It’s one of gardening’s funny little ironies: Lots of us are reluctant to rob our flower beds of beautiful stems to bring inside for fresh bouquets. (And after all the work that goes into babying those blooms, why shouldn’t we be a little protective?) But it’s possible to have the best of both worlds by creating a separate garden just for cutting. Decadent, you say? A headache waiting to happen? Think again. The key to success—and making the whole undertaking low-maintenance—is planning.
Step 1: Decide What You Want
Think about what types of flowers you want to grow—both annuals and perennials—and make a list. (To start out, consider limiting the varieties to a manageable half-dozen.) Try to focus on flowers that have longer stems, which will make them the best candidates for cutting and arranging. Include a few of each that bloom in spring, midsummer, and late summer to keep you in business all season long. You’ll also have to research how much space each plant needs; some of your favorites may require only eight to ten inches (say, pansies), while others may need two to three feet (dahlias). Depending on the plants you choose, a three-by-six-foot bed can hold up to about 20 plants.
Step 2: Scope Out Your Spot
Remember: Most cutting flowers prefer lots of sun—around six hours or more per day—so to allow for the most variety choose a sunny site that is well drained (meaning, the ground shouldn’t stay wet at all times). The ultimate size of the plot depends on how much space you have and how much time you can devote to taking care of it. A cutting garden isn’t supposed to look like a mixed border of plants, so there’s no need to get hung up on design principles. Visualize it more in terms of crops: You’ll be planting in rows.
Step 3: Prep the Planting Area
If you’re making a new bed in an existing lawn, first remove any turf grass and roots. Then enrich the growing area by working a layer of four to six inches of organic material (compost, chopped leaves, peat moss, etc.) into the top eight to ten inches of soil with a spading fork. If your ground is very sandy, swampy, or rocky or high in clay content, do yourself a favor and consider making raised beds with a simple kit and filling them with amended soil purchased in bulk. This saves you the daunting, near-impossible task of trying to turn bad soil into good.
Step 4: Sketch It Out
You’ll get the easiest and quickest results by purchasing seedlings or small pots rather than starting from seed, but either option works. Before you hit the nursery, create a simple sketch of the bed on graph paper and decide how many of each kind of plant you want. (Don’t forget to allow space for you! There has to be enough room between rows to get in there to weed, fertilize, deadhead, stake, and, of course, harvest.) Just like a trip to the grocery store, being armed with a shopping list at a nursery helps prevent overbuying and impulse purchases. (Trust us, there’s a flower equivalent of Cheetos out there somewhere.) Err on the conservative side: You can always add more plants if you prove to have the room.
Step 5: Shop
Planting can begin after the last frost—sometime in spring, depending on where you live. (Check the website of your local cooperative extension for the average date.) Even though plants will be available for sale before then, don’t be seduced into buying too early (unless you have your own greenhouse), or else late frosts could wipe out your investment. Whether you go to a garden center, farmers’ market, or roadside stand, ask for feedback on your plans from someone knowledgeable. And pack your reading glasses, because plant tags reveal a wealth of information, from size at maturity to care requirements. Even the most experienced gardeners read the fine print to ensure the varieties they choose fit their needs. (No tags on offer? Pepper the staff with questions.) You’ll also need to assemble a cutting kit that includes sharp, pointed scissors; by-pass pruners; a small hammer for smashing woody stems; and a pair of lightweight gloves. Store it all by the door closest to the cutting garden with a supply of three-foot bamboo stakes and a roll of garden twine for supporting top-heavy stems and propping up foliage that could be broken by rainstorms.
Step 6: Plant Away
Just before you plant, mix some granular time-release fertilizer (such as Dynamite; dynamiteplantfood.com) into the top few inches of soil. This will help keep nutrition consistent during the growing season. For easier maintenance, group together flower varieties with similar sun, water, and drainage needs. Tall plants should be placed in the back of the bed so they won’t shade out their shorter neighbors.
Step 7: Water and Mulch
Once everything is in the ground, water each plant carefully and thoroughly to settle it and eliminate air pockets. Then spread a two- to three-inch-thick layer of mulch around the plants. (Use shredded bark, salt hay, pine needles, or whatever else you prefer.) This will suppress weeds and help retain moisture.
Step 8: Maintain and Replant
Throughout the growing season, plants need consistent moisture. If Mother Nature cooperates with at least one inch of rainfall per week, you should be covered. More likely, however, you’ll have to make up the difference with hand watering or a drip irrigation system. Cutting stems regularly and removing faded blossoms will encourage plants to keep blooming as frequently and for as long as possible. To give heavy blooming plants a boost—especially later in the season when they tend to slow down—every couple of weeks apply a liquid fertilizer dissolved in water. When early season annuals and bulbs are finished, pull them out, cultivate the soil a little, toss in a tablespoon of granular fertilizer, and replant the area with new seedlings of later blooming flowers like zinnia or chrysanthemum.
Step 9: Harvest (Blooms and Compliments)
Do your cutting during the coolest part of the day—early morning—and bring a tall container of tepid water along with you. Plunge the stems into the water immediately after snipping them to prolong their vase life. When you’re back inside and ready to start arranging, make a fresh cut on the stems and add a floral preservative to the water to further prolong their lives.
What to Plant
Flowering shrubs, trees, ornamental grasses, and even succulents make excellent candidates for mixed bouquets. Don’t limit your choices to what you plant in your cutting garden only. Judicious cutting and pruning around your entire yard can result in spectacular and interesting arrangements. (Note: Cutting Gardens, by Anne Halpin and Betty Mackey, is an excellent guidebook for planning, growing, and arranging flowers.) Here’s a partial list of some of the plants to consider for your garden.
• Ageratum (floss flower)
• Cleome (spider flower)
• Gomphrena (globe amaranth)
• Gypsophila (baby's breath)
• Nicotiana (flowering tobacco)
• Nigella damascena (love in a mist)
• Sweet pea
• Verbena bonariensis
• Achillea (yarrow)
• Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle)
• Coral bells
• Dianthus (pinks)
• Echinacea (purple coneflower)
• Heuchera (coral bells)
• Leucanthemum (shasta daisy)
• Paeonia (peony)
• Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan)
• Solidago (goldenrod)
• Dusty miller
• Euphorbia (snow on the mountain)
• Flowering cabbage
• Flowering kale
• Sage, tricolor