Alternatives to floral foam and making a flower grid

 I haven’t used floral foam for years, and was surprised to find, given everything we know about its contribution to microplastic pollution, that it is still available, and still frequently used by florists. Although so far no one has come up with anything quite so effective, I still wouldn't ever use it again, and there are a number of far more eco-friendly solutions.

I'm not a fan of the florist's tape and chicken wire solution: the wire is a bit awkward to use, not to mention rather carnivorous, and anyway, the tape isn't reusable and a bit dodgy environmentally too. I've tried the Holly Chapple Pillows, but they haven't worked very well for me either. Sod's law that I buy one of each and can't make them work with any of my vases. I see that Hope Flower Farm does sell not only the pillows but also lovely little vases specifically designed to use with them, but these are available only in the USA. Anyway, judging by the online demonstrations I've seen using the pillows, it seems most people end up resorting to floral tape to hold them in place.

An alternative I look forward to trying is the FloraGUPPY. It’s plastic, yes, but it’s described as 100-percent reusable and recyclable and its flexible form means that one size adapts to many shapes and sizes of vase. It's been around since 2019 and had great reviews. It really looks promising. I was sad to be unable to find it for sale anywhere at the moment, but got in touch with the company and apparently it will be available again via the website on 30 September 2022. There's even a video you can watch to see how it works. I'll do a review of the FloraGUPPY as soon as I can get one.

Making your own flower grid

In the meantime, I've been experimenting with my own eco-friendly alternatives, and have started using homemade flower grids. These are completely natural, not a whiff of plastic about them. Admittedly the first few you make can be a bit of a faff to tie together, but once you get the hang of it they are really quite easy.

Step one: make your grid

Take the bowl you want to use and cut a number of thin but strong twigs (as straight as you can find) into the lengths you will need to make a grid over your bowl. Then start tying them together - you could use wire or string, I suppose, to make them more solid, but I liked using raffia. The first one I made (above) was no work of art, but it served its purpose rather well. You could also weave them together if you're good at that sort of thing. You'll see that I tried using white tack to keep it attached to the bowl, but then I realised how unnecessary that was (and not particularly eco-friendly).

Step two: add foliage to form a base

The next step is to put in some long-lasting foliage to form a base. I went for a variegated nutmeg scented leaf geranium and some Choiysa ternata or Mexican orange blossom; I dipped the ends of the latter in just boiled water for 15 seconds.

Step three: add your flowers

After this I added some flowers to the base, here, Phlox drummondii (the stuff has been flowering without being deadheaded since May and doesn't seem to want to stop - it really is a very useful plant), followed by a few violas and some Swan River Daisy. Do you like those 'Tiger Eye' violas? I think I do, but I'm not 100% sure.

Grid and foliage transferred and roses added

A week later, I'd forgotten to add water and most of the flowers had wilted but the foliage was still going strong. So I picked out all the flowers and then lifted up the grid with the foliage still in it and put in on another similarly shaped bowl that I liked better. Then I added some roses to make another arrangement with a great fragrance.

Roses don't last long of course, and so a few days later I was picking them out, and the foliage (it had now now been over two weeks) was still in quite good shape. I took off a few yellowing leaves that had got into the water and added some more phlox, this time 'Cherry Caramel', some chocolate cosmos and an Anemone 'Bordeaux' that had suddenly decided to pop up in the garden. So all in all, just under three weeks and I've had three different arrangements using the same foliage. I thought that was quite a success, and the arrangements were so simple to make and to change because of the grid I had made.

Gourd grids

An easy grid made in a mini pumpkin

And if you're in North America and thinking about Thanksgiving, a grid also works really well in gourds and pumpkins (and no tying together needed). Here one I made using a mini pumpkin. Only trouble was that I got carried away and used too many flowers so the pumpkin itself disappeared.

An autumn arrangement using a grid in a mini pumpkin.

I think these flower grids are going to be very useful at Christmas for making decorations, and I'm starting to work on using more interesting twigs and seeing if it is possible to make the grid itself a part of the overall arrangement.

The Crevice Garden

Review of Kenton Seth and Paul Spriggs,The Crevice Garden: How to make the perfect home for plants from rocky places. Filbert Press, 2022.

Although I’ve gardened for well over thirty years, I’d never encountered a crevice garden until I went on the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s gardening tour this past summer. One of the standout gardens for me belonged to Paul Spriggs, the author, along with Kenton Seth, of Filbert Press’s recently published The Crevice Garden. His crevice garden was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It certainly bore no relationship to any rock gardens I’d previously encountered - primarily piles of rocks and soil with whatever happened to be in the alpine section of the garden centre unceremoniously plonked in to punch it out with the weeds. This crevice garden was quite different: while appearing to be a natural rocky outcrop covered in exquisite miniature plants, it was in fact a beautifully designed work of art.

Oriented strata creating the effect of a natural outcrop. Photo credit: Paul Spriggs ⓒ

As Zdeněk Zvolánek - the authors' mentor - notes in the Foreword to this book, crevice gardening is unlike most traditional approaches to gardening in that it has ‘rules for placing stones, imitating layers of sedimentary rock, and this brings a feeling of natural order, balance, and harmony’. It’s an approach to gardening completely unlike my own, which tends more towards chaos, but an approach that has a huge appeal and clearly brings great satisfaction.

A crevice garden, the authors explain, appears as a natural rocky outcrop; indeed, the best compliment a crevice gardener can receive is if the viewer assumes an outcrop is natural and not built. To create this impression at least half of the surface consists of buried rocks, with crevices in between to mimic the conditions required by plants otherwise difficult to grow. And these planting areas offer diverse micro-climates, from cool and shady to warm and sun-baked. There are no dreary seas of mulch or soil to look at here (my own particular bête noire when it comes to gardens), only rocks and plants.

