Plant a cutting garden

How to Create a Cutting Garden

Christina Schmidhofer

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.
Annuals
• Ageratum (floss flower)
• Cleome (spider flower)
• Cosmos
• Dianthus
• Gomphrena (globe amaranth)
• Gypsophila (baby’s breath)
• Marigold
• Nicotiana (flowering tobacco)
• Nigella damascena (love in a mist)
• Pansy
• Phlox
• Snapdragon
• Sunflower
• Sweet pea
• Verbena bonariensis
• Zinnia
Perennials
• Achillea (yarrow)
• Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle)
• Aster
• Carnation
• Chrysanthemum
• Coral bells
• Delphinium
• Dianthus (pinks)
• Echinacea (purple coneflower)
• Heuchera (coral bells)
• Lavender
• Leucanthemum (shasta daisy)
• Lupine
• Paeonia (peony)
• Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan)
• Solidago (goldenrod)
• Veronica
Foliage
• Coleus
• Dusty miller
• Eucalyptus
• Euphorbia (snow on the mountain)
• Ferns
• Flowering cabbage
• Flowering kale
• Hosta
• Sage, tricolor

Grow a 3-Season Cutting Garden

  • Choose a location that offers the same growing conditions you’d want in any flower garden: at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day, good air circulation, and well-drained, loosened soil amended with plenty of organic matter. (It’s also smart to do a soil test, so you’ll know if you need to add fertilizer or other amendments.)
  • Select a garden site that’s close to a source of water. But pick a spot that’s enough off the beaten track so you and your visitors won’t have to see it unless you want to. If you don’t see bare patches, you won’t mind them so much.
  • Once you’ve found the right spot, plant your garden without worrying about how it’s going to look. Langeveld says, “Both bulbs and perennials make great cut flowers. Bulbs are great because the food reserves stored in the bulb grow strong stems in a short time. Favorites are dahlias, gladiolus, lilies, and calla lilies for the summer garden and tulips, daffodils, and Dutch iris for the spring garden. Perennials will need to be settled for the first year before they produce enough stems for cut flowers. Examples are peonies, phlox, astilbe and lily of the valley.
    “(N)ote that different bulbs have different bloom times and …it is possible to plant gladiolus or lilies every two weeks in the spring so there will be flowers for an extended period of time. Plant at least 25 gladioli bulbs at the time for one or two vases of flowers. Lilies only produce one stem per bulb, so a bunch of five stems, the same quantity of bulbs need to be planted. Dahlias will produce more new branches when cut so there should not be a need to plant more than 5 or 10 dahlia bulbs for nice cutting arrangements. Callas produce multiple flowers per bulb, so if 10-15 bulbs are planted there will be enough flowers.”
  • Consider the way the sun moves across your cutting garden, and avoid putting shorter plants where taller ones will shade them.
  • Remember, your cutting garden will be all about production: growing as many flowers as possible. Aim for a variety of plants with staggered bloom times, so you’ll have a steady supply of flowers. If you’re starting from seeds, re-sow often to keep more blooms coming.
  • Fertilize your cutting garden with an all-purpose fertilizer, following directions on your product, and water deeply and regularly. Be careful not to overwater.
  • Tuck in some foliage plants with your flowers, so you’ll have attractive leaves to use in your arrangements. Depending on your hardiness zones, try lamb’s ear, dusty miller, hostas, coleus, ferns, eucalyptus or flowering kale. Many ornamental grasses are also beautiful, especially if you plant to dry any of your cut flower arrangements. Langeveld adds, “(F)oliage plants are great for cutting… Perennials like hostas, and bulbs like caladiums, that produce only leaves in various shades of greens, pinks and reds, are great in bouquets. These plants have such interesting leaf shapes and sizes that they make bouquets in vases look truly finished.”
  • Plant with the three seasons in mind, so your garden continues to bloom throughout spring, summer, fall—and winter, if you live in a climate that’s mild year-round.
  • Grow herbs to add fragrance to your cut bouquets. Basil, oregano, sage, mint, lavender, lemon balm, and many others are beautiful as well as aromatic.
  • Cut your flowers in early morning, while the temperatures are cool, to help the blooms last longer. Use a sharp, clean knife or pruners. Take a bucket of water into the garden with you and put the stems into it as soon as they’re cut.

