April 6, 2013

Planning a Cut Flower Garden

A garden dedicated to just cut flowers, is a luxury any of us can have. All it takes is
some space, some planning and a little restraint and some knowledge about what is growable, and what isn't.

Planning the Ultimate Cut Flower Garden

I've been wanting to write a post about planning a cut-flower garden for such a long time, that whenever I start thinking about it, the subject becomes over-whelming, so I've decided to break up the subject into a few posts, starting with this one - on planning your cut-flower garden. Later this month, I will expand this into posts that cover  the annual cut flower garden ( the best annuals for cut flowers), the perennial cut-flower garden (with peonies and incredible blooming perennials), and the shrub cut flower garden ( for winter branches for forcing like quince, hydrangeas and flowering shrubs such as lilacs). Each will suggest ideas for foliage, color inspiration and some style boards. Please me know what you like ( or don't like!) about each of these few posts, and please share your ideas for what you imagine could be in your ultimate cut-flower garden.

It's easy to be tempted by planting the rainbow, but an un-thoughtful color palette can
end up like this ( my dahlia's from last year). Just 'ho-hum' colors, and a bit of a mess
when combined. With just a little planning, I could have had a much nicer selection.

Until recently, fresh cut flowers were considered a luxury,  a very 'Downton Abbey' practice, only planted on the great estates and private homes of the wealthy who could afford greenhouses and long rows of garden space just for product and cut fresh flowers. When I worked at an estate, we grew long rows of summer annuals just for cut flowers. Snapdragons, tall marigolds, gladiolus, scabiosa, tall, wiry cosmos in white and pink, and late blooming dahlias. These were all planted in a large vegetable garden where they could be grown and stalked tall, with no fear of the plants looking ugly after being cut for their flowers. On Fridays it was my job to pick the string beans and zucchini, and then to cut baskets of flowers in the early morning, arranging then long stems in buckets of cool water to harden them off, before carting them down to the potting shed where they would be arranged for weekend use throughout the home.  The home owners wanted very summery-feeling flowers, those mostly not available from commercial florists, but I learned alot those summers, about the realities of what grew well in gardens as cut flowers, and what didn't.

The top image shows one of my inspiration boards, and below is how I create a color palette which uses more growable
plant material for my own garden. Sure, Dutch bulb flowers such as French tulips and ranunculus provide a more
tender and fresh form, but I want to be able to cut flowers for most of the summer. Using these arrangements as
inspiration can still help you get more interesting flower arrangements this summer.
Last year, my coral and salmon flowers allowed me to create arrangements like thin. Poppies, sweet peas and
Godetia combine with green hydrangea to make a stylish composition.

Learning how to be realistic about what you can, and cannot grow.

First, the bad news: Most likely, the images you are saving use flowers not from someones garden, but  from a florist. This means that if you want to be able to go out into your garden to cut peach colored ranunculus, French Tulips, Anemones with black centers, gold Billy Buttons, Gerbera Daisies, and 'green trick' Dianthus - you are out of luck. There are many practical reasons why you cannot grow these flowers ranging from timing, to environment, copyright issues and growability, but yeah, you can't grow them.

 Yes, I know that you can find 4 inch pots of gerbera at The Home Depot right now, and beautiful forced pots of Ranunculus but it's just horticulturally impossible to grow these in most gardens throughout North America. These are intended for use only as temporary ( i.e. disposable) color and should be used only for short-term containers. If you live in southern California, or even in Oregon, you may be able to grow a broader range of these bulbous or South African winter or late spring blooming plants in your gardens, but as a cut flower crop, these are intended as greenhouse crops, and not as garden flowers, especially as cut flower garden flowers.

But here is the good news: You can use images of lovely arrangements from magazines, blogs and websites as inspiration. I do it all the time. It does take some knowledge and experience, as many photos of flowers, even in seed catalogs, can be misleading, resulting in you becoming extremely disappointed in the results, but I will try to share as much information here to help you overcome many of these un-truths.

Ombre Sweet Peas from last years' garden.

Here are three handy tips that will help you get that awesome cutting garden this spring.

1. Choose your Color Palette. Think: Ombre first, and then Complimentary colors.

This is the fun part. Make style boards with you favorite images based on color only. Pin images on Pinterest or bookmark ideas that make you swoon - but a word of caution - most likely, you will not be able to grow the same flowers in your own garden. Some advice here - commercial florist flowers are different than garden flowers, so pass on the Gerbera Daisies and Ranunculus that you will see available at your home center, these are not flowers that will live long in a home garden.

