Article inspired by a press release from the National Garden Bureau.
Want to fill your home with fresh flowers this year? Plant a Cutting Garden!
Part of the fun and excitement of gardening is enjoying the beauty of the flowers. Plan this year to design your own cutting garden for one-of-a-kind bouquets directly from your garden!
Cutting gardens were highly popular in the Victorian era and, in fact, up until the end of the Second World War, were a classic element of larger residences and estate gardens. It was considered the height of sophistication to always have bouquets of cut flowers in the home. Typically, the same home would feature display gardens of attractively arranged perennials and shrubs where they could be seen from the street, while the cutting garden, along with the equally essential vegetable garden, was “out back.”
Not a Display Garden
The important thing in planning a cutting garden is to recognize its purpose from the start. Many gardeners hesitate to cut flowers from their display gardens, rightfully concerned that it will reduce its effect. But a cutting garden is not for show. Indeed, it is often grown in rows, like a vegetable garden. Plants are treated, from the get-go, as harvestable items. You wouldn’t hesitate to harvest a tomato or pepper from your vegetable garden, would you? Well, why dither about taking flowers from a cutting garden? That’s what it’s there for!
Planning Your Cutting Garden
For best results, you’ll want a sunny spot and rich, well-drained soil. If your soil is poor or mostly clay, consider installing a raised bed with good soil brought in from somewhere else. Work in some compost, mycorrhizal fungi and a slow-release fertilizer.
No room in the ground? There’s nothing stopping you from growing cut flowers in large containers.
Typically cutting gardens are largely composed of annuals and bulbs. Annuals, like zinnias, cosmos and coreopsis, because so many bloom all summer and the more you harvest them, the more they produce. Bulbs because they simply look so good in flower arrangements: in spring, tulips, alliums and narcissus; in summer, gladiolus, dahlias, lilies and acidanthera.
Not that you can’t include perennials like peonies, lupins, delphiniums and echinaceas, but they’re slower growing and won’t give you as much to harvest the first year. Some shrubs too make great cut flowers (roses, lilacs, hydrangeas, etc.) and might find a place in a cutting garden, although they do take up a lot of space and create a lot of shade.
The old-fashioned cut flower garden was arranged in rows just like a vegetable garden: a row of dahlias, a row of cosmos, etc. You don’t have to do that exactly, but you’ll probably want to plant flowers according to their height, with shorter plants in the front, medium-sized ones in the middle, tall ones in the back.
And make sure you have paths for access.
Some of these plants, notably climbing ones like sweet peas and climbing nasturtiums, but also gladiolus and taller dahlias, need staking, something you might have wanted to hide in a display garden, but in cutting garden, anything goes! Show is not the purpose and who cares if the stakes are visible? Just use branches, plant stakes or whatever you can find.
Do look for varieties especially recommended for cutting, notably plants with long stems. Once upon a time, ageratums, snapdragons and even marigolds were tall plants ideal for cutting, then they, like so many annuals, were turned into shrimpy border plants by the bedding plant industry, which likes their plants compact so they can then fit more into their sales displays. Almost any plant variety said to be “old-fashioned” or a “florist variety” is going to be a taller variety, good for cutting. Go over your seed catalogs: you’ll be surprised at how many there are!
And don’t forget to include some flowers that are highly perfumed, like mignonette, sweet alyssum and heliotrope, in your mix for the olfactory interest they’ll add to your bouquets.
Planting Your Cutting Garden
You can actually buy cutting garden mixtures from seed companies. Mostly composed of annuals, you just rake the soil and sow them, then water. You’ll get a surprising mix of flowers, some in bloom in only 6 weeks.
You can also buy trays of annuals (remember to look for taller ones), or start your own from seed, either directly in the garden or, for faster results, by starting them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Plant these out when the weather warms up. You can pack them in a bit more tightly than usual: that tends to produce taller stalks, perfect for cutting.
Caring for Your Cutting Garden
Watering will be your main consideration. For good bloom, you can’t let plants dry out. There is no specific watering schedule: much depends on Ma Nature. When she’s being miserly about sending rain, fill in for her. You’ll find your plants will need more water in hot weather (no surprise there!) and as they reach their maximum size.
The rule for when to water is simple: sink your index finger into the ground. If the soil is dry to the touch, water well, giving a truly thorough soaking; if it’s moist, don’t water.
Mulching with shredded leaves, straw, etc. will help reduce watering needs while keeping weeds down. Some gardeners like using black plastic mulch, which will keep out weeds entirely. It’s none too pretty, but hey! This is a cutting garden, so who cares?
Since you’re looking for maximum bloom, don’t hesitate to fertilize a bit more throughout the summer with a soluble organic fertilizer, perhaps every two to three weeks.