A crevice garden in Victoria, British Columbia. Photo credit: Paul Spriggs

The opening two sections of the book provide the background: first, information about rocky habitats and the different environments in which they appear; and, second, the history of crevice gardens from rock gardening in the late 1800s, through the popularisation of the crevice garden by Czech gardeners in the mid-1980s to the global spread of interest in the present day. This is followed by a section explaining how a crevice garden works, how it ‘pushes the edge of what is a plantable space’ – and in the process providing information about soil and aspect, including that perennial puzzler, ‘moist but well-drained’. Central to the success of a crevice garden is the way it channels and conserves water, and it is this which allows it to grow plants far more effectively than other rock gardens.

From here, the authors move on to ‘Planning a crevice garden’, and in this section, there are some photos of miniature crevice gardens in small containers and in troughs that may spark interest in those of us who feel we don't have the right environment for a full-scale crevice garden. Go Small – I really do fancy trying this.

Chris Dixon's tiny crevice planters. Photo credit: Paul Spriggs

One of the wonderful things about this book is the playfulness it demonstrates in its approach. Yes, there are rules to be followed. Variety and unity must always be in balance, for example, and in terms of form, for the sake of naturalism the garden should 'embrace asymmetry because it looks more alive, like a person in contrapposto with their weight on one foot and a tilt to hips and shoulders'.

The outcrop needs an asymmetrical footprint. Photo credit: Ty Danylchuk ⓒ

On the other hand, the authors demonstrate the pure fun to be had in crevice gardening, and the photos demonstrate the wide range of ways in which it has been interpreted. There are even examples of crevice gardens that are not intended to emulate nature: one made of concrete cut into modernist cubes in Colorado, and another using styrofoam blocks on a roof to create a lightweight crevice environment in Sweden.

There’s lots of advice here about choosing and orienting your stone, what to do about edges and paths and irrigation, and other practical matters. There are recipes for appropriate soils and, in ‘Building a crevice garden in 8 steps’, there's everything you need to know to build your garden, from calculating the amount of rock you need to setting the stone, filling the crevices and planting. I'm sure even absolute beginners would be able to create a crevice garden if they followed this clear and detailed advice. ‘Living with a crevice garden’ moves on to deal with various other practical matters, including tools, irrigation, dealing with weeds, pests, diseases, and propagation. This is all immensely helpful - I actually picked up a number of tips in this section that I will be applying to my gardening more generally - and accompanied not just by photographs but by beautiful drawings from Kenton Seth that reveal the underground workings of the crevice garden.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the series of ‘Case Studies: Lessons from the Best’, exemplifying different approaches and ways of dealing with various problems. Once more, this encourages an experimental and playful response to the crevice garden and includes both traditional and more cutting-edge approaches. Hard to pick favourites, since they are quite diverse, but I did admire the very traditional approach of Zdeněk Zvolánek’s Beauty Slope, just outside of Prague, where he has truly created a site of beauty from the most difficult of circumstances. And I loved Paul Cumbleton’s Somerset garden, which not only shows just how colourful a crevice garden can be, but is also a lot curvier than most and appears to almost sparkle with all the plants set like jewels against striking local white limestone.

Plants sparkle against the white limestone in Paul Cumbleton's garden. Photo credit: Paul Cumbleton ⓒ

Finally, there are plant profiles, listing suitable plants for different habitats and levels of experience and full of photographs that will have you reaching for the seed catalogues and joining rock garden societies to access the seed exchanges.

Aquilegia jonesii, one of many beautiful flowers for a crevice garden. Photo credit: Todd Boland ⓒ

This is clearly the definitive book on crevice gardening. It’s not just packed with information on the historical, theoretical and practical sides of crevice gardening, it’s also a beautiful book in itself, impressive in terms of presentation, and a pleasure to read. The authors have a way with words as well as a way with rocks and plants.

And there are some quite lovely photographs (spot the snake in the Erigeron). Just the gorgeousness of some of the plants will have you hooked. If a small crevice garden will let me grow Lewisiopsis tweedyi, then I need one, and will happily provide it with a diet of David Sellars' soil mix, The Sellars: On the Rocks.

Globularia incanescens, another lovely plant for a crevice garden and easy to grow from seed. Photo credit: Paul Cumbleton ⓒ

Reading The Crevice Garden reminded me of my pleasure, when I lived in Menorca, in seeing the caper plants high up in cracks in the grey and forbidding harbour walls suddenly appear and burst into bloom each spring. What comes out of this idea of the crevice garden is the strange life-affirming beauty produced by setting the living pliable plants against the cold hard rock, the compelling sight, as the authors observe, of ‘delicate organic life … set against its hard mineral home – perhaps an aesthetic metaphor for life on Earth.’

The trouble with white flowers

'I am trying to make a grey, green and white garden,' wrote Vita Sackville-West in The Observer in 1950. 'This is an experiment which I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it. … It may be a terrible failure. …  All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight - the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.'

Sackville-West's doubts were decidedly misplaced: the White Garden at Sissinghurst has become one of the most admired and imitated gardens in the world. But if you visit during the day, the reason for its fame may elude you. This is a garden designed to be seen after sunset.  The family and their guests had to pass through the area each evening to reach the old Priest's House where they met for dinner. Bathed in moonlight, it is a magical place; under harsh sunlight or grey skies, it can appear surprisingly drab.

I would, nevertheless, love such a garden. I adore white flowers. But I do wonder about the number of gardeners devoted purely to deadheading at Sissinghurst. Because white flowers have one big problem: many of them do not die nicely. And yes, I know, as someone pointed out to me when I made this comment before, we can't all be Allie McGraw.

