In Bloom | A Guide to Growing Flowers from Seeds with Flower Expert Clare Foster

ROSE & IVY In Bloom | A Guide to Growing Flowers from Seeds with Flower Expert Clare Foster

Growing flowers, or vegetables, from a seed is one of the most rewarding aspects of gardening. Selecting, planting and nurturing your plants is a lesson in patience and a powerful life metaphor that if you tend to something everyday the payoff will be ten-fold. For years, I turned to the farmers market or nursery for my herbs and flowers  but I always felt they didn’t do as well as I would like. Last year, I took matters into my own hands and cultivated cosmos and herbs. Not only did they outgrow the ladder, but it gave me a sense of pride and in October I was already dreaming about this year.

One book that inspired me is The Flower Garden: How to Grow Flowers from Seeds by Clare Foster and photography by Sabrina Rüber (Laurence King Publishing), a recent release that is a wonderful companion for planting—it’s like a beautiful encyclopedia. Clare has years of flower growing under her belt—she is a contributor to House & Garden, one of our favorite magazines and x. In her first book, she guides you through choosing the best blooms for your gardening conditions, how to begin and a a wonderful list of resources. We chatted with her to find out more, plus, we posed a few flower troubleshooting  scenarios with her.

Clare Foster (right) and Sabina Rüber (left)

Clare Foster (right) and Sabina Rüber (left)

When did you first begin growing your own flowers?

I first started growing flowers on my London allotment almost 20 years ago. I mixed vegetables with flowers, like marigolds and Californian poppies, which looked bright and cheerful. Then when I moved to the country, I took on another allotment and started growing cutting flowers from seed. About 5 years ago, Sabina Ruber, the photographer and I had the idea for a book and started trialling even more flowers from seed. It's been a brilliant experiment, with some interesting discoveries. We've grown far too many flowers for our own gardens, so we have given many plants away to friends and have also had plant sales for charity.

Did you learn mostly from trial and error or from studying different books? If books, what was the most enlightening to you?

I learned mostly from trial and error! I do often think that there is no right or wrong with gardening—you just have to find the methods that work for you. I found myself often reading seed-growers recommendations - websites such as Seedaholics or Sarah Raven give very good specific information. I’ll even refer to the backs of some seed packets because they have useful information.

What have you found to be the most rewarding part about starting your flowers from seeds?

I think it's the sheer variety of flowers that you can grow from seed that makes it so rewarding. Often, the garden centres only offer bog standard varieties, especially with annuals, so if you grow your own from seed you can seek out unusual varieties in beautiful colours. The other hugely rewarding thing is that growing from seed is so cheap! I grow my own annuals each year to fill my pots and containers, and it's so much cheaper than buying plants from a garden centre or nursery.

Lady Grisel Hamilton Sweet Pea

Lady Grisel Hamilton Sweet Pea

What is the best bit of advice that you can offer to a newer flower grower?

Don't give up if things go wrong! Every season, there will be failures, however expert you are, and you just have to put them behind you and move on. The other thing I would say is that you don't necessarily need a greenhouse. It's amazing how much you can grow indoors on a windowsill, or in a small coldframe, or mini-greenhouse. I would also recommend paying a bit extra for some quality seed compost, as this can help with the germination process, especially if you're sowing tiny seeds.

Can you share a few no fail flower varieties that you think are a great place to start?

My top four would be cosmos, sweet peas, opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) and Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica). These are all easy and quick to germinate, and swift growers. For children, sunflowers and marigolds are colourful and easy. These are all marked with a star in my book to help those who are new to growing from seed.

ROSE & IVY In Bloom | A Guide to Growing Flowers from Seeds with Flower Expert Clare Foster

In order to create a cohesive look, how do you recommend choosing the best flowers for your plot (other than shade, part-shade etc)—do you suggest starting with a color palette or just planting what you like and seeing what works?

If you are growing flowers for a particular border, then yes, I think starting with an idea of the colours you want is advisable. Often though, this can be as loose as thinking 'I'd like a bold, colorful border.' I have had really good results at home from my decision that my front garden should be full of mad colour (clashing reds, oranges, pinks and purples), and the back garden more subtle and understated, with pale pinks and lilacs. I don't stick religiously to this, but the general theme helps to focus the mind. Finally, if you're growing flowers specifically for cutting, make sure you have a good variety of shape, colour and size, for example, contrasting daisy-shaped flowers with spires, with frothy fillers to plug the gaps.

When it comes to container gardening, how do you recommend going about picking the best vessel for your seedlings or young flowers? Further does material matter—ceramic, terra-cotta, resin—or is that just personal taste?

Choosing containers is really about personal taste—there are so many styles and materials to choose from nowadays, from urban zinc to weathered timber. What can be helpful is to think about which flowers you want to display, and matching the container to the flowers. Choose a range of different sizes and shapes of container for a more interesting look.

Angels Choir Poppy

Angels Choir Poppy

Tell us since we are avid garden lovers, what are some of your favorite gardens that are a must when visiting England?

My absolute favourite garden is Great Dixter in East Sussex. It is so beautifully gardened. They are masters at successional planting, so in every season there is something new to see. In addition, they grow lots of flowers from seed to make seasonal displays that are different every year. Another is Cothay Manor in Somerset, which feels like a garden lost in time. The Elizabethan manor house is surrounded by lots of different garden rooms, with hedged enclosures, so there's a real sense of exploration. Finally, Rousham in Oxfordshire, which was designed in the early 18th century by William Kent. There's a beautiful rill, old statues, a beautiful dovecote, and a traditional walled garden with amazing borders.

ROSE & IVY In Bloom | A Guide to Growing Flowers from Seeds with Flower Expert Clare Foster

A Few Flower Scenarios:

I purchased a plant and it indicates that it needs full sun but I only have part shade. Will it not grow into a healthy plant?

Most plants should grow in part shade, but it may grow slower, or not flower as strongly as it would in full sun.

I transplanted my seedlings outdoors but they don’t look as strong as before, what should I do?

Check whether the flowers you are growing are hardy. They may be half hardy, or tender, and if the weather is still cold, they will need time to adjust. Bring them indoors again at night, and gradually harden them off (acclimatize them to the outdoors) by bringing them outside for longer periods during the day until they start to look stronger.

Before I went out of town for a week, I gave my flowers a thorough watering, but when I came home they weren’t looking so good. Do you have any recommendations on how to revive them? 

Thoroughly soaking your plants should revive them within a few hours or overnight. If the plants are in containers, the best way to do this if possible is to lift the container up and stand it in a basin of water. Leave the container to soak up the water for a few hours or even overnight. If the flowers are outside, soak them with a hose or sprinkler for several minutes until the soil is thoroughly soaked and has had a chance to drain down deeper into the soil.

All photography by Sabrina Rüber, posted with permission from Laurence King Publishing