Renowned city garden designer and Founder of The Balcony Gardener, Isabelle Palmer, shares her expert tips for how to grow cut flowers in containers, whatever the size of your outdoor space
(LEFT) ISABELLE PALMER WITH HER SPRING PLANTERS OF RHODODENDRON, AQUILEGIA, HELLEBORE AND HYDRANGEAS; (RIGHT) ISABELLE’S COTTAGE GARDEN PLANTER WITH FOXGLOVES, ECHINACEA, ENGLISH LAVENDER, SALVIA AND ACHILLEA. IMAGE NASSIMA ROTHACKER
What are your favourite cut flowers to grow in containers?
One of my favourite gardening pastimes is growing flowers for floral arrangements and you can grow most in containers. You don’t need to fill large vases; jam jars around the house are just as effective. My favourite blooms are Snapdragons (Antirrhinum), which are one of the most hardy and easy-to-grow plants. I just love their form and shape; they’re bold but delicate. Cosmos is also a great flower that has frothy foliage for interest. I also love Anemones because the colours of these flowers are beautiful and the petals are so delicate and Chrysanthemum because it is so hardy and easy to care for; try varieties such Regal Mist Purple and Allouise Pink for big blousy blooms.
Which cut flowers suit a very sunny plot and which can tolerate a shady area?
For full sun I would grow Zinnias, Cosmos, Snapdragons, Verbena and Scabiosa. For shade I would grow Aquilegia, Foxgloves, Hydrangeas and Hellebores.
How do you choose the best container for your cut flowers?
As a general rule I always pick the largest container (space permitting) that I can. Not only does this give more room for flowers, it also reduces the frequency of watering that is required, which saves time. Use sympathetic materials that compliment and don’t jar with your chosen flowers; lighter stone containers or galvanised steel compliment and let most flowers shine.
Would you recommend growing cut flowers from seed or buying plants that are already established?
I would normally buy established or at least starter plug plants for cuttings if you are starting out. If you have more experience then yes, growing from seed is a great way to start a cutting container and is more economical.
(LEFT) RENOWNED CITY GARDENER AND FOUNDER OF THE BALCONY GARDENER, ISABELLE PALMER; (RIGHT) ISABELLE’S MEADOW PLANTER WITH COWSLIP, RANUNCULUS, YARROW AND BUTTERCUP
Is there a simple way to calculate how many flowers to grow per container? Can you overcrowd them?
When planting up containers you should ignore spacing suggestions and plant densely. The plant isn’t going to be in the pot for years and years and you want a full display. I suggest placing four or five plants in a 25-30cm planter, six or seven plants in a 30-40cm planter and eight or nine plants in a 40-50cm planter.
What kind of potting mix is best for cut flowers?
Use a relatively coarse, soilless planting mixture to maintain the necessary water and air balance, or use a specialist moisture control container compost. Always use a good base of drainage; preferably clay pebbles or horticultural grit.
Do you use plant supports to prevent your cut flowers from flopping?
Yes, for large tall blooms I use supports so that the stems stay straight and upright. I either use the Barrington Full Hoop Plant Support (£10 from Garden Trading) or the Lobster Pot Plant Support (from £79 from Harrod Horticultural), depending on the pot and flowers held. These are my favourites as they are aesthetically pleasing and don’t impede the look of the flowers too much.
(LEFT) ISABELLE’S RUSTED TONES PLANTER WITH HYACINTH, RANUNCULUS, TULIP, NEW ZEALAND FLAX AND TIARELLA. IMAGE NASSIMA ROTHACKER; (RIGHT) ISABELLE’S ENTRANCE TROUGHS WITH SNAPDRAGON, DAHLIA, ASTER, PETUNIA AND AFRICAN DAISY
How can you keep your containers looking pretty while also harvesting cut flowers for vases?
There are two ways. Grow one flower variety in each container so that it elongates the time you have flowers in bloom; cutting some before they bloom, some during and some at the end. Or, I mix up a few plants that have differing times of flower so that there is always something always of interest left in the container. In both cases don’t cut all the flowers, just cut a few so that the plant has a chance to continue growing. And always cut away dead flower heads, which will encourage more blooms.
What are the most important things to remember when caring for your cut flowers?
The best way to keep flowers fresh is to keep them well hydrated and fed, and lessen the build-up of bacteria. Make sure all foliage that’s in the standing water is removed. Add either one crushed aspirin per vase, 225ml of clear fizzy lemonade per litre, or plant soluble food to the water and change the water regularly. Another good tip is to add half a tablet of Milton steriliser to the water, which is very good at keeping it cleaner for longer. If you have some stems that are just about to bloom you can extend the time before they are in full bloom by wrapping them in tissue paper and popping them in the fridge. This works well with flowers such as Peonies.
When is the best time to harvest your cut flowers?
The best time to cut them is in the morning. Failing that, cut them in late evening and never in the height of the heat of the day. Put them into water in a clean vessel immediately and make sure you maintain your cutting tool well, so that it is sharp and clean.
For more container gardening tips and ideas, Isabelle Palmer’s new book Modern Container Gardening: How to Create a Stylish Small-Space Garden Anywhere is published by Hardie Grant, RRP £16
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