Obviously flowers of other colours can die off unpleasantly too - Heliotrope springs immediately to mind - but white seems particularly cursed because the browning is so much easier to spot. And perhaps there is more to it than this. Christopher Lloyd, not exactly a cheerleader for white flowers, observes in Colour for Adventurous Gardeners that a 'great burden of unsullied purity is borne by the colour white. Cold, staring and assertive, it draws your eye but makes you wish it hadn't.' While I feel quite differently about white flowers, I wonder if perhaps he has hit on something here, and that it is this cultural 'burden of unsullied purity' that makes the fading, the browning, the decay of the white flower so particularly distressing.

Some of the worst offenders seem to be shrubs and climbers. My white clematis 'Duchess of Edinburgh' asserts her right to cling on to her dying petals until they are dry enough to be whisked away by the wind. And white camellias are the very worst, usually turning brown at the edges even before the flower is fully open. Constant deadheading is essential, and each time you lose half the flowers. Christopher Lloyd again: 'Everything has a price; the romance of white must be paid for.'

I was so disappointed in a much-lauded summersweet, Clethra Sugartina 'Crystalina', that I bought (at some expense) this year. Not only am I unable to smell anything sweet (well ... anything at all actually) but it dies a really horrid death, with the bottom half of the flowers turning brown and clinging to the raceme while the top half is still opening. I foresee a bit of spade pruning on the horizon for this shrub.

The disappointing Clethra

Then there was the white Japanese spirea I inherited which was heart-breakingly lovely for a few days when the flowers started to open, but so nasty once a few flowers in each cluster started to turn that I cut it right down and covered it in black plastic and bricks. (Hence no photo.)

Certainly not all white shrubs are suspect. I have seen white hydrangeas age very prettily, and the Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance' that I bought at the same time as the Clethra has been a huge success: pretty little clusters of white tubular flowers that drop off as they fade and a fabulous scent.

So which white flowers die the worst deaths? It's something I've been thinking a lot about after the (expensive) Clethra fiasco. White flowers with racemes or spikes or umbels are more obviously more likely to have parts turn brown before all the florets are finished opening: think for example of Lysimachia cletheroides (gooseneck loosestrife) or white versions of Achillea and Liatris, both of which in their white forms look increasingly grubby as they age. Even if you are assiduous about deadheading, which I'm afraid I'm not, when are you supposed to snip?

It all seems a bit hit or miss. Caveat emptor. A white amaryllis works well and lasts for ages; a white dahlia soon begins to look shabby.

Pristine white amaryllis

This is one of the reasons why, although I prefer buying bare root, when it comes to white roses I go for the potted, because I want to see the rose in all its flowering stages before I commit. And while normally at a garden centre I will always prefer the stocky plant that has not yet started to flower, if it is a white flower I will take a very careful look at the others on offer that are flowering.

The white flowers that we can usually be confident about are those that provide interesting seed heads, both for arrangements and for the birds. Nigella is great for this, and I like the white forms even better than the blue: they include 'African Bride', 'Albion Green Pod' and 'Albion Black Pod'. There is no ugly stage at all to this very useful annual.

Nigella African Bride, both the flowers and the seed pods, are central to this arrangement

Another example would be Japanese anemones, which also go through an attractive cycle, from the bud to the flower to the seed head, which, while not as arresting as that of the nigella, is still very pretty and similar in form to the bud.

Japanese anemone from bud to seed head

Similarly, Amberboa 'The Bride' conveniently starts to brown only at the back, and leaves behind a seed pod very similar to the bud. Also known as Sweet Sultan, these annuals are well-behaved plants, discreetly fading with a lovely fragrance.

Papery flowers are also usually reliable. I'm not keen on white statice or strawflowers, but I very much like white Astrantia. I never find that dead heading leads to much re-blooming with Astrantia, so I'm happy to leave them alone. The bracts usually look good long after the flowers finish, and they make good additions to dried flower arrangments.

Astrantia

Then there's the flowers that are kind enough to quickly drop their petals when they start to go over.

Three types of Delphinium New Millennium, all starting to go over: Black-Eyed Angels, Green Twist, and Double Innocence

I grew a number of Delphinium New Millenniums from seed this year, and the white forms have been beautiful. Their spikes age very gracefully, dropping the petals of each old flower on the spike as new ones open further up and never disfiguring the plant as a whole. Compare this with Gladiolus murielae, so elegant in flower, but so determined to hang on to its drooping spent petals that it ends up looking a dreadful mess.

No matter. White flowers remain my favourites, and I'm off to plant some daffodils - white, of course.

Autumn Daze: September in the garden

Main photo: Adam Ross

this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness; hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogues, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.

Katherine S. White, 'A Romp in the Catalogues', The New Yorker, 1958

It's September and there's a change in the weather here in Victoria, cooler nights, shorter days. Phlox and snapdragons - astonishingly - still hang on and the roses are having a last hurrah, but the stars have become the asters and zinnias and sunflowers, all of which speak loudly of autumn. Everything seems to be slowing down in the garden and I've been enjoying this immensely.

Hazaster 'Hagan Light Blue': a lovely flower for cutting

Back in Menorca, the island off the coast of Spain where we lived for twelve years, I used to dread September, a month when, for at least a fleeting moment, I always grew heartily sick of gardening. The garden would have been fried to a crisp by months of beating sun topped off by sporadic weeks of blasting winds. I'd just be back from my annual summer trip to Canada, jet-lagged and generally grumpy. Weeds would be running riot; prize plants gasping their last. A conga line of sawfly would be sashaying through the roses. Or mealy bug draining the life out of yet another overpriced Mandevilla. Or both.

