On The Garden Path

Flower Farming

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What could be nicer than fresh-cut flowers for the house? A bouquet of flowers enlivens a room and brings the garden inside. However, while many gardeners enjoy cutting and arranging flowers for the house, they hate to take blossoms away from their gardens. They're afraid to pick the flowers, because they're afraid there won't be any left in the garden.

The best solution to this problem is to plant flowers especially for cutting. Set aside a garden area, preferably one that's not in constant view, in which to grow blossoms for picking and bringing inside the house. Here, you will plant flowers chosen for their performance in the vase.

Planning your garden

A cutting garden doesn't have to be large. A 10-foot by 10-foot area planted with heavily blooming annuals will provide enough flower blossoms to assemble many bouquets. You might want to set aside a small area near your vegetable garden for growing cut flowers. If you don't have room for a separate cutting garden, simply plant a row or two of flowers for cutting amid your vegetables.

Most flowers suitable for cutting prefer full sun, so choose a sunny, well-drained area. Prepare the soil as you would any new garden bed, adding compost to improve the soil's nutrient levels. Eliminate all peren­­nial weeds and try to keep annual weeds to a minimum. If you have problems with animals that roam the neighborhood, a fence might be necessary. 

Although you won't be overly concerned with the appearance of the cutting garden, it's best to try to plant it in an orderly manner. For example, even if you're into a relaxed style of planting in the rest of your garden, it's a good idea to plant the cutting garden in rows. This will make weeding much easier, and you won't forget where the dahlias­ are supposed to come up. 

Choosing flowers

Generally, flowers with thicker petal textures last better in a vase than those with more delicate petals. However, while florists and commercial growers have to limit themselves to cut flowers that stand up to rough handling and extended transport times, home gardeners can plant whatever pleases their individual tastes.

The best flowers for home cutting gardens bear many blossoms that last well when cut on fairly long stems. Celosias, dahlias, gladiolus, sunflowers and zinnias are a few that have performed excellently in my garden.

Celosias (Celosia argentea varieties) are commonly known as cockscombs. There are two groups, some with brain-shaped flowerheads and others with plumes of blossom. Gold and red flowers are the most common. Celosias are easy to grow from seed, but you'll also find them as plugs at most garden centers.

Dahlias (Dahlia varieties) and gladioli (Gladiolus x hortulanus varieties) bear marvelous flowers for cutting and using indoors. Both are tender bulbs and should be planted outside only after the ground has begun to warm up in the spring.

Dahlias have round flowers on bushy plants, while gladioli have trumpet-shaped blossoms on tall spikes. If you choose a large variety of dahlia or gladiolus, you will need to stake the plants to keep them from flopping over. To do this, just drive a strong stake in the ground next to the plant. Do this when you put the plant in the ground, because if you wait until the plant has grown, you will probably skewer the bulb with your supporting stake.

Dahlias and gladioli are both available in an astonishing range of colors. You won't find them in pure blue or deep green, but they are available in every other shade imaginable. Bicolored blossoms - flowers marked with two or more colors - are especially valuable for cutting, as you get to examine the blossoms up close when they're brought indoors. 

Sunflowers (Helianthus annus varieties) are another flower that is great for cutting. However, some of the older types, especially those with enormous heads, drop yellow pollen all over. Breeders spent a lot of time working to develop pollenless strains, such as 'Fantasia' and 'Pastiche,' which are much easier to display indoors, because you don't have to worry about pollen stains.

Rather than choosing one of the huge-headed varieties, try picking a branching sunflower for your cutting garden. They produce many blossoms on long stems, which makes cutting them easy. In my garden, I've been pleased with 'Moulin Rouge,' a burgundy variety that is so dark, it actually looks black when seen in full sunlight.

Zinnias (Zinnia elegans varieties) have stiff petals and bear many blossoms over a long period. This makes them ideal for cutting gardens. I like 'Envy,' which is an iced-lime color and is very pleasant to use in a vase. Its color complements practically any flower companion.

The nice thing about zinnias is that you can plant specific color strains. If you want all reds or all yellows, sow a packet of your chosen color. Or buy a mix and get a bit of everything. Remember to space your zinnias far enough apart (a foot between each plant is about right) because better air circulation discourages, or at least delays, mildew.

Start small

These are only a few plants that work marvelously for a cutting garden. Eventually, you can branch out and incorporate hybrid tea roses into your cutting garden, as this is an excellent place for them. However, in the beginning, start with simple flowers that can be managed easily, and you'll be able to pick lots of blossoms for bouquets to brighten your home and your days.