Many homeowners face a dilemma when it comes to having lush beds of blooming flowers and shrubs. They want to have vases of blooms indoors, but they don’t want to ruin the look of the garden by creating gaps when they cut the flowers.
If you’re facing this choice, there’s a way to have the best of both worlds: Start a cutting garden.
Whereas garden beds and borders are designed for aesthetic appeal, you don’t have to worry about how a cutting garden looks. Its sole purpose is to produce blooms to beautify the indoors.
To create a cutting garden, just follow these five easy steps.
1. Select a location. The best site will be one that gets plenty of sun, has rich soil and drains well. An ideal site might be one that borders a vegetable or herb garden since the “crop style” planting purpose of the cutting garden and the vegetable/herb beds will complement each other. Other considerations for sites include sunny spots along the back boundary, in a corner that hasn’t been planted or behind or beside the garage. Small spaces can hold a lot of plants. As a general rule, a 3 by 6 foot bed will hold about 20 plants.
2. Plan the garden. Once you know the dimensions of the cutting garden and the sun angles of the new bed, you can draw a design based on plant heights and bloom times. Plan for dense plantings with a mixture of color, stem lengths and textures that will bloom in spring, summer and fall. Be sure to draw a plan that avoids gaps. Remember your goal: It’s to produce flowers to create great looks indoors, not in the cutting garden itself. Be creative in your design and be sure to include your favorite shrubs, annuals, perennials, herbs and bulbs.
3. Prepare the soil. The cutting garden should have the same rich soil as your other garden beds. Add humus in the form of compost, peat moss or chopped leaves to a depth of 8-10 inches to improve clay or sandy soil.
4. Plant the garden. Plant in rows according to your plan. This will provide for the easiest access and reduce the time and effort needed to weed, feed, thin, fertilize, deadhead and harvest. If you wind up with unintended gaps, fill in with annuals or herbs.
5. Cut the flowers. Finally the best part! This is where planning and preparation pay off. Use the colors, stem lengths, textures of the foliage and floral fragrances to create appealing arrangements to enjoy and to impress your guests.
If you don't have gardening space to add a cutting garden or want to include more plants in a cutting garden than you have room for, don’t worry. Just plant your favorite flowers and shrubs throughout the space you do have. Just don’t cluster them. By spreading out the flowers you are growing specifically for cutting in your existing beds, you won’t create gaps when you remove the blooms.
To help you get started, we’ve included a region-by-region guide to popular plants for cutting gardens. The lists below are not meant to be inclusive; they are just a sampling of the many varieties you could include in your own garden. And tell us which of your favorites we missed in the comments.
Annual: Zinnia. These garden staples come in an artist's palette of colors and are easily grown from seed in average garden soil. For continuous blooms, set out seed multiple times throughout the season. It’s important to cut the flowers often because this induces the plants to produce more flowers. When brought indoors and placed in vases, the flowers are long-lasting.
Perennial: Sunflower. Several species — H. salicifolius (native to the Midwest and Western United States) and H. angustifolius (native to the Southeast) — grow quite well in the South. Each species has some well-known cultivars. When brought indoors, all of them will brighten a room with their bold and colorful displays. Cut the stems at 45 degrees under running water and at various lengths. Place the tallest stem in the center and arrange the shorter stems around it. Or, for a dramatic statement, place one large flower in a vase by itself.
A vase of blue hydrangeas is an incredibly Southern array. (Photo: Muffet/flickr)
Shrub: Hydrangea. Nothing says “The South” like an arrangement of blue hydrangeas in June and July. To prolong the beauty of the fresh-cut blooms and keep them from wilting, cut the flower heads in the morning. Take a bucket of water with you and immediately plunge the stems into the water. Indoors, boil water and pour it into a container. Cut the hydrangea stems to the desired length, stand them in the water for 30 seconds and immediately put them into a vase of room temperature water and arrange for effect.