And there would be no reprieve in sight: temperatures would soon drop, the rains would come, and the garden would revive. Gardening in Spain is not for slackers. Well-planned, the Mediterranean garden has no dead period. Certainly not in autumn. If the start of the gardening year in Southern Europe can be pinpointed, it's the time when the autumnal rains begin to stir those dull roots that have gone dormant during the summer drought, the time when the Bermuda buttercup pops back up to turn the Mediterranean yellow once more. This is the time for planting trees and shrubs, leafy vegetables, root crops, peas and sweet peas and so much more, for sowing annuals directly in the garden and perennials in trays.

I used to look back with longing to the British autumn, that season, as John Keats would have it, of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness'. My prosaic side might have reminded me that - in central Scotland at least - this involved not being able to see five feet ahead when driving to work and wasps in the late plums. But my nostalgic side would remember walks in the woods with the smell of fallen leaves crushed underfoot, the fiery reds and golds of the trees, the reappearance of our blackbirds after the moult, picking blackberries in the hedgerows - at least until September 29, when the devil spits on them and makes them inedible. Most of all I would look back with longing to that time when we started to put the garden to bed.

Putting the garden to bed. Time to take a well-deserved rest, to sit snugly by the fire, listening to the wind and rain, planning endless hypothetical gardens, dreaming about spring projects, safe in the knowledge that you don't have to lift a finger ... or a spade .. for a little while.

Sunflower 'Vanilla Ice' signalling the end of summer

After all those years in Menorca, I'm very aware how precious is the opportunity to pause and reflect and so happy to take advantage of this once more. As Michael Pollan observes in Second Nature (perhaps my all-time favourite book), this opportunity is as vital to the garden as 'water and humus and sunlight'. It 'rejuvenates the garden, importing the fresh genes and novel combinations that each year make it new.' Without it, we simply repeat what we know has worked before: gardening is easier, but the garden becomes dull.

So here's to enjoying autumn and sitting back to pause and reflect, to assess what we have and dream of what will be: to pore over seed catalogues and dream of next year's triumphs. Granted it's rare to get an actual seed catalogue in the post nowadays, something I'm rather sad about, as I don't feel quite so bewitched when poring over a website. Still, there are some very tempting websites out there, and if you need further encouragement, these are three of the most tempting for those interested in growing flowers for cutting.

Canada: without a doubt, in terms of seeds, Stems Flower Farm has the very best selection. Their shop will open on 24 October 2022. It's a good idea to sign up for an account now and taking advantage of their Wishlist facility so you are prepared.

USA: Johnny's Seeds can't be beaten in the US and they will deliver seeds to Canada. There is a wonderful selection of cut flowers and so much information on how to grow them. While the growing resources are directed mainly at professional growers, they are still valuable for the ordinary gardener.

UK: Sarah Raven's website is truly wonderful, and even though she doesn't deliver outside the UK, I still find her website exceptional when I am looking for inspiration for new combinations in the garden.

The last gasps of my summer garden in Victoria

Growing Iceland poppies

Wandering through the garden centre the other day, I noticed Iceland poppies were already in stock. As their name suggests, these poppies are very hardy and can survive down to zone 6: they can be planted out in autumn and will overwinter in the garden. Technically perennials, they're more likely to be dispatched by the heat of summer.

Unfortunately, the only variety I saw offered is Papaver nudicaule 'Garden Gnome' mixed. I did buy a few of these last year, and, as I suspected, 'mixed' translates as mainly yellow and orange with a possible red and a white, perhaps a pink if you're extra lucky. 'Garden Gnome' is, however, very popular and it must be said they are extremely floriferous, so that's fine as long as you want yellow and orange poppies, but I don't.

I also grew my own from seed last year so all was not lost. It wasn't anywhere near as difficult as I had imagined. Not the easiest, but certainly worth doing if you're up for a little challenge. The advantage of growing your own from seed is not just that you'll be able to grow the colours you want, but that you'll also be able to grow the bigger and stronger varieties which make such fabulous cut flowers with their beautiful crinkly flouncy petals reminiscent of crushed tissue paper. And they have a lovely light citrus scent and will last longer, both in the garden and in the vase. It's the first day of September, and my seed sown Iceland poppies are still producing a few new flowers. I grew a few different varieties and the only one I wouldn't bother with again is Papaver nudicaule 'Wind Song'. Sold as a soft romantic mix of huge-headed poppies, I got the smallest heads of any I grew in a mix of, you guessed it, orange and yellow.

Varieties

The most easily available special variety is the Champagne Bubbles series, but don't go for the mix unless, again, you want you know what. These have large flowers and grow 18-24" tall and 8-12" wide. In the UK, try Chiltern seeds; in the US and Canada, Johnny's seeds. Also in Canada, Stems Flower Farm, which has a really impressive range of flower seeds (do check them out) will be stocking individual colours of Champagne Bubbles as of 24 October 2022.

Papaver nudicaule Champagne Bubbles

An alternate to Champagne Bubbles is Floret Farm's luscious looking Sherbert Mix. Yes, a mix, but a good mix. I think Floret's Erin Benzakein could sell me the proverbial swamp in Florida. Of this mix she says it is 'one of the most exquisite cut flowers we’ve ever grown, this blend of apricot, watermelon pink and pure white will leave you breathless.' Act quickly if you want them. Floret's autumn seed sale starts 7 September 2022, and I, along with all the other fans of Floret, will be poised at the keyboard, fingers at the ready, waiting for the online shop to open. Floret delivers to both US and Canada.

Papaver nudicaule Colibri series. Now this beauty is an orange (peach) I can handle

But the most special variety of all - the monstrous but most beautiful queen of Iceland poppies - is the Colibri. They really do have enormous flowers and far longer and thicker stems than Champagne Bubbles. The petals are delicate, sometimes double and ruffled as they open. Just stunning.