Beautiful color palettes are so important, since you most likely won't have alot of room. Your cutting garden should be separate from your flower gardens, many of us just use a raised bed or two in the vegetable garden, where we plant a few rows of dahlias, zinnias and other flowers like Cosmos.  Plan on a good selection of textures and tints so that you can make professional-looking arrangements. Wiry stems, bright colors and pale tints. You are essentially creating an artists palette in your garden. You may not be growing them in color order ( actually, I strongly suggest that you don't, rather you should grow your plants by height and environmental conditions), but you will be picking flowers, and assembling them in some order.

Each year I try to limit myself to two or three color palettes. Purples and magenta with lime green, orange, coral, tangerine and lime, black and white, smokey mauve's and dark violets - this is up to you, and this is the fun part. But again, you need to be realistic, and there will be limitations. The  easiest colors to time are magenta and pinks, as there are more flowers that bloom in these tints than any other color. Yellow is a close second. Many grow all white flowers, and others focus on elaborate color schemes - choose what you are most comfortable with.

If you have any questions, just drop me a line, and I will be more than happy to advise you ( I could even share your questions or concerns in another post if you want!).

2. Timing is key - be sure to grow flowers that will bloom at the same time.

It's kind of a no brainer for experienced gardeners, but if you are new, this is one of the hardest things to learn - selecting your flowers to those that will bloom at the same time may seem obvious, but it is often the last thing one thinks about when choosing colors.Imagine that you bookmarked and then ordered the perfectly coral peony imagining that you will combine it with a fuchsia Phlox and a peach tinted rose, you will be disappointed with the results ( mainly the fact that the peony will bloom for only 5 days out of the entire year, that the rose will bloom twice this summer in June, and that the Phlox will bloom for 3 weeks in late August). Timing plants that will bloom together  will allow you to actually assemble a bouquet on the same day. Simple.

This fact should make no difference what so ever for flowers being grown in a cut-flower garden, but I am mentioning this fact anyway, because it's one of the most common mistakes new gardeners make when choosing flowers - most flowering annuals and perennials are comprised of green leaves. You may have dreams of garden with lovely coral peonies and coral zinnia's, but the truth is that the coral peony will only bloom for about a week out of the entire year, and the zinnia plant may product a perfectly coral blossom on the end of a very green 2 foot long stem, with leaves that are wide and green - the over-all effect being a green, loose weedy shrub with dabs of salmon colored blossoms here and there, maybe 3 flowers open at the same time.

3. Don't forget Foliage

Tasteful and textural foliage separates the real talented floral stylist from the amateur flower arranger. The secret is this - never use the foliage from your garden flowers, instead, grow the foliage that fits your color scheme - Look, the first thing interns do at florists, is the dirty work. Early every morning they must unload the trucks, open the boxes of flowers, unwrap them, and then remove all of the foliage. Stripping the leaves off of the French Tulips, roses, ranunculus and Alstroemeria is a nasty task, but the senior floral designers and stylists don't care. They are only concerned with color and texture, and you should be too.

In your home cutting garden, you don't need to worry about the fact that a coral zinnia plant will look mostly green from a distance, as you will be removing all of the foliage from the stems once you cut them. Instead, you will be growing some plants just for their foliage. I will share with you the best home-grown foliage plants that you can grow as annuals, perennials, shrubs and even bulbs.

4. Location- Full Sun.

Position your cut flower garden away from the house, where you can't see it.
 In this way, you won't feel bad about cutting flowers. Sure, you can integrate plants into your flower beds, but you will have more freedom to cut what you want if you plan to have a few rows in the vegetable garden, or in a separate cutting garden.

5. Don't limit yourself to annuals.

Annuals are easy and fast, and they will bloom for most of the summer, but don't limit yourself to annuals, there are many perennials, biennial, even shrubs and tropicals that can, and should be planted in the cutting garden. Don't forget about bulbs, in fact, bulbs are some of the most commonly grown florist flowers, so it makes sense to grow them in the cutting garden too.

Planting shrubs will provide you with long, cut branched just for winter forcing. A row of tall-growing quince will provide you with a lifetime of long stemps which you can force into bloom starting in January, and if planted in a cutting garden, you can cut them to the ground every other winter as you harvest branches, without fear of ruining your landscape.  Don't forget about berried shrubs if you have the room. Some of these best are Viburnum species and Ilex verticilata for the Holiday's.

