Photo by Pamela T. Hubbard
You can solve this problem by creating a flower garden specifically for cutting. I will explain how to construct and care for a cutting garden using flowers most suitable for the Pennsylvania.
Thinking Beyond Annuals
We tend to associate cutting gardens with annuals like zinnias and snapdragons, but you should consider perennials and woody plants, too. You need flower varieties with long, sturdy stems and blooms that last a long time in a vase. I also like to include fragrant blossoms in my bouquets, as scent is often missing from store-bought flowers. When buying from a plant catalog or purchasing seeds, you can find varieties best suited for cutting by looking for the scissors icon.
Choosing the Best Flowers for Cutting
At the Penn State research farm in Landisville, the College of Agricultural Sciences trials flowers for cutting. Here are ten of my favorites from their list of those best suited for our state: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer'), yarrow (Achillea millefolium 'Summer Pastels'), Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum 'Giant Marconi'), bachelor's button (Centaurea macrocephala and C. delbata 'Aloha Rose'), calendula (Calendula officinalis 'Indian Prince'), celosia (Celosia 'Cramer's Amazon'), cosmos (Cosmos Versailles Series), dahlia (Dahlia Karma® Series), snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus Rocket Mix), and zinnia (Zinnia elegans Benary's Giant Mix.)
Other favorites of mine include sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), ladies' mantle (Alchemilla mollis), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'), globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa 'QIS Purple'), sunflower (Helianthus annuus 'Double Quick Orange'), and larkspur (Delphinium Pacific Giant Mix.). Woody plants suitable for cutting are roses (Rosa spp.), lilac (Syringa vulgaris 'Sensation'), Pinky Winky®) hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'DVP PINKY'), and forsythia (Forsythia spp.) Your choices should continue into fall with bloomers such as goldenrod (Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks'), blue spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis Sapphire Surf™), and hardy garden mums (Chrysanthemum 'Sheffield Pink'). I believe, however, the best fall flower for vases is the dahlia listed previously.
Preparing the Site
If you don't have available space, you can grow your cutting garden in pots. Use annuals in containers because you can pack them together better than most perennials. Otherwise, pick a sunny, well-drained site and work in plenty of compost. My cutting garden is part of my vegetable garden, but you can locate it in any sunny corner of your yard. Every other year test your soil fertility with a soil test kit from the Extension office, and then use the results you receive from Penn State to add the recommended amendments. Your flowers will last longer when cut if they have proper soil nutrition.
Planting Your Cutting Garden
Like a vegetable garden, the purpose of a cutting garden is productivity, so the flowers may be planted in widely spaced rows to allow for easy maintenance. You need not be concerned with color combinations or how the plants look together. It is a good idea to plant flowers with similar requirements of sun, water, and drainage together. Do not place taller plants where they will shade out shorter ones.
Maintaining the Cutting Garden
- Make sure the growing plants receive sufficient water. Use a drip, trickle or soaker hose that places moisture at the root system to minimize disease and rot problems.
- Discourage weeds and retain water by spreading a two- to three-inch layer of mulch around the plants when they are a few inches tall. You can mulch with straw, shredded newspaper, or leaves.
- Cut the flowers frequently. This will encourage the plant to keep producing blooms.
- Remove blossoms when they fade (this is called deadheading) to prevent the formation of seeds. Seed creation slows down flower production.
- Fertilize at peak times of flowering; I use a diluted solution of liquid seaweed.
- When the plants stop flowering, pull them out, lightly cultivate the bed and replant. For example, replace dying spring flowers with summer bloomers.
Harvesting and Arranging the Flowers
- The best time to harvest is in the early morning when the dew has dried and before the heat of the day.
- Harvest each flower when its buds are just starting to open, or have recently opened, and put the cut stems in tepid water immediately.
- Strip off the leaves and thorns because when submerged this plant tissue will decay and shorten the life of your arrangement.
- Put clean water in the vase.
- The flowers will last longer in acidic water. Use a floral preservative following the directions on the packet. Floral preservatives contain carbohydrates (sugars) that help open buds, kill bacteria, and keep the water clear. Don't add extra water that will reduce the effectiveness of the floral preservative. An over-diluted solution of the floral preservative has enough sugars to feed the bacteria, but it does not contain enough bactericide to control them, resulting in a shorter vase life.
- Re-cut each stem prior to placing it in the vase to expose fresh tissue that will better take up water. Cut off approximately ½ inch under water in a bowl in the sink, and immediately place it in the vase.
- Check the water level daily. Recut stems and replace with fresh water every few days.
When arranging flowers, a bouquet should be about three times as tall as its vase. Select three types of flowers for your arrangement: bold blossoms (sunflowers, hydrangeas, peonies, roses, zinnias, or dahlias) to make a statement; spiky blooms (delphinium, foxglove, or salvia) to add height and drama; and airy flowers (catmint, ladies' mantle or even the flower or seedheads of dill) for filling. My flower arrangements are very simple, casual even, reflecting the style of my cottage garden.
Indulge yourself with ever-changing combinations of flowers inside your home. They will give you months of enjoyment.