Bright, beautiful flowers drew me to gardening many years ago. I wanted their diverse shapes, colors, and scents in all my planting beds, and their blossoms for the house—enough to fill a vase in every room. But how could I nurture seedlings, only to whack off their stems just as they came into bloom for vases? Compounding my dilemma was my small garden—a dozen tall zinnias in a border took up valuable real estate, and cutting them would create a void.
How to plan and plant a flower garden?
After moving to a larger home with a huge yard, I had enough room for a cutting garden—a separate space dedicated to growing flowers for the house—where I could harvest with abandon. I decided to focus on annuals, so every year would be an experiment (a clean slate also makes yearly soil amendment and cultivation easier).
How to choose the right flowers to plant?
The first lesson I learned was that it doesn’t take much room to grow abundant flowers as long as you choose the right plants and organize your space. My four beds are only ten by five foot (three by 1.5 meters) each, but they provide more than enough bouquets for me and my friends (a jam jar full of pretty blooms is much more welcome than a bag of warty zucchini).
My second lesson was realizing that a cutting garden doesn’t need to look practical and straightforward or chaotic and messy. A well-designed plot is a beautiful addition to the landscape.
Practical Flowers in Your Garden
Most flowering annuals require full sun to grow straight and sturdy and produce masses of blooms. Because a cutting garden is a high-production enterprise, well-drained, nutrient-rich soil in good tilth is needed. Each fall, I spread some eight to 10 centimeters of shredded leaves on top of the empty beds and follow with a layer of compost. In spring, this is dug into the soil, and the grounds are raked smooth.
My four raised beds are bottomless boxes made from untreated 1×8 cedar boards and metal hinges. The soil in raised beds warms up more quickly in spring, enabling me to plant or seed slightly earlier. It’s also vital to locate a cutting garden away from greedy tree roots and on a reasonably level site to avoid runoff; make sure your garden hose can reach the area.
Flower Garden Design and Layout
Two 36 inch (90-centimeter) wide paths lined with landscape fabric and topped with shredded cedar mulch cross between the four beds. A six-foot (1.8-meter) tall wooden obelisk acts as a focal point; short, clipped boxwoods surround the area’s perimeter and camouflage the boards. The obelisk and boxwoods also provide winter interest when the beds are bare. I don’t recommend a planting area wider than 1.5 meters—it’s impossible to reach into the middle to weed, stake, or cut without stepping onto the soil.
Well-defined beds also visually rein in what can become an avalanche of colors and shapes by the end of summer. To avoid a mishmash of competing hues, I concentrate on a few combinations each year, making it easier to design floral arrangements.
For a more orderly look, I plant in short rows. This makes it simple to reach between plants to weed (anything not in the row is likely a weed) and stake and place soaker hoses. The rows are closer than recommended because I don’t need to walk between them—I just reach in from the outside.
Tall plants are generally situated on the north side, so they don’t end up shading others. The shortest plants are on the outside edges of the beds.
How to grow tall flowers?
There’s no point in growing tall flowers only to have them fall on their pretty faces from wind or the weight of their blooms. Staking after the fact doesn’t work—trust me. Begin staking as soon as plants are about 20 centimeters tall. As they grow, add more ties farther up. Bushier plants such as cosmos, African marigolds, and zinnias may need two or three stakes—or use tomato cages. For dahlia tubers, insert two or three sturdy supports at planting time.
I use plastic-coated rebar and bamboo poles between three and five-foot (90 centimeters and 1.5 meters) long, and soft, wide ties with which I make a figure eight—the ideal way to secure a slim stem to a stake.
Feeding, Watering and Weeding your Flowers
Young plants from cell packs and those started indoors get a dose of transplanter solution when they get moved into a bed. Direct-sown seedlings are fed with a phosphorus-rich, water-soluble fertilizer when they’re about four inches (10 centimeters) tall, and everything gets another boost midway through the season.
Soaker hoses laid on top of the soil, deliver water to the root zones. My network of hoses is attached to a timer, so I can leave for several days and not worry about thirsty plants.
It’s no surprise that well-cultivated, nutrient-rich soil is a haven for weeds. While close planting does benefit from shading soil, it makes laying down mulch problematic, which I also don’t want shifting up against plant stems, where it could induce rot. Without mulch, weeding is a weekly activity, but young weeds are easy to remove.
From Flower Garden to Vase
Pick flowers in the early morning, when stems are full of water and unstressed from the midday heat.
Take a tall bucket with cold water with you and immerse stems as you gather.
Cut to just above a side branch; it will grow and produce flowers in a week or so.
Recut stems just before arranging in a vase filled with water and floral food.
Strip leaves from the portion of the stem that will be below water. (Or strip the bottom leaves when cutting outdoors.)
Use clean vases and change the water every few days.
Place arrangements out of the direct sun and on a cool surface.
Include leaves, branches, ornamental grasses, vines, and berries in floral arrangements for contrast and interest.
Flowers that make the cut.
