pale 'antiquey' tones and 'Dazzler' which has a particularly feathery foliage and large carmine flowers. Also the wonderful white C. bipinnatus 'Purity'. Cosmos flower for over three months after sowing and their season, starting in July, carries on until November. Try zinnias, too, which are happy to be sown late - there is a lovely orange one called Z. 'Orange' which you could put in a vase with lime green Euphorbia oblongata can be treated as an annual and perhaps the annual Scabiosa atropurpurea 'Black Cat' or perhaps 'Chile Black' which grow on long, wiry stems and have an exceptionally long flowering period. There is also a very happy mix called 'Pin Cushion Mix' which has flowers of varying shades of pink as well as white. They germinate happily in warm, moist and dark conditions so exclude the light until the seedlings come up. They, like annuals such as rudbeckias and salvias like Salvia iridis 'Blue Clary', are particularly good for encouraging pollinating insects into your garden as are dahlias.

Sowing is easy with most of the annuals. You can either sow in seed trays, in pots, in Root Trainers which may be more useful for the larger seeds such as lupins or sweet peas, or in Jiffy 7s. (I've brought back salvia cuttings from William Waterfield's breathtaking garden, Clos du Peyronnet, in these and they are thriving - if only I had labelled them!) These come as sets of 120 pellets and are easy to use. Just soak them, sow the seeds and then the whole thing can be planted out when they have germinated. If you are using seed trays, hygiene is essential, so wash them out before re-use, to avoid any bugs that are soil borne. Before sowing your seeds, moisten the compost thoroughly and then just follow the instructions on the packet. Oh, and gently compress the soil in your seed tray as young rootlets don't appreciate air pockets or lumps that they have to traverse! A layer of vermiculite on the surface of seed trays when you surface sow, seems to produce good results. And at the risk of continuing to sound like a schoolmistress, when you water, use your finest watering can rose so that you don't wash the soil off the newly sown seeds. Leaving the tray to dry off completely will damage the emerging rootlets so check things regularly. And now you need a window sill, a propagator or a greenhouse. Your seedlings can be pricked out once you have sight of two true leaves. Gradually acclimatise your seedlings to the outdoors and then plant out into soil that you have raked to a fine tilth. Add a slow-release organic feed. Alternatively you can sow in situ but this year, with a distinct lack of rain so far, it may be difficult to prepare the soil into a condition for sowing. Pickaxes may have to be dusted off.

The list of annuals is long but do consider nigella or 'Love in a Mist'. Try N. damascena 'Double White' with its clear green seed pods or N. papillosa 'African Bridge' which have particularly dramatic seed pods as well as feathery foliage - be warned, the nigellas are not happy to be transplanted so are better sown in situ. Or the tobacco plants, in particular Nicotiana sylvestris, white with a heady scent, or the elegant N. alata 'Lime Green'. Grow Ammi majus or Bishop's Flower which is rather like cow parsley and looks wonderful with 'Love in a Mist', cornflowers and larkspur or the slightly coarser Ammi visnaga which is also white but has seed pods that you can mix in a vase with dahlias in late summer. Grow masses of dill which, as well as having a culinary use, is a wonderful foil for any rich combination of colours as it produces little floaty, greeny-yellow florets. These can be sown in pretty poor soil and as long as they are watered when they are first planted, will bush up as you use the foliage for cutting or for your fish dishes. And they self-seed. Another nice lime green flower is the annual Bupleurum griffithii which has lots of flat bright green umbels - perfect for adding to flowers like sweet peas in a vase. Calendulas or English marigolds are incredibly easy to grow and pop up in a seed tray in a trice. You can either sow them in the spring or in the autumn in situ for good strong plants. I find that they self-seed. The Arts Shades Group are a good bet as you get such a variety of colours which look marvellous with limey foliage and dark velvety cosmos such as C. bipinnatus 'Versailles Carmine'. One of the most vibrant calendulas is one called C. 'Indian Prince' which has burnt-orange blooms. They'll keep flowering for you until hit by frost. If you have the space, make room for the ubiquitous Alchemilla mollis whose frothy flowers are a foil for just about every cut flower. They are good for lining pathways and self-seed with gay abandon. Later in the summer, if they are looking a little tired, cut the plants right back and you will soon have plenty of new growth and a few flowers. In fact, taking a tip from Robin Lane Fox, whose book Better Gardening inspired many would-be gardeners, as this season has been so early with so many palnts flowering together, be bold and cut back some of your summer-flowering perennials now, so that their season is delayed. You can also pinch out taller plants so they shouldn't need staking and will also flower later. And, if you're not feeling brave enough to do this, just keep sowing annuals and you will fill your cutting garden with colour all season.

Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.