This is what it’s all about. Harvest early and often, just as flowers start to open, two or three times a week. If you have too many flowers, share the bounty with friends and family or offer them as gifts to a nursery home or hospital.
You don’t want to let flowers go to seed, as that slows down production. If a bloom just isn’t good enough for you, clip it off and toss it into the compost.
Here are a few harvesting tips:
- Harvest when the air is cool, early in the morning or in the evening, when the flowers are well hydrated.
- If it’s dry, water the day before harvesting.
- Wait until the dew or raindrops have evaporated. Touching wet plants can spread disease.
- Keep your pruning shears sharp and sterilize them regularly with rubbing alcohol.
- Forget the idea of a harvesting basket slung over your arm! It may make for a great Instagram photo, but if you leave the cut flower stems in the open air while you traipse around the garden, they’ll wither and lose holding power. Instead, plunge flower stems into water as soon as you cut them. That means you’ll need a bucket. Keep it clean and fill it with cool water.
- Many people believe that cutting at a 45-degree angle helps improve water absorption. There’s actually no proof of that, though, and cutting at 90 degrees is just as effective and often faster.
- Remove any foliage that will be underwater.
- When the bucket is full enough for you, move to a cooler, shadier spot and start arranging your flowers using the vase or container of your choice.
- Add cut flower preservative to the water for maximum flower life.
Cut Flowers to Try
There is no limit to the plants you can use as cut flowers. Here are a few:
- Acidanthera (Gladiolus murielae)—tender bulb
- African Daisy (Dimorphotheca sinuata)—annual
- Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)—annual
- Allium (Allium spp.)—hardy bulb
- Aster (Aster, Symphyotrichum, Eurybia, etc.)—perennial
- Baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata and G. elegans)—annual and perennial
- Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea spp.)—annual and perennial
- Bee balm (Monarda spp.)—perennial
- Bishop’s flower (Ammi majus)—annual
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)—annual
- California Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia)—annual
- California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)—annual
- Candytuft (Iberis umbellata)—annual
- Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus)—annual and perennial
- Catchfly (Silene armeria)—annual
- Celosia or cockscomb (Celosia spp.)—annual
- China aster (Callistephus chinensis)—annual
- Chinese Forget-Me-Not (Cynoglossum amabile)—annual
- Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium, Ismelia carinata, Glebionis coronaria, etc.)—annual and perennial
- Clarkia (Clarkia elegans)—annual
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)—annual and perennial
- Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)—annual
- Dahlia (Dahlia × pinnata)—annual and tender bulb
- Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)—perennial
- Delphinium (Delphinium spp.)—perennial
- Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)—perennial
- Foxglove (Digitalis spp.)—perennial and biennial
- Gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.)—annual and perennial
- Gladiolus (Gladiolus spp.)—tender bulb
- Gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta)—annual and perennial
- Godetia (Clarkia amoena)—annual
- Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)—annual
- Hollyhock (Alcea spp.)—perennial and biennial
- Hydrangea or hortensia (Hydrangea spp.)—shrub
- Iris (Iris spp.)—perennial
- Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)—perennial
- Larkspur (Consolida spp.)—annual
- Lavatera (Lavatera trimestris)—annual
- Liatris or blazing star (Liatris spp.)—perennial
- Lilac (Syringa spp.)—shrub
- Lily (Lilium spp.)—hardy bulb
- Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascene)—annual
- Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) —annual
- Lupin (Lupinus perennis)—perennial
- Mallow (Malva spp.)—perennial
- Marigold (Tagetes erecta)—annual
- Mexican hat (Ratibida spp.)—perennial
- Mignonette (Reseda odorata)—annual
- Money plant (Lunaria spp.)—biennial and perennial
- Narcissus or daffodil (Narcissus spp.)—hardy bulb
- Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)—annual
- Painted daisy (Tanacetum coccineum)—perennial
- Peony (Paeonia spp.)—perennial and shrub
- Phlox (Phlox paniculata and P. drummondii)—annual and perennial
- Poppy (Papaver spp.)—annual and perennial
- Rose (Rosa spp.)—shrub
- Salvia (Salvia spp.)—annual
- Scabiosa (Scabiosa spp.)—annual and perennial
- Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum)—perennial
- Soapwort (Saponaria spp.)—perennial
- Stock (Matthiola spp.)—annual
- Strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum)—annual
- Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)—annual
- Sweet Alyssum (tall) (Lobularia maritima)—annual
- Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)—annual
- Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)—annual and biennial
- Tulip (Tulipa spp.)—hardy bulb
- Veronica (Veronica spp.)—perennial
- Wallflower (Erysimum spp. and Cheiranthus spp.)—annual, biennial and perennial
- Yarrow (Achillea spp.)—perennial
- Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)—annual
There you go: start your own cut flower garden this summer!