Bulbs like parrot tulips and those available as color-blends make great cutting garden material. Expensive, yes, but if you plant value packs you won't feel as bad when you pick them all for a massive arrangement. Don't forget summer bulbs like gladiolus, lilies and of course, dahlia's, which come in a rainbow of colors. These are some of the nicest cut flowers.

Perennials like Delphinium might be unrealistic for cut flower gardens, but I like to keep a few rows of daylilies, which I always have extra after dividing.  Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Liatris, Helenium, Echinops and many many other perennials make terrific summer cut flowers. I like phlox, but many people don't since they drop their flowers and can stain linens.

Foliage plants include grasses of all sorts, even corn can be used for it's long, green leaves which can be wrapped inside glass containers to hide stems. The same can be said for canna foliage, especially the colored type. Lime green is the floral stylist's first choice for foliage, so back to the shrubs again for a moment, you may want to plant some green-flowering hydrangea and viburnum, just for summer cutting. Lime green coleus, euphorbia 'summer snow' also can be planted.

Annuals which are good for cutflowers include, aster, cosmo, snapdragon, scabiosa (very long lasting), Lisianthus, strawflower and  Zinnia.


  1. Great article!

    While delphiniums may be somewhat unrealistic for a cut flower garden, I find that my plants (fairly old ones) make enough flowers that I can cut what I need from the landscape and no one is the wiser, as long as I leave that first, longed for spire alone and wait for the later ones!

    Do you know what that salmon colored zinnia is, at the lower left of the stylesheet (can't view the post from this page so I'm guessing here) I've grown Miss Willmott, but it is always darker than the one in the picture. I long for that color!

  2. Hi Laurie! I can't imagine what it would be like to be able to cut delphiniums for the house ( I grew a crop a few years ago, and they were tall and beautiful, but far to precious to cut - you are so lucky!). As for the zinnia, the variety on the lower left is Benary's Salmon Rose, available from Johnny's Selected Seeds. They carry separate colors, which is helpful. Good luck!

  3. I learned so much after reading this great article. I'm not a good floral stylist and I really need to gain more knowledge to improve and refine my creativity skills. Thanks for sharing! :-D

  4. This was a great post! I'm very good at looking at garden pix and figuring out what ideas might work in my garden. But until you said it, I realize I've never done it with those gorgeous floral bouquets. I look at them and know they contain flowers that don't bloom together etc. However, it never occurred to me to use them for color concepts etc. Thanks for a huge eye-opener. Your posts are always gorgeous and informative, but this one really hit home. Looking forward to the rest of your ideas on this topic.

  5. Hi Ms. Wis.
    Thank you so much for your nice words about my blog. It's always great to hear what people think. In many ways, florists have it so lucky, with essentially flowers from all over the world in bloom at the same time. But we gardeners can grow many plants that florists never could have.

  6. love this post & am so eager for the other installments!

    i think that so many people, whether they garden or not, don't realize that they may actually have actually have a cutting garden.

    i was born & raised in the south (transplanted 4 years ago to t he midwest). back in the day when i was growing up down south, when you had a big occasion that required something pretty in the house, you did not call a party planner or a florist. you foraged in yours & your friends' yards.

    everyone had hydrangeas, camellias, gardenias, various iris, glads, day lilies (only for daytime events), daffs & roses. there were magnolia trees that were used somewhat for their blooms, but mostly for the gorgeous greenery.

    and, greenery is what is often overlooked as an addition to the cutting garden. down south, of course the magnolias...but great, weedy vines that grew everywhere such as smilax & lace vine. lots of cultivated jasmines. you can make a great green arrangement just from these.

    here in the midwest, i do not have my magnolias or smilax...but, there are fabulous evergreen trees, ivy, viburnum, etc and, in the fall, tree limbs with brilliantly colored leaves.

    i wrote 500 paragraphs when i just should have said, you don't have to have a dedicated cutting garden in order to find cuttings to make beautiful arrangements. :)

  7. Nanne,
    your idea of creating arrangements from only garden flowers reminds me of my childhood too - when my mom would grow all of the flowers just for the house ( or for church, or for neighbors). I never saw florist flowers until I was a teenager, just assuming that everyone picked plant material from their gardens and woodland. Your southern plant material sounds so exotic to me, I'm a bit envious!! I also remember working at an estate as a teen, and the owner creating massive arrangements just with different colored foliage from trees and shrubs.

  8. Great post - really sums up my disappointment and my attempts to make a cutting garden that will yield flowers for pins I've collected. I would love to see recommendations on easy to grow groupings of flowers that bloom at the same time with pictures of flower arrangements that can be done with those groupings.


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