I HAVE written before, in this column, about growing annual flowers and ornamental stems for displaying in a vase, but it is the foliar element of the cutting garden that I would like to turn to now. Here are three recommendations to fill out homegrown bouquets through the year.
First, a perennial culinary herb to cut now in early summer: fennel. In its acid-green and bronze forms, it has the most sensuous tactile foliage, with the scent of aniseed. Cutting regularly will stop it flowering, so you do not need to worry about its tendency to self-seed everywhere. It is getting a bit late to start it from seed this year, so buy a few plants and you can start harvesting moderately straight away.
Swiss chard is not just for the vegetable plot: this close relation to beetroot can be sown now and at regular intervals through to July. Be warned, though: slugs and snails are partial to it. The puckered leaves have a deep bronze sheen and veining that colour-matches and runs into the rhubarb-like stems.
The white-stemmed form looks great in a vase with a white dahlia such as “Furka”, while red and orange-stemmed plants from a “Bright Lights” seed mix could partner an episcopal-purple “Thomas A. Edison” dahlia.
My third choice is eucalyptus. Hilary Collins, of Grafton Nursery. has written an excellent guide to growing this under-used genus specifically for cutting its foliage for floral art. It can be bought online as a download. For growing just a few eucalyptus for cut foliage, Hilary recommends buying saplings in three-litre pots or one-litre starter plants, if you have time to grow them on in the ground for a year, or are on a tight budget.
Eucalyptus species suited to foliage production respond well to pruning, whether regular snipping, coppicing (cutting almost to the ground), or pollarding (pruning hard back to the trunk). Pruning encourages the tree to produce an abundance of juvenile foliage, which tends to be an attractive rounded shape that often shows interesting colours: silvery blues, or shades of pink, violet, and burgundy — even a little bright acid green.
If left unpruned, most eucalyptus develop adult foliage, which tends to be long, like a willow leaf, and is less favoured by florists. The Grafton nursery website lists many species suited for foliage production. The spinning gum, Eucalyptus perriniana, is an established floristry favourite and has circular blue leaves.
It contrasts well with narrow-leaved black peppermint Eucalyptus nicholii. This is feathery and altogether more delicate; it is essentially sage green in colour, but emerging shoots are often tinted with carmine or apricot. Eucalyptus are fast growers, putting on most of their new growth in July and August. The main harvesting season is autumn until Christmas.
In the garden and the vase, leaves provide the sustaining backdrop to the main players, the flowers. Foliage — almost, but not quite, as varied — is a vital part of the picture.