How to plant and grow a cut flower garden

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While growing vegetables is my passion, I also grow a cut flower garden because I enjoy having a non-stop supply of beautiful flowers to harvest for homegrown bouquets. And while many plants are grown for their flowers – perennials, biennials, bulbs, and even edibles – annual flowers like zinnias and sunflowers are among the most popular type of cut flowers grown by gardeners. They’re productive, easy to grow, beautiful, and can be planted in gardens or containers.

Zinnia Queeny Lime Orange is a recent introduction with large, dahlia-like flowers in a unique combination of apricot and lime green.

Planning a cut flower garden

If you’re new to gardening, start with the right spot. Flowers need plenty of sun and rich, well-drained soil. Prep the site before planting by loosening the soil and digging in some compost and a slow-release flower fertilizer. Raised beds are a popular choice for gardeners who want a tidy garden that is easy to care for. No space for a cut flower garden? No worries! If you’re a casual cut flower gardener like me, you can tuck annual flowers wherever you have space – between vegetables, amongst your perennials and shrubs, or even in pots and planters.

First timers may want to stick to a few easy-to-grow annual flowers like zinnias and sunflowers. Read the descriptions in seed catalogs or on the plant tags at the nursery carefully. You’ll want to organize your cut flower garden so that the tallest plants are at the back of the bed, medium-sized ones in the middle, and short stature plants at the front. Also take note if certain cut flowers, like sweet peas or climbing nasturtiums grow on vining plants. These will need netting or a trellis to climb. Tall annuals, like certain zinnia and sunflower varieties, may need stakes or other types of support to prevent them from toppling over as they grow.

The ProCut Series Sunflowers are extremely popular among cut flower growers for their beautiful color range and long-lasting, single stem flowers that are pollenless. This is ProCut White Nite. (Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

Planting a cut flower garden

While many annual flowers are fast-growing and can be direct sown in the garden in spring, planting seedlings gives you a head-start on the season. Generally, I start my annual cut flowers inside under my grow-lights around 6 to 8 weeks before our last expected frost. Read the seed packet or catalog for variety-specific growing information.

You can also buy annual flowers like cosmos and phlox at your local nursery, but it can be hard to source the varieties that have been bred for cut flower production. And if you want high-quality cut flowers, these are the varieties to grow. They offer outstanding characteristics like long vase life, longer stems, and bigger flowers. Again, it pays to read seed catalogs carefully.

The key to a non-stop supply of beautiful blooms is succession planting. Cut flower farmers don’t plant zinnias, for instance, just once. Why? After a few weeks of intense blooming, the flower production of many annuals declines or the bloom size shrinks. Planting fresh seedings every two to three weeks ensures a steady supply of large, florist-quality flowers. My season is short, but I still make three plantings of zinnias so that I have gorgeous, huge blooms for my bouquets.

Growing cut flowers

There are a few tasks to keep on top of as the growing season progresses. Many plants, like zinnias and Celosia benefit from pinching. Pinching is done to young plants to encourage them to branch and produce longer stems for bouquets. Plants are usually pinched when they are 10 to 12 inches tall. Use your fingers or a clean pair of pruners to remove the growing tip, pinching back to a healthy set of leaves.

Pay attention to watering as water-stressed plants produce fewer and smaller flowers. Hold soil moisture with a mulch like straw, shredded leaves, or black landscape fabric applied to the soil surface. Mulch also reduces weed growth and, if a black landscape fabric is used, it will warm the soil promoting growth, especially in late spring and early summer.

To keep flower production high, feed the plants every two to three weeks with a liquid organic flower fertilizer. Never leave dead flowers on the plants. If they are producing more flowers than you need, harvest them all as they open and share them with friends, family, neighbors, or a local nursing home. Spent blossoms that are left on the plant reduce production so be sure to pick all newly opened blooms several times a week.

Harvesting flowers at the right time of day and with the right techniques can mean the difference between an arrangement that lasts for hours or one that lasts for weeks! (Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

Picking flowers from a cut flower garden

Did you know that proper flower harvesting can extend the vase life of cut flowers? Here are a few cutting tips:

  • Harvest in the morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day.
  • Harvest flowers from plants that are well irrigated and not water stressed.
  • Have a clean bucket (or two if you’re harvesting a lot of flowers) ready and filled with cool water.
  • Make sure your pruning shears or snips are sharp and clean.
  • Cut flower stems at a slant to increase surface area and water update.
  • Remove any foliage that would be under water.
  • As soon as the bucket is full or you are done harvesting, bring it into a cool, shaded space to arrange your flowers.