And there are plenty of others including cosmos, celosa, anemones, camellias, calendula, salvia (such as S. leucantha), tagetes (such as T. lucida) and liatris. (Suggestions from the Atlanta Botanical Garden)
The globe amaranth blooms from summer through the end of autumn. (Photo: yoppy/flickr)
Annual: Gomphrena. This punchy little flower is almost too good to be true. Thriving in full sun and heat, this choice annual grows well even in poor soil. Commonly called globe amaranth, gomphrena blooms nonstop from summer into the end of autumn. Cultivars like Strawberry Fields and Fireworks will not disappoint. Best used at the edge of the garden for their low-growing and wiry habit, gomphrena also makes an excellent dried flower.
Perennial: Allium. Tough as nails and undeniably reliable, everyone should try at least one of the flowering onions. Globular flowers appear from late spring into summer, and almost all are suitable for cutting. Globemaster, Mount Everest and the classic Purple Sensation are excellent cultivars. The straight species Allium christophii is also a showstopper. Not to be forgotten are groundcover types such as the low-growing but long-blooming Allium Summer Beauty.
Shrub: Hydrangea. Absolutely the best shrub for cut flowers. The best of the best is a herbaceous cultivar like Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle or a cultivar good for coppicing such as Hydrangea paniculata Tarvida or Limelight. (Coppicing is a type of pruning in which trees or shrubs are cut back to a stump to promote new growth.) Prune to the ground or to the coppiced trunk in early spring when buds begin to swell. You will be rewarded in the summer with long stems, each with a beautiful bloom.
And there are plenty of others including Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire, Viburnum macrocephala, Ilex Winter Gold and Winter Red, Asiatic lilies, tulips, Convallaria majalis, panicum, narcissus, Heuchera villosa Autumn Bride, hellebores, aquilegias, echinacea, rudbeckia (many different types), hostas, perennial sunflowers, Eryngium giganteum, Eupatorium maculatum Gateway, Coreopsis tripteris, brunnera, Alchemilla mollis, Dicentra spectabilis, Scabiosa Ace of Spades, Verbena bonariensis, Emilia coccinea Scarlet Magic, zinnias, dahlias, Lagurus ovatus, cosmos, Salvia involucrata Mulberry Jam. (Suggestions from Chanticleer)
Annual: Lupines. When three-quarters of the florets are open, cut the flowers in the morning before they have been pollinated. Flowers cut before the heat of the day and before they have been pollinated last longer than flowers cut after the temperatures have started rising and pollinators become active. Take a bucket of lukewarm water to the garden, set it out of the sun and place the cut stems in the water immediately after cutting. The stems are hollow and stiff and keep the flower spikes erect in arrangements, especially if any leaves below the water line are removed (leaves in water tend to speed up decay).
Perennial: Red hot poker. The tall, strong stems of Kniphofia and the brilliantly colored eight-inch flower spikes in uniform warm shades of yellow, orange and red make this showy garden plant an excellent choice for cut flower growers who are looking for something different, especially something with a tropical look.
Lilacs have an unforgettable fragrance. (Photo: greenplasticamy/flickr)
Shrub: Lilac. It’s hard to beat lilacs for early season cut flower arrangements because of their wonderfully sweet fragrance. Fill a vase with water and put a flower frog or other heavy object in the bottom of the vase to keep the heavy stems and flowers from toppling the vase over. Smash the bottom of the stems with a hammer to help them draw up water and immediately place them in the vase. The flowers are not long lasting when cut, maybe just four or five days, but you’ll remember the fragrance for much longer.
And there are plenty of others including coleus, Verbena bonariensis, tropical grasses such as purple sugar cane, foxgloves, delphiniums, Asiatic lilies, coneflowers, sunflowers, Erigeron, shrub roses (Rosa Therese Bugnet), Hydrangea arborescens, staghorn sumac (because of its fuzzy branches). Spruces and pines that dominate the Maine forests hold up particularly well in arrangements and add a homey natural feel to arrangements. For an unusual twist, mix contorted white birch branches in the bouquets to give arrangements a subtle pop. (Suggestions from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens)
Don't worry, we're not done yet. If you don't see your region covered here, check out part II.