Get double duty out of your garden when you grow flowers that look beautiful in the flower bed and are just as lovely and fresh when you bring them inside. Learn how to grow an organic cut flower garden this year.
A cutting garden can be a production garden or a few ornamentals tucked among the vegetables. It can include all kinds of blooms, from low-investment, big-reward blooms you can grow from seed, like sunflowers and zinnias, to Instagram-worthy blooms like dahlias and peonies. All these blooms can be grown organically when you start with organic garden soil, or build up existing soil with organic matter like compost, grow plants suited for your climate and use organic treatments for any pests or diseases.
How to Plan a Cut Flower Garden Bed
Begin by choosing a site. You want full sun, in the range of six to eight or more hours a day. Protection from late afternoon sun is a bonus, perhaps the shade from a tree, or other structure. Access to irrigation is important.
Your cutting garden can be ornamental, or production-focused, it’s up to you. If it’s the latter, you can set it up like a vegetable garden, with plots dedicated to various blooms. If your garden bed will be ornamental, it’s best to go with a round or curved shape; it will be pleasing to the eye and you’ll be able to easily access the plants.
You can add cut flowers to a vegetable garden by planting zinnias, sunflowers, coneflowers and other easy-growing, drought-tolerant blooms within an edible garden bed, even a raised garden bed. A bonus is when you pick vegetables for your evening meal, round up flowers for a centerpiece on your dinner table.
Tip: Shade-loving plants like hosta make lovely additions to cut flower arrangements. Trim back the flower stalks when they appear in summer and add to your bouquets.
Know your soil. If this is a new bed, begin with a soil test from the Garden Center or your local Extension Service. Amend the soil based on the recommendations of the soil test. Working organic matter like compost into the soil will benefit whatever you plant.
Know Your USDA hardiness zone. The plants in your local store are suited for your zone. In the Garden Center, plants are grouped by sunlight requirements, so your sun-loving annuals will be alongside their favorite playmates. Read plant tags for site and care requirements. Most annuals like about an inch of water a week, more in the hottest part of summer and when there’s no rainfall.
When planting, work a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote into the soil. Some cut flowers can be heavy feeders, and this will give your plants a boost while you supplement with regular feedings during the growing season. In your design, place the taller plants near the back of the garden (or if it’s an island, in the center).
How to Choose Flowers for Your Cutting Garden
As for the choice of flowers to grow in your cutting garden, our best advice is 1. to keep in mind that cut flowers need long stems and 2. to grow what you love. Annuals will give you bold and bright color throughout the season, and perennials will give you blooms, finer foliage and the backbone for a year-round garden.
Try Growing These Favorite Cut Flowers
1. Sunflowers. These iconic beauties are surprisingly and satisfyingly easy to grow. Sunflowers need full sun, at least six to eight hours a day, and slightly acidic soil, with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Get a soil test from the Garden Center or your local County Extension Office and amend the soil according to the results of the test.
In the Garden Center, you’ll find a variety of seeds, including dwarf and giant sunflower seeds. Direct sow sunflower seeds when the soil warms to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in spring. Follow seed packet directions for planting and look for germination in seven to 10 days. Ensure a continual harvest when you stagger the plantings every few weeks. A blanket of mulch at the base of the growing plants will suppress weed growth.
Tip: Birds like sunflowers, too. Put up an old-fashioned scarecrow or shiny piece of garden art to distract them and protect your flowers.
2. Zinnias. If you grow just one flower for cutting, make it zinnias. A seed packet of Burpee’s Cut and Come Again zinnias will set you back less than $2 and will provide blooms from June until frost. The magic comes when you trim on the branching stems: cutting encourages more blooms.
Zinnias are not fussy about soil, thrive in full sun and are reasonably drought tolerant. Grow them in your raised garden bed adjacent to your vegetable plot to attract pollinators. Or, plant them in containers: fill a 16-inch or larger container with good quality potting mix and thumb in about a dozen seeds, working in circles from the outside in, placing seeds a few inches apart. Keep watered and watch them take off.
You may have problems with Japanese beetles, but, take heart. Just pluck off the bugs and drop them in a bucket of soapy water, then discard them. Trim away any damaged flowers. After a week or two, the beetles will move on to a new neighborhood.
3. Gladiolus. Spiky, brightly colored glads add drama to cut flower arrangements and your garden. These summer-blooming bulbs (they’re really corms) need full sun and well-drained soil. If you have clay or sandy soil, amend the garden bed in spring with organic matter like compost. Plant gladioli in spring when the ground warms to 60 degrees. If you have room, plant every 10 to 14 days for successive blooms, up until the 4th of July.
Look for mature blooms ready for cutting after eight to 10 weeks of planting. When the two lowest buds on the stem are beginning to open, that’s the time to harvest. Most gladioli are winter hardy only to zone 8. If you’re further north, when the foliage dies back in fall, dig up the corms, clean them off and store in a box filled with peat moss in a cool, dry place such as a basement.
4. Peonies. Instagram’s favorite flower can be grown in your garden, too. Peonies are long-lived bulbs (there are tree peonies, too, but these instructions are for herbaceous peonies) that grow best in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 8.
Choose a site for peonies with plenty of sun and well-drained soil. Shade in late afternoon protects the blooms in the hottest days of summer. In spring, work plenty of organic compost and a slow-release fertilizer into the planting bed and plant the bulbs “eyes up” no deeper than two inches from the surface. When the plants are three to four inches high, fertilize again with a balanced fertilizer.
Note that new peony plantings likely won’t bloom until the second year. And when they do, the elegant and leggy stems can have difficulty supporting the robust blooms. In that case, support the plants with individual peony supports.
More Cut Flower Garden Favorites
Here are some suggestions:
Annuals: calendula, campanula, celosia, cleome, cosmos, dianthus, lisianthis, geranium, nicotiana, petunia, phlox, scabiosa, snapdragon, statice, sunflower, sweet pea and zinnia.
Perennials: achillea, aster, carnation, coreopsis, delphinium, dianthus, digitalis, echinacea, gaillardia, heuchera, lupine, phlox, Icelandic poppy, rudbeckia, sage, Shasta daisy and veronica.
Foliage: silver-leafed artemisia, coleus, dusty miller, hosta, lamb’s ears and herbs like lavender and rosemary.
TIPS FOR CUT FLOWER SUCCESS
- You want to cut most flowers for arrangements just before they are fully opened or mature. Look for buds that have unfurled, but not to the point of deterioration. Flowers that fall into this category are mums, carnations, pinks, cornflower, cosmos, dahlia, delphinium, geranium, nasturtium, sunflower and snapdragon.
- Flowers cut in the bud stage include bulbs like daffodil, iris and tulip, peonies and poppies.
- Flowers that can be fully open at cutting time include daisy, marigold, orchid, violet and zinnia.
- Avoid cutting flowers in the heat of the day. Early morning is best because the plant has the most water.
- Using floral snips or a paring knife, cut stems at an angle and just a bit longer than needed, just in case you need to trim again when placing in the vase. Check the undersides of leaves for signs of insects and trim away any damaged leaves.
- Immediately place cut flowers into a bucket of warm water. Flowers take up warm water more readily. Use bath temperature water, about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and a floral preservative or bactericide. A homemade version is 1/4 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart cold water added to the vase.
- And one more note: it’s just a myth that adding pennies or aspirin to water prolongs the life of cut flowers. Save your pennies and headaches and leave them out of your cut flower arrangements.