This article by Susy Morris originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Northern Gardener.
With farmers’ markets overflowing with beautiful bouquets of local flowers, it seems everyone is thinking about adding a cutting garden. Even a small 4-by-4 foot bed (see drawing below) can yield more than enough blooms, especially if you choose varieties with a long flowering season and a long vase life. Augment these cut flowers with perennials from the border and unusual fillers like ninebark branches, hosta leaves and feathery grass tops for extra interest and fuller bouquets.
Follow these 10 tips to grow your own arrangements.
Choose a color palette. Having a selection of flowers that complement each other makes it easier to harvest bouquets frequently and it takes the guesswork out of arranging. I favor dark pinks, purples, and lime greens, so the majority of my cutting garden is planted in flowers in these colors. For ideas about what to plant, check out this post.
Start small. A cut flower garden can be a joy, but it also adds work. Flowers must be cut regularly to keep blooming. A 4-foot square bed will allow 12 to 16 plants, which is enough to produce a couple of bouquets each week, especially if augmented with perennials from borders. A cutting garden of this size requires about half hour of work each week.
Keep it simple. Plant a few items that flower for a long season such as cosmos, dahlias, zinnias, cerinthe, snapdragons and rudbekias. Focus on annuals in the beginning, then add bulbs and perennials.
Maintain it like a vegetable garden. Cutting gardens should be weeded regularly to reduce competition, watered during dry spells and cut regularly. Fertilize with a diluted liquid seaweed at transplant and every two weeks or so during the season to increase blooms.
Add support. Spend a few minutes supporting plants to ensure straighter stems, which makes for easier arranging. Snapdragons and gladiolus can be unruly when not staked. Stake each plant individually if there aren’t many, or use netting stretched between four stakes so plants grow up through the netting on larger plantings.
Harvest as plants open. For the longest vase life, many flowers should be harvested right as they’re opening and when the weather is cool but they aren’t wet. Allow dew to dry before harvesting. Take a bucket or jar of water to the garden and put flowers in it as soon as they’re cut. Strip off lower leaves so no leaves are in the water (this prevents rot) and cut stems longer than needed. It’s easy to trim more off.
Arrange outside. There’s no right way to make a bouquet. Usually I build mine right in the garden, cutting flowers of each variety and adding them to the vase as I cut. Cut large flowers first as the focal point, then fill in with smaller blooms, followed by greenery to fill in any gaps. If I’m making multiple bouquets, I harvest each variety into a different jar, carry them back to an outdoor table and arrange them there. Cutting and arranging flowers can be messy, so it’s better to do it outside. For structured bouquets, there are special wire inserts for vases (or you can use a loose ball of chicken wire). These allow more control and help keep flowers in place.
Fear not! Assembling bouquets can seem daunting, especially if you don’t feel gifted creatively. If you’ve selected flowers that complement each other in color, they will look great simply gathered and popped into a vase. Or, fill vases with one variety for a simple, stunning arrangement.
Feel no guilt. Don’t feel guilty about cutting perennials to supplement bouquets; most perennials do better with some cutting and deadheading.
Extend the enjoyment. To extend the life of bouquets, keep them out of direct sunlight and in a cool room. That being said, don’t hide them away. Enjoy what you’ve grown! To extend vase life, change water daily and recut stems every two days, if you wish. I usually just gather a new bouquet when the old one starts to look peaked. Flower food may extend vase life a day or two, but I rarely use it.
As northern gardeners, we need to get as much out of our short, sweet gardening season as we can. Bringing flowers indoors‑even a single rose in a tiny vase—will bring a smile to your face each time you see it and remind you why you garden.
What to plant in your garden? Check this post.
Photographer and writer Susy Morris gardens in Maine