Papaver nudicaule Colibri

The stems are so long that in the vase they sometimes twist around a lot, leading to some interesting effects. If you look at the main image of the poppies in a vase again, it's easy to see which are Colibri and which are Champagne Bubbles just by the difference in size of flower and stem.

For a change, Canadians score: it's very easy for the ordinary gardener to get these seeds here, although they definitely aren't cheap (100 seeds for 18 CAD, ouch). Unicorn seeds offers individual colours or, my preference, the La Dolce Vita mix, which gives you primarily pale pink, apricot and white, with 10% red and yellow added. As for the rest of the world, as far as I know the seeds are only available to commercial growers. But if you can get the Colibri, it's really worth it. Even the buds are wonderful.

How to grow

Use small cell trays and fill with a moistened sterile seed mix. Alternately, use coir plant plugs. Spray with water then put 2 or 3 seeds into each cell (they are very small and some people like to use the end of a moistened toothpick but I haven't bothered with that). Surface sow, don't exclude light.

Place them on a heating mat set at 21C. Cover with a humidity dome. They should start germinating in 5-7 days. Take off the dome, and keep in cooler bright conditions. An unheated but frost free greenhouse would be ideal. Water only from the bottom to avoid damping off. Give them a weak solution of fish emulsion when they have their first true leaves. Plant out in spring after last hard frost in a sunny spot. Space about 9" apart. As soon as they are planted out, they'll be off.

If that all sounds like far too much of a faff, then you could try sowing the seeds directly outside in the late autumn. The best time to sow is 6-8 weeks before your first frost. I'm trying it this year with one row, but I don't think I'll risk it my expensive Colibri seedlings becoming dinner for the slugs. Just don't cover the seeds: they need light to germinate. If you're in zone 6 or higher and you sow in the middle of winter they should still work. When the temperature is right for germination, they will pop up. Main trouble with this is distinguishing them from the weeds, so make sure you know what an Iceland poppy seedling looks like (see left).

Iceland poppies prefer sun to light shade and moderately fertile well-drained soil. They look good planted en masse, or drifting between other flowers and shrubs.

Harvesting

Pick Iceland poppies when the bud starts to crack. I dip the bottom one inch of the stem in just boiled water for 7 seconds and I find that they will then last a good week. They look lovely just by themselves in a vase, or you can combine them in a mixed bouquet. If you are giving the bouquet away, remember to point out that the stems of the poppies should not be re-cut - people rightly usually re-cut when they get a bunch of flowers - but they need to know the poppies have been treated and the seared end shouldn't be cut off.

What to do with a glut of tomatoes

'Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad'

Although I’m really just a flower person, I do venture outside my comfort zone sometimes. And while I’m not much good at growing vegetables or fruit, I do enjoy growing tomatoes because it gives me the ability to experiment with varieties you can't usually buy.

I didn't grow many this first year in our new garden. But now it’s August and there’s lots on sale so I’ve added some from the shops to those I’ve harvested to make this intensely concentrated sauce that I freeze for my husband to use during the winter. (I fear I am not much good at cooking either, but I can just about handle this.) It makes a great replacement for canned tomatoes in casseroles and curries, and an excellent base for pasta sauces.

• Roughly chop a selection of different tomatoes - cherry tomatoes just need to be halved. Place them in a large ovenproof bowl with a large peeled onion and 6 cloves of garlic, chopped. We’ve just discovered the fabulous Russian Red, so if you are using something that big and pungent, adjust accordingly. 6 cloves of Russian Red might be a mistake. Sometimes I remove the skins from the big tomatoes, sometimes I don’t bother, but I certainly always leave them on the cherry varieties.

• Add salt to taste, a generous amount of ground pepper and drizzle with a decent extra virgin olive oil.

• Place in oven at 200°F and slow cook until it is reduced to a quarter or less of the original volume. This will take a long time, very likely all day. Stir occasionally to avoid it burning but a little caramelizing will add to the flavour so stir in the dark bits. If it isn't reduced enough by the time you go to bed, turn off the oven and leave tomatoes in overnight. Turn the oven back on in the morning if needed. Once reduced enough, cool and put into containers for freezing.

Other uses for a glut of tomatoes…

• It is often said that tomatoes rubbed into the skin can soothe sunburn and lessen the redness.

• Hair turning green from too much time in the swimming pool? Some say that normal colour can be restored if you saturate your hair with tomato juice, cover with a shower cap, leave 10-15 minutes then wash and condition as normal. I haven't tested it...

• Awful smells? It is often claimed that tomato juice will remove the stink from a dog that's been sprayed by a skunk. This is a myth. Your now pink dog will smell like a rotting tomato.

• If you burn yourself in the kitchen, after you've run cool (not cold) water over the affected area for 5 minutes, put on some tomato slices. They are supposed to soothe, reduce inflammation, prevent blistering and promote healing.

• For glowing skin, mash up a juicy tomato with honey to make a paste, rub on your face. Relax for 15 minutes - best to avoid answering the door during this time - then wash off.

Everything's coming up daisies

Looking around my garden, I can see almost nothing but daisy-like flowers. Slight exaggeration perhaps, but there is certainly a pronounced lack in variety of form. How did I manage that? The previous owners made this into a very spring/early summer-oriented garden so given that it is now late summer this is one thing I can’t blame on them. And since this is my first year here and I’m still learning about the garden, most of the flowers I’ve put in are annuals. This profusion of daisiness is all down to me.

Sunflower 'Velvet Queen', photo by Adam Ross

I'm well aware that the best garden effects come from combining a variety of forms and textures. It’s just that I haven't applied my knowledge to my own garden. I think it’s down to a lack of planning.