Choose annuals that grow to 12 inches or more (30 centimeters); long stems allow for various arrangements. I plant zinnias and dahlias every year because they come in luscious colors and last for up to two weeks in a vase. Here are my favorites.
African marigolds, ageratum, bachelor’s buttons, calendula, celosia, China asters, cleome, climbing nasturtium, cosmos, globe amaranth, gloriosa daisies, love-in-a-mist, love-lies-bleeding, salvias, snapdragons, strawflowers, sunflowers, sweetpeas and zinnias
Callas, dahlias, and gladioli
Garden Grown Everlastings
On a wet, miserable January day at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I turned a corner and found spring. In front of me was row after row of brilliant blooms—rich purples and cheerful yellows, vibrant reds, soft pinks, white, cream—everlastings in various colors. I was captivated. What gardener wouldn’t be?
By definition, everlastings are flowers or herbs that retain their color and form long after they’ve dried. People sometimes group plant material dried in glycerin or silica in the same category. Still, here I specifically discuss garden-grown flowers that can be air-dried quickly and with little fuss.
Everlastings are beautiful and versatile. They provide cheer when the rest of the blooming world lies dormant and can be used in everything from table arrangements and potpourri to wreaths and bouquets. Since plants are harvested at their peak, they always look good, and there’s no worry about bloom times or rain spots, bug damage, or stunted growth.
Everlastings can be annuals, perennials, or biennials. Many are easy to grow from seed. Given that they come from many different families, growing conditions vary. However, Cynthia Cook, owner of Forest Glen Herb Farm in Lambton Shores, Ontario, says everlastings generally do best in well-drained, clay-free soil. “They also need at least half a day of sun and lots of heat to develop their flowers,” she adds.
Positioning them in the garden, though, can be challenging. While some everlastings, such as larkspur or cockscomb celosia, enhance the landscape, others, like strawflowers, have less impact. Another challenge: if you plan to harvest your crop every few weeks over the summer instead of just at the end of the season, you could be left with unattractive gaps in your garden bed. Cook recommends planting everlastings among fragrant herbs (the herbs don’t provide much color, but the everlastings do) or as a cutting border to an annual flower garden. Most annuals continue to produce flowers all summer when picked regularly.
Harvesting and Drying Everlastings
Most everlastings should be picked when their flowers are short of full bloom and not wet from rain or watering. Generally, late morning is best (after the dew dissipates but before the midday heat) or dusk. Check plants daily. Many open quickly once they begin to bloom; some continue to open after they’re picked.
Drying is easy if you remember a few key points: Everlastings should be hung (or placed) in a humid-free spot away from direct light and, ideally, somewhere with air movement to speed the process. Cook uses her dark, dry barn, but urban dwellers need to get creative. A warm, dark laundry room or airy garage can be ideal. Basements may work, depending on airflow and dampness (mine is dry and breezy in late summer, so it’s perfect). Kitchens might be an option, too.
Handle everlastings with care. They are more fragile fresh than dried. Hang them upside down. Group them loosely together with elastic bands. Tying them too tightly hinders air circulation and distorts and crushes their shape. Flowers can also be dried upright in cases, jars, or tin cans. Stretch chicken wire across the opening and insert the stems into the holes to keep blooms separated. Most everlastings dry in one to three weeks or longer, depending on bloom size, moisture content, and drying conditions.
Charlotte Azalea, the owner of La Petite Bouquet, Rose, Idaho, lists these “must-haves” for the flower garden:
- Immortelle looks good all season and is long-lasting
- Winged everlasting white offers a nice contrast
- Globe amaranth intense color and easy to grow
- Cockscomb celosia fabulous texture and color
- Statice resilient and dependable
Olivia Garcia, owner of Flowers Forever in Boisy, names these essentials for flower arranging:
- Kiwi (Actinidia spp.) or grape vine (Vitis spp.), to create loops and frames
- Love-in-a-mist seedheads for bi-colored beauty and structure
- Sweet Annie because it’s delicate-looking and scented
- Lavender (Lavandula cvs.) for color and fragrance
- Northern sea oats seedheads (Chasmanthium latifolium) for movement
Yarrow (Achillea filipendulina and A. millefolium)
Perennial, Zone 2
Description: Large, flat flower clusters in every color except blue bloom all summer atop fern-like foliage; 24 inches to six feet X 24 inch to four feet (60 cm to 1.8 m x 60 cm to 1.2 m)
Cultivation: Full to part sun; tolerates most soils; water during drought for continuous bloom; stake tall varieties. Divide plants every three years to maintain vigor. Starter plants are more reliable than seed
Harvest: When buds just open and flowers are firm, stems strengthen as they dry. Golden blooms retain color; pastels may darken.
