Pick of the bunch

Garden flowers are for posies

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Cropping. It’s what we allotment types work so hard for, and there is indeed an earthy, alchemical delight to the business of pulling the first new potatoes from the soil or finding the first baby broad beans plump enough to pick. It never tires.

The season’s first real posy is sitting on my desk as I write this

For me, though, it’s the flowers that are the real thrill. While the spuds must be scrubbed and the beans shelled, the peonies and dahlias need only be dropped into a vase, leaving you with nothing left to do but bask in their multisensory loveliness.

The season’s first real posy is sitting on my desk as I write this. Earlier in the year, there were daffodils aplenty, as well as bluebells, snowbells, and tulips so extravagant that the whole Dutch mania might be explained by the fisted petals of a single bloom, but these primary-hued early-starters always feel like the warm-up act, lacking the height, volume and blowsy abundance of their summer sisters.

Not that we’re quite there: the flowers beside me are still small but they make up for it with a sophisticated palette. There’s the richness of deep crimson cornflowers, sown last autumn and now grown strong and bushy; there are saffron yellow Californian poppies, their petals almost plush with pigment; and there are aquilegias so darkly aubergine in hue, their double pompom heads appear tinged with night. I’ve bulked it out with cow parsley because, well, why not?

There’s a whimsical charm to handpicked flowers that you’ll struggle to find commercially, no matter how upscale the florist. Just as peas eaten straight from the pod will spoil you for even the freshest farm stall produce, so homegrown — or merely hedgerow-foraged — flowers ruin you for arrangements that come tissue-wrapped and raffia-tied, never mind those that fit through the letterbox, landing on the doormat like miniature flatpack kits. They win on the ethics front, too: no airmiles or refrigeration, no low-paid workers toiling in shabby conditions.

So why is it that flower-picking is so often frowned upon, and by gardeners most of all? There are many who’d never dream of bringing the outdoors in by plundering their borders for a bouquet. Not in my family.

After visits to granny — a woman whose nurturing instinct was far stronger for plants than it ever was for kids — we’d invariably leave with a big bunch of flowers, their stems lovingly swaddled in soggy newspaper. And flower names were among my daughter’s first words.

There are of course rules governing what flora you can pick and where, many of them vital, others less so, as Johnny Cash discovered in Mississippi in 1965, when a bunch of dandelions and daisies earnt him a night in a prison and a $36 fine. He got a song out of it, mind — “Starkville City Jail” — and was pardoned some 40 years later as part of a one-off “Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival”.

As with everything in the garden, you can make the business of posy-picking as complex or as simple as you wish

As it turns out, there are other “rules” relating to picked flowers, ones that can help prolong vase life. It’s far better to snip than pick (at a 45-degree angle and with a clean, sharp blade or special scissors). There’s an optimal time to gather them, too: I love plucking at dusk, when the cooling air seems to draw out the sun-warmed fragrance, but early morning is preferable, before the stems have been subjected to the day’s dehydrating heat.

Similarly, while they may look picturesque placed in a willow trug, they need to be put in water immediately, so it’s far better to pick with a bucket on your arm. Lukewarm water is absorbed more speedily than cold because its molecules move faster, and you can even make your own flower food using sugar, bleach, lemon juice and water. Dropping an aspirin into the vase is also said to help, ditto a copper coin.

As with everything in the garden, you can make the business of posy-picking as complex or as simple as you wish, but it’s worth remembering that the short-lived nature of flowers is intrinsic to their appeal. In fact, it’s their very ephemerality, surely, that helps to explain why they are so intricately woven into our rites and rituals. Few flowers capture this transitory delight quite so well as sweet peas: their vase life is at best five days and their scent seems to fade far sooner. I planted mine late this year but when they do flower, I shan’t bother spooning sugar into the vase. Instead, I’ll take solace from knowing that with this particular plant, the more I pick, the more there will be. 

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