General flower gardening FAQs

What is the difference between a formal and an informal flower border?

Essentially, formal beds are oval, circular, square, or rectangular, and have regularly curving or straight edges, whereas informal beds have irregular shapes and irregularly curved edges. A formal border is usually one in which the plants are set out in geometric patterns, whereas informal beds generally have the plants in drifts (irregular clusters). Avoid star or triangular-shaped beds when you are planning your garden (it is difficult to plant the points of such figures), and make curved edges as sweeping as possible if the lawn is alongside—it will make grass-cutting much easier.

When people talk about mixed borders, what exactly do they mean?

A mixed border is one which can contain any kind of plant, including trees, shrubs, and ornamental vegetables, as well as the more commonly grown herbaceous perennials, bedding plants, annuals, biennials, and bulbous plants. The year-round interest created in such borders is one of their chief assets.

I find dead-heading flowers with secateurs very time-consuming—and the heads invariably fall to the ground and look messy. Is there any way of speeding up this job and also doing it more tidily?

There are now available both short- and long-handled secateur-type implements that include a special device which holds the dead flower head between the blades until the handles are released. Thus, you can snip off the flower head, keep the handles closed until the implement is over the rubbish container, then release the handles; the heads fall straight in. These tools are also useful for gathering flowers for floral arrangements, and in fact they are generally sold for this purpose.

What is an immortelle?

This is another name for a so-called everlasting flower. There is a number of such flowers which, when dried, will keep their colour for months or even years, and are extremely useful for flower arrangements. The flowers usually have a dry, strawy texture. They are best picked just before they are in full bloom, and they are then hung in bunches by their stems in a cool airy place to allow them to dry out completely. The stems are often quite weak, so it may be necessary to use florists’ wires to hold up the flower heads.

Examples of immortelles are strawflower (Helichrysum), statice (Limonium), helipterum (sometimes known as acroclinium), moluccella, and xeranthemum. They are frequently sold in packets of mixed seeds, which sometimes include grasses and poppies (for their seed heads). They are best treated as hardy annuals. Many other garden flowers produce attractive seed heads for dried-flower arrangements, but they are not strictly immortelles.

What does the term ‘pinching out’ mean? ‘Pinching out’ or ‘stopping’ means removing the growing shoot-tips of plants such as carnations (Dianthus), antirrhinums, and wallflowers (Cheiranthus). This encourages the growth of sideshoots, which will make for bushier plants with more flowers. The growing tips are usually pinched out between finger and thumb, and the job can be done more than once to encourage flower-bud formation, especially with chrysanthemums.

How can I stop cats scratching up seeds after they have been sown?

If the area is not too large, stick twigs in the ground or put in some stakes and criss-cross thick black cotton between them. Large areas, particularly where birds as well as cats are a nuisance, are best protected with netting supported on stakes or twigs. Repellent sprays based on ammonium aluminium sulphate can be tried, but they will have to be re-applied from time to time—more frequently in wet weather.

I find the way plants are classified a bit confusing. Could you explain the meanings of terms such as ‘species’, ‘variety’, ‘cultivar’, and ‘hybrid’?

A plant’s botanical name consists of at least two words: the first is always the generic name (a genus being a group of closely related plants); the second is usually the specific name (a species being one member of such a group). An example is the genus Pelargonium, of which the species Pelargonium peltatum is the botanical name for what is commonly known as ivy-leaved geranium. Genus and species names are customarily printed in italics. Just as a group of species makes up a genus, so a group of genera goes to make up a plant family. Pelargoniums belong to the geranium family, the Geraniaceae.

A variety is a plant that differs from the species of which it is a member—but not by enough to warrant its classification as a different species. If it arose in the wild it is known as a natural variety; if it is the result of deliberate cross-pollination by a plant breeder it is often called a cultivar (short for ‘cultivated variety’). Cultivar names are usually printed in quotation marks: Pelargonium peltatum ‘Mexican Beauty’ is a popular cultivar of ivy-leaved geranium.

Hybrids are obtained by the interbreeding of two (or more) species, usually of the same genus. They are indicated by a multiplication sign between the generic and hybrid names, thus: Pelargonium x hortorum. This, as it happens, is the collective name for a race (group) of hybrids known collectively as zonal pelargoniums. Individual hybrids of this race are indicated by the generic name followed by a cultivar name in quotation marks: Pelargonium ‘Du Barry’.

Seed catalogues often categorise plants as Fl hybrids. The term indicates a strain bred from two specially selected parents .

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