Winged everlasting (Ammobium alatum) – Annual
Description: Small, pure white, straw-textured flowers with yellow centers; 12 inches to four feet x 12 inches to two feet (30 cm to 1.2 m x 30 to 60 cm)
Cultivation: Full sun; rich, sandy loam. Start indoors in mid-March; needs heat to germinate. Dislikes cool, wet weather
Harvest: Before flowers reach full bloom—they will open as they dry
Wormwood (Artemisia spp.) – Shrubby perennial, Zone 2
Description: Small, yellow flowers on feathery, grey-green foliage; 30 cm to 1.2 m x 30 to 90 cm
Cultivation: Full sun; average to poor soil. Established plants are drought tolerant; cut back in late fall or early spring
Harvest: When plants are bushy and in full bloom (right up until first light frosts)
Sweet Annie (A. annua) – Annual
Description: Strongly scented, lacy, almost frilly foliage; tiny, yellow flowers; 1.2 to 1.8 m x 90 cm to 1.5 m
Cultivation: Full sun; average to poor soil. Seed indoors in early March (can be slow to germinate) or direct-sow a few weeks before the last frost date
Harvest: See wormwood, above
Celosia (Celosia argentea, Cristata, Plumosa and Spicata Groups) – Annual
Description: Brilliant burgundy-, red-, orange- or pink-crested flowers shaped like coral, rooster’s combs, spikes, or plumes; 12 inches to four feet x two feet to three feet (30 cm to 1.2 m x 60 to 90 cm)
Cultivation: Full sun; well-drained soil. Seed indoors early- to mid-March or direct-sow after soil is warm (at least 65 Fahrenheit or 18 Celsius). Very tender
Harvest: When flowers are fully formed
Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) – Annual
Description: Large, clover-like blooms in cream, pink, red or deep wine; 15 cm (dwarf); 60 to 90 cm (standard) x 30 to 90 cm
Cultivation: Full sun; rich, well-drained soil. Seed indoors early to mid-March; allow two weeks for germination. Plant outdoors when daytime temperatures are consistently 21°C or higher. Drought tolerant
Harvest: When flowers are fully formed, and the color is intense; blooms get larger as the season progresses.
Statice (Limonium sinuatum) – Annual
Description: White, pink, yellow, purple or pastel shades of rose, peach, or salmon. Blooms on stiff, deeply ribbed stems; 12 inches or 30 cm (dwarf); 2.5 feet tall (75 cm) x one foot (30 cm)
Cultivation: Full sun; sandy loam. Seed indoors early
to mid-March (may take two weeks to germinate). Blooms mid- to late summer
Harvest: To keep plant producing, pick individual stems when three-quarters of the flowers are open
Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) – Annual
Description: Violet, blue, pink or white flowers; delicate, misty foliage; balloon-shaped seed pods; 30 to 40 cm x 7 to 15 cm
Cultivation: Full to part sun; average soil with good drainage. Direct-sow in early spring or fall for germination the following spring. Flowers midsummer to frost
Harvest: To encourage bloom, deadhead spent flowers but leave on when ready to harvest pods; cut pods when firm yet closed. Photo by Kaldari
Immortelle (Xeranthemum annuum) – Annual
Description: Double, daisy-shaped, papery, white, pink or lilac blooms, mostly yellow centers; strong stems with silver-green foliage; up to 60 cm x 30 to 40 cm
Cultivation: Full sun. Seed indoors early to mid-March (direct-sown seed can be slow to germinate). Drought tolerant; needs support in windy sites
Harvest: Pick flowers regularly for continuous production
Strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum syn. Helichrysum bracteatum) -Annual
Description: Small, stiff, mum-shaped flowers on weak stems in red, yellow, gold, salmon, bronze, deep maroon, pink and white; 30 to 90 cm x 30 cm
Cultivation: Full sun; rich loam. Seed indoors early to mid-March. Plants are top-heavy and need wind protection
Harvest: In bud or when the flower is open but before the yellow center is visible; regular harvesting maintains flower production
Flower Arranging with Zinnias
Originally from South America and Mexico, zinnias are named after eighteenth-century German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn. Zinn is credited as the first Western scientist to record them.
Here, floral guru Sophia Gonzales, who runs Wedding: Floral + Event Design in Kansas City, Missouri, shows how to make simple arrangements with this fantastic summer bloom.
Common names: Zinnia, old-fashioned, and old maid
Botanical name: Zinnia elegans (most popular)
Zinnia is an annual plant type.
Colors: Yellow, green, fuchsia, multicolored, orange, purple, red, and white
Zinnias originate from South America and Mexico.
The ideal growing conditions for Zinnias are full sun, from seed, and well-drained soil. It is best to avoid organic mulch and over-watering, as both can contribute to stem rot and mildew.
The typical size is from 6 inches to 3 feet tall.
Zinnias do well in all zones.
The blooming time is from summer through the fall.
Prepare your Zinnias by removing lower leaves before using in bouquets—this a great way to extend your blooms’ life and avoid bacteria in the water.
You can expect a vase life from five days to one week. The meaning of the Zinnia is friendship.
Zinnias as Wedding or Party Favors
When dressing a party table, be on the lookout for flowering herbs. Flowering herbs add wonderful scents and beautiful color bouquets.
If you stay within the same color family, vary the shape and size of flower heads—stem lengths for textural depth. A bouquet need not be dense to appear full, especially when the colors are intense.