By Christin Geall
Few pleasures exceed that of cutting and arranging your own flowers. Fresh and whimsical or bold and bright, a posy of homegrown blooms brings the pleasure of the garden indoors. Creating a cutting garden may mean you focus on growing a few flower varieties or, if space allows, you might plant a collection of old-fashioned favourites, but it needn’t be a large job. Creating a cutting garden can often be a matter of perspective.
When we think of “flower beds,” two visions usually come to mind: Victorian installations in bright colours such as you might see on the lawn of a hotel, and the classic English border awash in bloom. As a perennial gardener (in both senses of the word), I designed my borders in the English style as if I were creating a tableau: a shifting set of plant characters would appear “on stage” for a period of time before fading out to another’s glory. I sweated over colour harmony, the balance of foliage and flower, and moved plants regularly, trying to get my displays “just right.” In time, I got bored — both of my fussing and my garden.
Cut flowers changed my entire approach to gardening. I gave myself permission to snip. I grew flowers in abundance, with the zeal of the born-again, tucking in dahlias here and cosmos there, planting rows of colour — my garden has never looked better. I now grow cut flowers for bouquets, brides and design clients from March to November.
Getting Started: Think Year-Round
A cutting garden needn’t be a swath of summer colour followed by bare earth. The most productive cutting gardens contain a mix of annuals (plants that go from seed to flower in one year and then die), shrubs, vines and perennials (plants that live year to year).
In our climate, it’s possible to plan blooms for almost every season. For example, let’s imagine you have a small sunny area to cultivate flowers. Cool-season (a.k.a. hardy) annuals like sweet peas or Icelandic poppies can be started from seed early in the spring. After harvest in early summer, these plants can be replaced by heat-loving dahlias and zinnias, which bloom until frost. If you have the means to cover your bed with clear plastic or landscape cloth on cold winter nights, you can lift out your dahlias and plant more flowers again in October. I grow anemones and ranunculus through the winter and pull them after flowering in May.
Using this system, you can maximize productivity by turning over your cutting garden at least twice a year. If you don’t fancy such an intensive approach, try adding perennials such as hellebores, peonies, roses, irises and late-flowering Rudbeckia to broaden your seasonal palette. Dig in tulip bulbs every fall for more spring blooms, pulling the entire plant up (bulb and all) when harvesting.
3 Easy Flowers for Sun
All of these are “cut-and-come-again” flowers, delivering bounteous blooms if you keep them picked:
1. Dahlias If you’re not keen on sowing seeds or only have a patio to work with, try to get to the Victoria Dahlia Society’s annual sale in Fairfield on April 8 to buy tubers and plants. Dahlias are excellent long-lasting cut flowers, and bloom from summer through to frost. Grow them as you might a tomato.
2. Zinnias These cheery old-fashioned flowers are making a comeback. Look for new varieties like Queen Red Lime (pictured here) or the Oklahoma series, which aren’t as brash as the old standards.
3. Sweet Peas There’s no better flower for a scented posy. Start your sweet peas now as they hate heat. I pre-sprout mine, first soaking the seeds for 24 hours, then tucking them in a damp paper towel until they germinate (a tiny sprout will emerge). I then pot them up or pop
them in the ground. Sweet peas need to climb; I use T-posts and deer netting (mine reach seven feet in a season). Try to have your set-up ready at planting time. I pinch the plants back when they are about four inches tall, which promotes branching. Note: If you’re too busy to get your sweet peas in now, buy seeds anyway and mark your calendar to sow them in early October. They can withstand light freezing, and you will earn extra early blooms.
Tend Your Soil
The great garden writer Beverley Nichols once said, “Light in the garden is a quarter of the battle. Another quarter is the soil of the garden. A third quarter is the skill and care of the gardener. The fourth quarter is luck. Indeed, one might say that these were the four L’s of gardening, in the following order of importance: Loam, Light, Love, Luck.” Nichols has it right: soil should be your first priority.
I scraped out one of my first gardens as a university student under the eaves of a rented house, expecting the earth would issue forth a bounty with only water, sunlight and hope. I’ve since come to understand the vital importance of soil and tend mine dearly.
Good news first: Flowers generally do not require the high fertility that vegetables do. Not so good news: you may spend more time caring for your soil than your flowers. Another way to look at this is to think in terms of investment and return. If you invest in soil tilth and fertility, your plants will be happier and healthier and demand less of you. And they’ll deliver more blooms.
Use a complete organic fertilizer (Borden Mercantile makes a good blend) when prepping your patch or transplanting young plants into an established border. Dahlias are heavy feeders, and sweet peas (though they fix nitrogen) still benefit from added nutrients. Gardening isn’t as easy as just sprinkling seeds or planting bulbs. So also dig in well-rotted compost or seasoned manure before you plant. I avoid the popular sea soil and opt for composted animal manure, leaf mulch and homemade compost instead. Composts bring air and nutrition into tired soils. Dig them in and try not to tread on your soil after you’ve amended it; if drainage is an issue consider raising the height of your bed.
Smell the Roses
Cutting gardens bring you closer to the earth in two ways: literally, as you sow and tend and pick, and also by reducing your carbon footprint. The majority of commercial flowers are flown in from the southern hemisphere or farmed unsustainably. Plus, naturally grown flowers are more exciting to work with in floral design. As cutting-garden guru Sarah Raven says, “Commercial flowers are bred for their regularity and reliability, not for their relaxed, blowsy, open look, scent and character.”
For flower lovers, the scent, freshness and uniqueness of a local bloom is a wonder. But to walk outside and pick a bouquet of flowers you have sown, planted and tended is nothing short of wonderful.
• The best time to cut fresh flowers is morning, when cool night air and morning dew means stems are filled with water and firm to the touch. Keep a pail of water handy to put the flowers in when harvesting. Make sure you do this immediately.
• Use sharp knives, clippers or scissors for cutting, but don’t use ordinary household scissors, which are designed to cut paper. They often crush stems and prevent appropriate water uptake.
• Cut flowers about one inch from the bottom of a large stem at about a 45-degree angle. This exposes more of the stem to water, allowing for better uptake. The stem will stand on a point so water isn’t blocked from the cut surface.
• Remove any foliage that would be submerged in water to prevent bacterial growth that shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell bad.
• Flowers need carbohydrates, biocides and acidifiers to survive, so using preservatives can increase the life of your flowers in the vase. Online, you’ll find many easy recipes for making your own preservatives. Some even contain vodka!