Simply stems

24 November 2017

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I WROTE in September about the joys of creating a cutting garden using annuals grown from seed. At the beginning of this month, I was still harvesting the lovely Ammi majus: its delicate ferny foliage and lacy umbels of lime-green buds are opening into a myriad of tiny white flowers.

The first frosts have put paid to it now, though. In early spring, we can pick the first of the narcissi, but, until then, growing flowers for winter floristry is really a hothouse job.

The trouble is that I have become accustomed to having a little of the garden on show indoors. I have also enjoyed the look of the cutting bed in the garden. There is something about growing plants in rows that appeals to our agricultural heritage. The patch is orderly, but in a some­how friendlier way than a formal bedding display. I am happy for most of it to lay fallow for the coldest months, but, alongside the hardy annuals that were sown in late September to sprint ahead in spring, I want something to gather in winter. The answer, I feel, is in plants with coloured stems.

A couple of willows fit the bill. Salix alba var. vitellina “Britzensis” has orange-scarlet stems and twigs, while the branches of Salix x sepulcralis ”Erythroflexuosa” are similarly copper-toned, but also as contorted as the name suggests.

Then there are the dogwoods or Cornus. The common dogwood, C. sanguinea, has claret-coloured stems. It can be found growing naturally in hedgerows in southern England, but is worthy of a space in the cutting garden. It has several cul­­tivated forms, too. “Winter Beauty” has yellow stems blending to red at their tips. “Midwinter Fire” has a similar two-tone look, but with more vivid orange in the mix. “Anny’s Winter Orange” is a new introduction, which promises an even more intense flame effect.

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Willows and dogwoods can be harvested as needed until they have been reduced to 30cm in height. If, come the spring, tall stems remain, prune back to 30cm then. This is known as stooling, and promotes new whippy growth with strong colour. Fargesia nitida is a bamboo that is clump-forming, but not invasive. Rather than stooling it, cut out stems at their base to use in a vase, but leave a few to reach their mature height.

These are all vigorous plants, but donating so many stems to interior decoration is a drain on their resources, so mulch them with well-rotted manure or compost in the autumn. This has the benefit of sup­plying nutrients, conserving mois­ture, and, if from a reputable source, it should keep weeds from ger­minating.

Winter stems lend themselves to simple indoor arrangements; the bam­­boo, in particular, suits a minimalist approach. They can be used to eke out a few precious shop-bought flowers, or, if that feels like cheating, arrange the rods in tight bundles of mixed colours, or bands of contrasting colours, secured in florist’s foam hidden with some evergreen leaves. A cutting garden can still deliver in the depths of winter.

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