Throughout my career, I was organised to the point of being an irritant to some of my colleagues. I drive my husband batty by reorganising his kitchen and his sock drawer. My vase collection is sorted by material and size. But I’ve never been very good at planning ahead for the garden. Sure, I love the idea of planning. I start endless files, with labels like ‘front bed left: blue and white’ or ‘woodland bed under cypress: pastels’ and for a week or so will diligently enter possible plants for the area. And then I forget the file, or suddenly find I’ve planted bright pink columbines in ‘front bed left’. It’s probably significant that I still have the much-longed for 5-year Toad garden diary my husband bought me for Christmas 2011 and that it is still empty.

All my best effects in the garden seem to come by accident. There’s the bed in which I have the most wonderful combination, all centering around a deep cranberry cosmos, which perfectly complements the scabious ‘Black Knight’ and chocolate cosmos, while phlox ‘Cherry Caramel’ picks up a similar red in its centre. If I say so myself, in terms of colour at least it was a huge success. But I don’t remember thinking it out.  The moment that planning entered the picture, it all went awry. I bought some delicious deep cranberry echinacea that I thought would look good with it. And it did, momentarily, until the flowers started to fade and turned an obnoxious pink. It was hurriedly dug up and now sits waiting in a pot alongside various other ill informed purchases. Occasionally it teases with a new flower in that delicious deep cranberry. I studiously ignore it.

But back to the question of daisiness. I suspect that, actually, I just like flowers with this particular form. Even my pots are dominated by daisies.

Brachyscome or Swan River Daisy in a pot. It also makes a lovely posy, lasting two weeks in water

And in my defense, these daisy forms are as popular with the pollinators as they are with me. I haven’t grown dahlias very often, but I’m encouraged to try them again here because gardeners in Victoria are almost as crazy about dahlias as they are about rhododendrons. Looking through my old photos, though, I realise the ones I have preferred previously are not the monstrous dinner plate confections like ‘Café au Lait’, but, wouldn't you know it, the singles. These have the flat forms that offer easy access to - and therefore are more likely to attract - pollinators. Two photos from my previous Spanish garden show ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and a much harassed and exhausted ‘Teesbrook Audrey’. Not sure which looks more tattered, Audrey or the butterfly.

'Bishop of Llandaff'
'Teasdale Audrey'

Asteraceae family

Dahlias are members of the Asteraceae family, more commonly called the daisy or the aster family. One of the largest plant families, it includes such other plants as coreopsis, cosmos, echinacea, marigold, rudbeckia, sunflower, zinnia, and apparently nearly every other plant in my garden. They are particularly good for pollinators, and while appearing to be a single flower, a bloom in the Asteraceae family is actually a composite of many small flowers, each with their own reproductive parts: the flowers in the centre disc are called disc florets and the ones surrounding it are ray florets. Rings of new disc florets emerge, starting at the perimeter and moving to the centre, with the centre disc gradually becoming more cone-shaped as the seeds underneath develop. You can see the rings of disc florets around the perimeter of this cosmos ‘Apricot Lemonade’, and a side shot of an older flower shows how the centre disc is becoming cone-like to accommodate the growing seeds.

Cut flowers

As well as being very attractive to pollinators, the daisy family make excellent cut flowers, and there's nothing like a glorious jug full of sunflowers and rudbeckia to cheer up a day.

Sunflower 'Sonja'. Photo by Adam Ross

This year I grew only a small variety of sunflowers. The smallest was 'Sonja', a very deep yellow, multi-branching, only about 2 foot tall, and with 3-4 inch flowers. Good for bouquets. My favourite was ‘Vanilla Ice’, a pale yellow with quite a small flower. I found it very sturdy in the garden too, and while the heavier heads of the taller ‘Velvet Queen’ meant the stalks need a lot of support, ‘Vanilla Ice’ made a strong self-supporting bush. I also like 'Valentine', another pale yellow. Both will be regulars in my garden now.

Rudbeckia 'Cheyenne Gold' with Sunflowers: 'Sonja', small yellow; 'Velvet Queen', dark red brown; 'Vanilla Ice', very pale yellow with elongated petals; 'Valentine', lemon yellow with more rounded petals.

As for the rudbeckia, these were new to me, but I found all the varieties I tried very easy from seed. The colours are generally a bit strong for my taste in the garden, but I love them in a vase, so I may be keeping them in a dedicated cutting patch next year. Of all the ones I grew I like ‘Cheyenne Gold’ the best. It’s an absolute winner for bouquets and some of the flowers are massive. I was looking forward to seeing my Rudbeckia triloba, but it had such a set back as I dithered over where to plant it out that it's now sulking and taking its time to come into flower. Triloba is supposed to overwinter easily, so I look forward to using it in arrangements next year.

Anemone coronaria for autumn flowers

I've been experimenting to see if I could have an autumn flowering of Anemone coronaria. I used to manage this in Scotland, although never very satisfactorily. Because of the rain we used to get there in the summers, the plants were often rather sad specimens. Here in Victoria, with the drier warmer summer, they have done very well. I got the tubers on sale for half price once the spring bulb season was over and planted them at the beginning of July. Planting to flowering was much quicker than in the spring - it took about six weeks. I imagine this would work in most places with similar dry and warm summers. If you're interested in trying it next year, this is what I did.

Take a plastic crate (the kind in which they deliver fruit to supermarket, but you could buy one of those stackable crates from a hardware shop - the holey kind, not the solid ones). Put a layer of thin cardboard on the bottom and then line the whole thing with several layers of newspaper and fill with moist compost. Soak the anemone tubers for 3 hours and then plant them, covering with about an inch of compost. I put 6 tubers in each crate. Place the crate where it will get dappled shade. You don't want want direct sun on them in high summer - while they are Mediterranean plants, they are also cool season plants. Keep just moist but don't drench them.