5 Awesome annuals for your cut flower garden:

Sunflowers are a must in a cut flower garden. Not only are they easy to grow, their cheerful flowers come in a wide array of colors, sizes, and forms. There are two main types of sunflowers: single stem and branching. Single stem sunflowers do exactly what you think – they produce a single stem that is topped with one flower. When growing single stem varieties, like the Pro Cut series, you can plant the seeds close together (6 to 7 inches apart) to get more from your growing space, but expect smaller flowers. Those planted on a one-foot grid spacing will produce larger blooms. Single stem sunflowers last up to two weeks in water.

Branching sunflower varieties, on the other hand, yield plants that produce flowers over an extended season. The stems are generally not as strong as those of single stemmed sunflowers and they do take several weeks longer to flower. Personally, I like to plant some of each type so that I have a long harvest season and plenty of variety.

One last note about sunflowers – certain hybrids are pollenless and don’t drop pollen that can stain clothing and tablecloths. You may wish to grow these in your cut flower garden.

I love sunflowers! And to enjoy the longest season of the cheerful blooms, I plant fresh seeds every 2-3 weeks from late spring through mid-summer.

2. Celosia

I am a BIG fan of the velvety, long-lasting flowers of Celosia which come in a tempting palette of colors. Some species have feathery plumes, while others have rounded, folded combs and are also known as cockscomb. All make excellent cut flowers for homegrown bouquets.

Celosia takes a bit too long to go from seed to harvest to direct seed in my zone 5 garden and therefore I grow them from seedlings. You can grow the seedlings yourself or buy them from a local nursery. If you’re after a certain variety however, I’d recommend starting your own seeds indoors about eight weeks before the spring frost date. Chief Mix is a choice blend of cockscomb-types in bold shades of dark red, fuchsia, carmine, and gold.

Celosia is a heat-lover and wants a site with plenty of sun as well as compost enriched soil. The two to four foot tall, top-heavy plants benefit from sturdy support, so after planting it’s a good idea to erect horizontal netting over the bed to encourage tall, straight stems.

Chief Mix Celosia produces large, velvety cockscomb flowers held on 36 to 40 inch tall plants. (Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

3. Zinnias

If I could only grow one type of cut flower, it would be zinnias. I grow several species and at least a dozen varieties every summer in my veggie garden. Zinnias bloom all summer long, require little fussing, and have an incredible range of flower sizes and colors. Plus, they’re super fast from seed to bloom. That said, I still prefer to start them indoors so that I don’t have to wait as long for the show to begin.

To plant a bed of zinnias for cutting, space the seedlings around 10 inches apart and erect horizontal netting a foot above the ground. As the plants grow, they will grow up through the netting and not flop over in high winds or heavy rain.

Once zinnias have been flowering for a few weeks, the bloom size begins to diminish. Succession planting fresh seedlings every few weeks extends the crop of large, high-quality blooms. Cut flower farmers often pinch their zinnia plants to encourage longer stems. Zinnias should be pinched when they’re around a foot tall. Using clean pruners, remove the top few inches and cut back to a fresh set of leaves.

Grow a rainbow in your garden with zinnias! This cottage garden favorite is one of the easiest cut flowers to grow and can be direct seeded or transplanted after the risk of frost has passed. Benary’s Giant Mixed produces huge flowers up to six inches across in a variety of bright colors. (Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

4. Rudbeckia

While there are hardy perennial Rudbeckias, there are also some, like Rudbeckia hirta, that are grown as annuals. When started indoors and planted out after the last spring frost, this hardworking cut flower begins to bloom by mid-July and continues all summer long.

Like zinnias, these are super easy to grow, but unlike zinnias, they don’t need to be pinched to produce plenty of flowers. Cherokee Sunset mix yields large four to five inch diameter flowers in rustic red, orange, bronze, yellow, and gold. Many of the flowers are doubled, but there are also single and semi-doubled flowers too – a wonderful mix of flower colors and shapes.

With annual-grown Rudbeckias like Cherokee Sunset, you’ll enjoy huge four to five inch diameter flowers in rustic shades of red, orange, gold, and chocolate. (Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

5. Phlox

Phlox drummondii is an under-appreciated annual that produces charming clusters of dainty flowers. Some are dwarf plants, growing just a foot tall, while others grow up to two feet and make excellent cut flowers. My must-grow varieties include Art Shades Mix or Cherry Caramel which add old fashioned charm to bouquets.

