Planting flowers for beginners – Growing at home with Gemma Rouse of Fairfield Green Flowers

Planting flowers for beginners – Growing at home with Gemma Rouse of Fairfield Green Flowers

With more time on our hands than ever before and a sunny few days ahead of us, now is the perfect time to get out in the garden and give flower planting a go. We already know that gardening can lower blood pressure, relieve stress and expose you to Vitamin D, but where to begin? Step up Gemma, owner of Fairfield Green Flowers, who is here to get you started with the basics and turn even the most amateur of us into green-fingered gods and goddesses.

Tell us a little bit about your journey into growing – what you made you want to do it and how did you get started?

My love for growing started as a small child; both sets of my grandparents had beautiful gardens and grew vegetables and flowers, so it was a staple part of my childhood. My own journey into growing began when I got a garden of my own. I began with vegetables and crammed the small green space at the back of my Victorian terraced house with tomatoes, broad beans and courgettes. We outgrew the garden quicker than the house, so when we moved to our next place with a bigger plot, I was able to experiment more. After having a bit of a career change, I was then able to spend more time in my garden and on the allotment we acquired, and it all just spiralled from there. I think it’s worth saying I didn’t do any courses on flower growing – I learnt from what I read, from the wealth of information that other growers shared, and from my weekly vigils with Monty Don on a Friday night!

A lot of the flowers you grow end up being used for wedding or funeral arrangements – either being sold to florists or to customers directly. Is there something that feels extra special about growing for important life events?
It’s a real honour to grow flowers for special occasions – whether that’s wedding or funerals. Producing something that means something to people is priceless. I think that increasingly people really do appreciate that small-scale British grown flowers are different to what you might get from a high street florist shop or at a wholesale market. My flowers aren’t perfect by any means, but I think that makes them more interesting. Each one is seasonal, scented, and most importantly, individual. Every single stem is completely different. When it comes to weddings, I love that everything I grow is dictated by nature and time of year – showing brides what they can expect to see in their arrangements, whilst also knowing that you have to let nature run its course to a certain extent. It forces you to think outside the box a bit more and encourages florists to use English varieties that their clients might not have seen or heard of before.

What advice would you give someone thinking about giving flower planting a go during these self-isolated times?

Don’t let the thought of doing the wrong thing stop you from just jumping in. Going wrong is fine – try something and see what happens; if it doesn’t work then you can find out why and do it differently next time. You’ll never stop learning when it comes to gardening and growing so don’t feel like you have to know it all to just give it a go. The thing I love most about growing is the sense of hope it gives you. Every time I sow my seeds in the miserable December and January months, no matter how bleak everything feels at that time, I know that something magical is going to happen with those seeds over the next few weeks and months. 

What are the basic tools that someone would need in order to start doing some flower growing at home?

1.      A multi-purpose compost (a seed one is a good start but actually not essential if you don’t have any). Lots of places are still delivering compost at the moment so you should be able to get hold of this easily.

2.    Any form of pots or trays – go through your recycling bin and you’ll be sure to find something that will work! Remember whatever you use needs to have really good drainage holes, so add these if you need to. 

3.    Labels in some form. Wooden lolly sticks and clothes pegs work well!

4.   Supports. Sticks or bamboo canes and twines will do the job.

If and when you are ever able I would really recommend getting a greenhouse. It totally transforms your growing!

What are your suggestions for what to plant in the garden now / in the coming weeks? Any top tips to get the most out of these varieties?

For planning in early April, I would suggest you’re likely to do very well with the following::-

· Cosmos

· Rudbekia

· Calendula

· Annual phlox

· Zinnia

· Strawflower

· Sunflowers (these don’t have to be bright yellow! Choose the cut flower, multi-stemmed variety)

· Clary sage

· Ammi

· Sweetpeas. We’re a little late on these as they ideally need a good period of cold, but you can still get away with planting them this weekend. As they grow you might find they have slightly shorter stems than usual, but will still have that lovely colour and gorgeous scent.

All of the above are what we call half-hardy annuals, with the exception of clary sage, calendula, sweetpeas and ammi which are hardy annuals. If planting hardy annual seeds, then you can sow them directly into the ground outside, because the soil has warmed up already and they can tolerate colder nights. For half-hardy varieties, you will need to start these off indoors in small pots, trays or containers, and not plant them outside until the final frost has passed – usually towards the end of May. These will probably need potting on a few weeks after you’ve sown them into individual pots. Make sure they have grown their ‘true leaves’ – these will look different to the very first leaves your seedling produces. Having their true leaves is a sign that there are some good healthy roots growing beneath the soil. Try to avoid too much root disturbance as you move them to new pots. 

Annual varieties need a lot of nutrients as they are doing so much growing. I like to use an organic seaweed feed (you can find these online), diluted with water in your watering can as per the packet instructions. Feed them weekly and when the time to cut comes, be sure to cut first thing in the morning or late in the evening. Plunge into a bucket of water once cut and leave them in there to hydrate for a couple of hours at least. 

Deadheading is also very important. The plant is always trying to produce seed, so if you leave the flower head on the plant it will eventually become a seed head. If the plant is focusing it’s energies on producing seeds, it won’t produce as many flowers. That means you either need to cut the flowers to bring indoors, or deadhead them regularly if they’ve gone over. 

What is your favourite variety to grow that you would recommend for people who are starting out to consider?

I cannot recommend dahlias enough to anyone starting out. If you don’t fancy faffing with seeds these are a fantastic alternative. They also grow wonderfully in pots if you only have a courtyard or balcony to grow on. You can buy some in seed form but I would recommend sticking to tubers, which are similar to a bulb. When they arrive they’ll look pretty uninspiring but don’t be put off! Plant them immediately in pots with compost, starting them off in a greenhouse or indoors. After a few weeks you’ll see more and more shoots appear and they’ll have quite a bit of growth. Like half-hardy annuals, you’ll need to introduce them to introduce them to the outside gradually, so don’t plant them out until the end of May.

Once outside, they are very susceptible to slug damage, so create a barrier around each with broken up eggshell for the best possible protection. Give them plenty of feed – dahlias particularly like tomato feed once flowering. Once they start to grow, use bamboo canes or sticks for support and to protect them from wind. Make sure you keep cutting the flowers – the more you cut the better they will grow. They will flower until the first frost in the Autumn; you can then store the tubers and grow them again the following year, which actually makes them very cost effective.

Are there any resources that you think are particularly helpful for beginners who are looking to grow more flowers at home?

What I would say is don’t overload yourself with too much information. Chiltern Seeds and Sarah Raven are both sites that have loads of sowing and growing information about so many flower types, so wherever you get your seeds from, those two are very good places to refer back to. 

When it comes to books, I really love to dip in and out of The Flower Farmer’s Year by Georgie Newbery

With regards to social media, I highly recommend following Swan Cottage Flowers on Instagram; she hosts a grow-along which has been going since Autumn, but it’s all saved onto her highlights. She has so much knowledge about what to do and when to do it – she’s like an encyclopaedia of flower knowledge!

Overall I would say just experiment, have fun and enjoy just having a go. You’ll learn so much from just trying out things for yourself. Every year I pick up new tips and learn new things. I’ve had plenty of disasters, but the joy of the successes far outweigh that. Gardening is all about looking forward and having hope – my 99-year old Granddad still talks about his runner beans that he continues to grow every year. He is full of positivity and belief when he speaks about them, and for me that just epitomises what gardening is all about. 

All images courtesy of Fairfield Green Flowers, featuring flowers grown by Gemma. To find out more, visit Gemma’s Instagram page here or you can email her with your growing questions at [email protected]

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