Once I knew that it had worked, and I saw a number of buds coming up, I then transplanted them into pots to replace some of the summer bedding that was beginning to look a little tired. Take as much of the soil as you can with them to minimize root disturbance. I put three plants to a 10 inch pot. Keep them in partial shade and you should have lots of beautiful flowers throughout the autumn. Next year they will revert to their normal spring flowering season.

My first autumn anemone flowered on August 12

My only complaint? The packet marked 'Blue Poppy' turned out to be a De Caen mix, and so far, they are all looking very red.

Chantilly Snapdragons

Remember squeezing a snapdragon when you were a child to make the jaw open and snap shut? I gave one to a little girl the other day and it appears the game is still very much alive. She even used a funny voice to make the flower talk. But did you ever dress a snapdragon? I've been struggling through some of the works of Gertrude Jekyll recently (sacrilege to say, no doubt, but was any garden writer ever so dull?), and in her Children and Gardens, I came across this very odd idea:

'It is amusing to dress up a Snapdragon seed-pod, when it is brown and dry, as an old woman. If you look at it you will see how curiously like a face it is, with large eyes and open mouth. You must break off the projecting spike so that it leaves a little turned-up snub nose. Then you get a cork and whittle away a bit at the top, and you send a pin through the pod and down into the cork. She must have a large mob cap with a frill round the face, a shawl, and a petticoat. Anyone who can dress dolls can make this. If you shake her she weeps little black tears'.

Gertrude Jekyll, Children and Gardens, 1908

It's difficult to imagine anyone agreeing to sew clothes for a seed-pod nowadays. Then again, I do remember having a doll that had a dried apple for its head.

The Chantilly series

While traditional snapdragons will always be popular, particularly with children, for me the most beautiful of all is a very untraditional series called Chantilly. Chantilly Snapdragons are just divine, absolutely nothing like those stumpy snaps you buy from garden centres. I've had big clumps of them in the front garden this year (which otherwise is home only to a bed of lily of the valley and a desultory patch of lawn full of dandelions and an ever-advancing army of bindweed). I planted the snaps here primarily because they seem one of the very few reliably deer proof flowers. To my surprise, they have attracted a lot of non-deer attention. People passing by frequently stop to ask what they are. Unlike traditional snaps with the snout that children squeeze, these ruffled butterfly types are open faced and, to my eye, so much prettier. Traditional snapdragons rely mainly on bumblebees for pollination as they are exactly the right weight when they land on the lip to cause the mouth to open - honey bees aren't heavy enough - but the welcoming Chantilly snapdragon is open to all.

The series includes a variety of colours, and this year I grew 'Bronze', 'Light Salmon', 'Velvet' and 'Cream Yellow'. My preference was for the first two, and they go together beautifully.

Chantilly 'Bronze' (left) and 'Salmon' (right)

The lowest flowers on 'Salmon' are a soft tangerine and they change colour as they move up, becoming dusky pink on top. 'Bronze' is darker, shifting from gold to orange to pink and red, a lovely combination.

'Cream Yellow' (top) and 'Velvet' (bottom)

'Velvet' is a rich reddish brown shade that I found too easily marred by rain or insect damage, and I probably will avoid it in future. What was supposed to be 'Cream Yellow' was a glow in the dark kind of yellow and I wondered if the seeds had been mixed up. It toned down a bit when I combined it with Madame Butterfly 'White' (an azalea flowered series of snaps I also like), which has a hint of almost exactly the same lemon yellow in its centre.

In the garden

Chantilly snaps have tall - up to three foot - but strong stems that haven't needed to be staked in my garden (and we do get some quite strong winds off the sea at times). They also have a light but rather lovely citrusy scent. They are a group one short day snapdragon, so grow best in cooler weather. However, in temperate climates they can potentially keep growing until the autumn. Give them full sun or, in warmer climates, a bit of afternoon shade. They like a rich soil, and I feed mine with weak fish emulsion. If you want the long central stem, don't pinch, if you want side shoots immediately, pinch out. I do half and half as I quite like the bushier effect and this gives more stems more quickly for cutting. (Once the main stem has flowered, side shoots will develop anyway.) Cut them back to about 8" after the first set of blooms are over and they should start up again. They may even become a short-lived perennial. In warmer climates, try growing the luscious azalea flowered group 3 Madame Butterfly as well, to keep the snapdragon display going into the autumn.

Where to buy seeds

Given the amount of variation I've found between stems of the same variety, I suspect that growers are finding it difficult to keep them from crossing. It would be a shame to lose the individual colours, but increasingly I am seeing seed offered only in mixes, which is always a rather ominous sign.

In the US, Redemption seeds and Swallowtail still have a full range of individual colours, the latter also delivers worldwide.

In Canada, Stems Flower Farm offers a huge range of snapdragon seeds in the autumn, including many individual Chantilly colours.

In the UK, well, sorry, but at the time of writing even Chiltern Seeds is offering only 'Velvet'. Maybe that will change in the autumn. I can't find anywhere with a good collection of individual colours. Are the effects of Brexit even being seen in seed supply? Please let me know if you find a good UK source. In the meantime, you can always order from Swallowtail in the US.

How to grow

Sow early, because Chantilly snaps, although some of the quickest to grow, still take 100 days to maturity. I sowed mine the second week of January and this year will start even earlier. Sprinkle seeds on top of moist seed compost and keep at around 18C; extra heat can inhibit germination. Don't cover them: snapdragons need light to germinate. Water only from the bottom. Once the seedlings emerge - about 2 weeks - keep under a grow light in cool temperatures, keep moist but not too wet, and grow on until they have a couple of sets of true leaves and then prick out. Grow on cool. They are slow developers so may appreciate a bit of weak fish emulsion before planting out. Transplant into the garden after the last hard frost.