Unlike most of the annual flowers I’ve featured, phlox does not transplant well and is often direct seeded in mid-spring, or as soon as the soil can be prepared. If you do wish to start the seeds indoors, use care when transplanting the seedlings to the garden and avoid disturbing the roots.

The ridiculously beautiful flowers of Cherry Caramel phlox have made it an in-demand variety for cut flower growers. (Photo Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

For further reading on how to grow a cut flower garden , check out the wildly popular book, Floret’s Farm Cut Flower Garden.

To learn more about growing beautiful flowers, check out the following articles:

  • Container plants for full sun
  • How to grow SunPatiens
  • 10 plants with showy blooms
  • How to grow bells of Ireland from seed

Are you going to grow a cut flower garden this year?

Perennials as Cut Flowers from Your Garden

Every garden should contain flowers that perform exceptionally as a garden plant, but also provide indoor pleasure as a cut flower. Without question, the primary cut flowers are sunflowers, zinnias and dianthus, but by adding seasonal perennials, your home grown flower arrangements take on a new dimension: a flower masterpiece.

Perennials are flowering machines. A single plant is usually covered with many flowers, making the flower harvest easy, and it does not impact the performance of your garden plant whatsoever. Perennial flowers have a very long vase life, often lasting a week or more. Perennials offer tremendous ranges of color from the softest white (Shasta daisy) to the most rich, deep red of echinacea (coneflower).

Perennials also supplement your home flower arrangement in a seasonal nature because they bloom at various times throughout the gardening season. Dianthus blooms early, echinacea and rudbeckia in mid-summer and asters in the fall. Your home grown flower arrangements change throughout the year, including winter where many perennials are exceptional for drying.

One of our favorite and best performing perennial cut flowers is the delphinium. Delphiniums bring stature and elegance to any flower arrangement because of their striking clear colors and upright habit. Filler flowers can be added in and around the delphiniums for an outstanding effect in vases.

URBANA, Ill. – As gardeners, many of us like to walk around our gardens and enjoy the beautiful flowers. So why not bring those beautiful bloomers indoors? There are many showy perennial flowering plants that would make excellent cut flowers to bring indoors in a vase, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“The most important thing to consider when choosing a perennial plant for a cut flower garden is the vase life of the flower,” states Candice Miller. “Some perennial flowers simply do not last long once cut from the plant. Daylilies, for example, have a very accurate name. The flower only lasts for a day, making it a poor choice for a cut-flower garden.”

When cutting flowers from a cut-flower garden, Miller cautions gardeners to get flower stems into water with a floral preservative as soon as possible. Floral preservative packets can be found at your local florist.

“Remove any foliage from the stems that will be underwater and place your vase in a cool location, away from direct sunlight or drafts,” Miller said. “Change your water every few days, adding new floral preservative each time. This will ensure a long vase life for your beautiful arrangement.”

Listed below is a selection of good perennial choices for a long-lived cut-flower garden in Illinois. These perennials will be easy to grow and the vase life of the flowers will be at least a week in most cases.

Spring Blooming

Alchemilla- Lady’s Mantle: Harvest when flowers are fully open

Aquilegia- Columbine: Harvest when flowers are just opening

Dianthus- Sweet William: Harvest when flowers are just opening

Helleborus- Lenten Rose: Harvest when flowers are just opening

Paeonia- Peony: Harvest when buds are just in color

Summer Blooming

Achillea- Yarrow: Harvest when pollen is just visible

Allium- Ornamental Onions: Harvest when one third of the florets are open

Astilbe- Astilbe: Harvest when flowers are half open

Echinacea- Cone Flower: Harvest when petals are expanding

Echinops- Globe Flower: Harvest when half globe is blue

Eryngium- Sea Holly: Harvest when flowers are fully open

Gypsophila- Baby’s Breath: Harvest when flowers are mostly open

Heliopsis- Ox-eye Daisy: Harvest when flowers are fully open

Liatris- Blazing Star: Harvest when top florets are open

Monarda- Bee Balm: Harvest when flowers are just opening

Rudbeckia- Cone Flower: Harvest when flowers are just opening

Sedum- Stonecrop: Harvest when most florets are opening

Fall Blooming

Aster- Asters: Harvest when flowers are mostly open

Dendranthema- Chrysanthemums: Harvest when flowers are mostly open

Solidago- Goldenrod: Harvest when a few florets are open

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/northwestillinoishorticulture.

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