September 14, 2017

Interview with Carolyn Dunster, author of ‘Urban Flowers’

Today I’m delighted to feature an exclusive interview with florist and planting designer Carolyn Dunster about her new book, ‘Urban Flowers’.

In your book, you detail how to grow flowers in an urban space. If people are considering growing cut flowers, which varieties would you recommend as being the easiest to get good results from?

I would recommend starting with a group of flowers known as hardy annuals. These are flowering plants that complete their whole life cycle within one year. Seed germinates and plants put on enough growth to flower profusely during a twelve-month period or less before setting seed to start the cycle all over again. One of the best reasons for growing annuals in small spaces is that they put all their energy into forming flowers rather than roots and therefore only need shallow planting.

Examples of hardy annuals that flower prolifically and are great for cutting are Nigella damascena (Love-in–a Mist), Scabiosa (Scabious) and Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower). All three types can be sown from seed in the autumn and will put on some growth before becoming dormant over the winter. Once the conditions are right, they will resume growing again in early spring to provide flowers from the beginning of May. Sowing a further crop in the spring will then ensure successional picking throughout the summer months.

If you’re only able to grow in pots, which flower varieties work well and how is it best to care for them?

I grow lavender in pots year after year. I love it for the scent and for drying flower heads to use in arrangements over the winter. The best rose I have discovered for growing in small containers is Rosa Blush Noisette. It bears clusters of tiny pom-pom heads in pale pink that are deliciously perfumed.  I think it is worth trying any favourite flower in a pot if that is the only space you have – ideally three pots of different varieties to cut from for tiny posy arrangements. If a plant is unhappy it will soon let you know – generally pot grown plants need regular watering apart from lavenders and other Mediterranean varieties so go for these if you know that daily watering is going to be an issue.

Which types of foliage would you recommend for an urban space?

I grow different types of Euphorbia to use as foliage. You can have a space full of Euphorbias all year round if you choose the right varieties. I love the acid green bracts of Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae that come into their own in early spring and will make any arrangement sing. Follow this on with the darker green stems of  ‘Wallichii’ for later months and then include ‘Fireglow’ for autumn colour. When picking Euphorbias, be sure to wear gloves as the milky sap they produce can irritate the skin.

Which flowers grow well in shaded areas?

Ferns and hostas are good evergreen stalwarts for shady areas. Intersperse them with clumps of Brunnera macrophylla  ‘ Jack Frost’ – a designer variety of Forget-Me–Not and stems of dainty Epimediums. Against dark north facing walls  Hydrangea petiolaris  will romp away and transform a space with its lacy white flower heads that can be picked and dried.

Which are the best ‘cut and come again’ flowers?

All sweet pea varieties perform best if they are picked regularly. It is possible to grow them in a small space as long as you have some height and provide them with a framework to grow on. Cosmos are one of the easiest flowers to grow from seed and will provide weekly flowers for picking during the summer and zinnias also thrive on regular harvesting. Remember to allow some flower heads to set seed however, so you can save it for resowing.

What time of day do you recommend people cut flowers and foliage from their garden?

You should cut your flowers and foliage in the early morning or late afternoon if the weather is hot and you want to prevent everything from wilting. I suggest submerging your freshly picked stems into deep buckets of cold water and leaving them overnight in a cool dark place so they can have a really good drink before you arrange them.

Are there any other tips for florists who would like to grow flowers?

My tip for any florist who wants to grow their own flowers is to just take the plunge and give it a go. Homegrown blooms will add a whole new dimension to your work and customers love the idea of flowers that have been grown with no carbon footprint. All it requires is some patience and some gentle nurturing and you will find the process can be quite therapeutic. For the price of a few packets of seeds and your time, you can make an investment that will become quite addictive when you see the results. You can even think about growing to order once you realise how easy it is with a bit of long term planning.

Published by Frances Lincoln, Urban Flowers is available online from Amazon. For more information about Carolyn’s work, please visit the Urban Flowers website.

(Images : Jason Ingram)

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