Madame Butterfly 'White'

Snapdragon as a cut flower

They make great cut flowers, lasting at least a week in the vase, but only if you harvest them early, when just a few of the bottom flowers are open. Once the insects start pollinating them, vase life is shorter. Leave them to hydrate in a bucket of cold water for a few hours and stand them upright. If they lean or are put on their sides they will curl at the top.

Chantilly makes a great addition to a mixed bouquet

Drummond's Phlox 'Cherry Caramel'

If, like me, you are easily tempted when it comes to flowers, then you probably succumbed to all the hype and bought seeds to grow Phlox 'Cherry Caramel' this year. The good news is the hype was justified - well, mostly. This annual phlox is one of the prettiest flowers I've grown in a long time.

Phlox drummondii is a native of Texas but has naturalised throughout the southeastern US. The varieties we grow today owe their origin to nineteenth-century Scottish botanist Thomas Drummond, who collected seeds and sent them back to Britain where they began to be hybridised. Score one more for the Scots.

Phlox 'Lavender Beauty'

I've often grown the dainty 'Moody Blues' and 'Lavender Beauty', which are shorter varieties that are amazingly floriferous and super in containers, but this year I also tried the much-vaunted 'Cherry Caramel' and two of the other taller varieties that are so much better for cut flowers: 'Crème Brûlée' and 'Isabellina'.

Phlox 'Isabellina'

'Isabellina', an heirloom from the 1880s, is the most elegant of the three, a lovely very pale yellow that I've seen variously described as 'moonlight' or, more prosaically, 'condensed milk'. It grows 15-30 inches tall, and looks good against a dark leaf heuchera I have nearby. It would be a great choice for a night garden.

Phlox 'Crème Brûlée' with agastache and salvia

'Crème Brûlée' is the most vigorous grower of the three. It will easily get up to 30 inches high and produces masses of creamy flowers with varying degrees of streaking.

Phlox 'Cherry Caramel'

'Cherry Caramel', with its creamy petals and deep pinky red centres, has the most old-fashioned pretty flowers. The colour saturation varies and in a posy they create a lovely tapestry like effect. I didn't find they produced as many flowers as the other two, but those they did were choice.

All three phlox are supposed to be lightly scented, with fragrances described variously as melon, lilac and candy. I'm afraid I couldn't smell a thing. That was one minor disappointment, but the fault may lie in my nose.

More importantly these annual phlox need careful placement in the garden. The big problem, and this is surely why you rarely see the taller Phlox drummondii in garden centres, is that they have an exceedingly odd growth habit. Young plants start out straight, but then flop over and start to sprawl around. This, I assume, is what seed catalogues euphemistically describe as their 'branching habit'. It's their adolescent stage, and it's not a pretty sight. At the beginning of the season I wondered if I should just pull them out. I'm so glad I didn't. Gradually each stem starts to send out shoots that go up again, and it is these elongated shoots - and there are many of them - that are so prized for cut flowers.

But they need support to go up. Flower farmers usually stake them, but in the garden that would be too much of a faff, not to mention looking pretty awful. So the trick to making them a good garden plant is to grow them in amongst other flowers that can help disguise the sprawling stage and are sturdy enough to provide the shoots off each main stem of the phlox with support when they start to move upwards. So, for example, I had 'Crème Brûlée' in the same bed as some Cosmos 'Apricot Lemonade', and while the overall effect was decidedly uninspired in terms of colour combination, the cosmos provided a structure for the shooting stems of the phlox and their flowers gradually moved up to the level of the cosmos flowers.

Phlox 'Crème Brûlée' supported by Cosmos 'Apricot Lemonade'

If I was going to grow 'Crème Brûlée' again (and I'm not sure about this one), I would try a companion that might liven it up a little. I stuck a stem in an Agastache 'Kudos Coral', which brought out the pink centre streaks, and I liked that combination far more. (This is a gorgeous Agastache, by the way, with a delicious smell half honey, half mint.)

With 'Cherry Caramel' I was luckier in terms of colour. I'd planted Cosmos 'Rosetta' and 'Fuzzy Click' and Salvia 'Raspberry Royale' to contrast with some chocolate cosmos and help hold up Scabious 'Black Knight'. 'Cherry Caramel' looked good winding its stems in and up all the other plants. Together, they also made quite an effective combination for the vase.

'Cherry Caramel' and her supporting flowers

All three phlox are brilliant cut flowers, with a long vase life. Cut when the first few flowers are open, and the rest of the buds will follow. And for those who live in deer territory, you'll be pleased to hear they have little taste for annual phlox (at least the deer in our neighbourhood). One fawn took a mouthful of 'Moody Blues' that I'd put in my deer sampler plate and literally spat it out. I'm impressed enough by these taller annual phlox that next year I may just grit my teeth and try out one I've always resisted: 'Phlox of Sheep'. Erin at Floret Farm tantalisingly describes this as coming in 'sweet pastel shades including peach, pink, blush, vivid salmon, white and buttercream.' Buttercream - sounds irresistible, and apparently they 'carry a sweet, sugary fragrance.' I'm sold.

How to grow

I followed the basic directions set out by Kokoro Garden and had great success. Sow 4-6 weeks before last frost. Use plug trays as phlox dislikes root disturbance. Germination requires complete darkness. I covered the seed lightly, put another seed tray on top to be doubly sure, and kept at about 18-20°C. Once they start germinating (5-10 days), get them into good light. They can be transplanted into the ground after the last frost when the first true leaves (not the seed leaves) appear. They like sun and rich soil, and have moderate water requirements.

Where to buy seeds

Seeds are quite widely listed, but often out of stock.

In Canada, try West Coast seeds.

In US, try Select Seeds.

In UK, try Chiltern Seeds.