Until recently, my ideal cutting garden had always been a place where someone else (preferably your grandmother, spouse, partner, or if you were really lucky, your gardener) went to plant and gather flowers, bring them back to your house, arrange, maintain, and remove them when spent. Not only did the prospect of doing all that labor myself seem out of the question, but I must also admit to having been more than a little daunted by all those fussy flower arrangers you see on TV. It all seemed just too, too much – at least when a good florist was readily at hand. Then three random events conspired to demonstrate the feasibility of having my own cutting garden. The first was a thorough review of my household budget with the view of cutting unnecessary expenses, which lead to the shocking revelation that I was spending a fortune on fresh flowers – more so than on almost any other garden item. That certainly had to stop. The second was my introduction to several top floral designers during my TV years, who showed me in a entertaining, laid-back fashion that arranging flowers was no more daunting than any other form of self-expression – just get in there, experiment, and have fun. The third, and most important event was my discovery of some simple design precepts that revealed how you could make a cutting garden practical, cost effective, and enjoyable – exactly what I am going to share with you today.
Before we begin, a bit of background. At its simplest, a cutting garden is just that – a garden used primarily for cutting flowers. Why, you may ask, is such a thing even necessary – wouldn’t your existing ornamental beds serve perfectly well for cutting flowers? The answer is generally no, at least if you have done a proper job in laying out your flower borders. Correctly designed, an ornamental border should be an intricate weaving of an integrated whole, where each plant depends on its neighbor, both in flower and foliage, to reinforce and enhance the overall effect. Regularly remove part of the picture for cutting, and the whole canvas is destroyed. In short, if you want to cut a fresh bouquet for the house on the order of every few days, you’ll need a separate space from which to take your flowers.
The first secret to having cutting garden that readily and easily yields loads of flowers lies in the garden’s design and layout. Like its close cousin the vegetable garden the cutting garden should be a utilitarian space, designed for usefulness, and secondarily for beauty. (Cutting gardens can be quite beautiful, but that’s not the goal.) This is an important point, and probably the most common reason why many people decide that cutting gardens are just too much work – they mistakenly think that a cutting garden must be both ornamental border and flower larder. In reality, the demands of keeping a cutting garden looking perfect and producing flowers throughout the season are too much for all but the most experienced gardener (or those with gardening staff) and shouldn’t even be attempted by beginners. The division of these two goals –ornamentation and flower production – is in fact why you have separate gardens in the first place.
Locate your cutting garden in some sunny out-of-the-way spot where you won’t be tempted to try maintain complete and constant bloom like an ornamental bed. Because these gardens are meant for the harvesting of flowers as a crop, they should be laid out with easily workable beds not more than four feet or so across, and with access from both sides to facilitate cutting. I have found that a strict geometric arrangement, similar to that used in many vegetable gardens, functions best for me, though that’s not a hard and fast rule. (In fact, proximity to and/or inclusion in the vegetable garden generally works quite well.) Again, since the true cutting garden, unlike the border, is all about the floral harvest, don’t worry about artistic plant combinations. Plants should be placed where they grow best and are easiest to cut: there will be plenty of time to worry about aesthetic considerations when the flowers arrive in the vase.
The second secret to achieving a good cutting garden is not really a secret at all, in that it is one of the basic tenets of good gardening everywhere – gardens for cutting, like all others, need the best possible soil you can manage. This is especially true for cutting gardens, however, as the production of thousands of flowers in a very short time severely drains and depletes the soil. Choose a site in full sun, and work as much compost and/or rotted manure into the soil as you can. Then apply both a quick release and a slow release fertilizer to insure constant feeding throughout the season. (Quick and slow release fertilizers are available in many forms, both organic and inorganic, and are found in most every nursery or garden center. If you are confused about which is which, be sure to ask, as the jump start from quick release and the continued feeding from slow release are crucial for continuity of bloom.) Needless to say, proper maintenance is also a must: your cutting garden will require at least an inch of water of week in the absence of rain, and heavy coating of mulch is required if you don’t wish to pay for every blossom you cut with rivers of sweat produced by endless weeding. Also, don’t forget that cutting gardens, once established, must be used. Many varieties will cease flowering if allowed to go to seed.
Finally, give some thought to broadening your plant selection beyond common annuals. Most people seem to think that a cutting garden is primarily an annual one, and while it’s true that many favorite flowers for cutting like zinnias and cosmos are indeed annuals, many perennials work just as well or better, providing flowers year after year, without the need for constant replanting. (see below) Also, be sure to include members of each of three general flower types when you choose your plants: tall, spiky blooms, such as liatris and iris; round headed blooms like peonies and roses, as well as small, lacy, filler-flowers (and foliage) like bridal wreath. Each type is required to make successfully balanced arrangements. One last tip: don’t neglect the bulb family when thinking about potential cutting garden plants. Most bulbs make excellent cut flowers, providing weeks of bloom in early spring when very little else is flowering in your garden.
My Top Five Perennials for the Cutting Garden
• Sedum Somewhat surprisingly, sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ (sedum spectabile) make excellent cut flowers that last for weeks in a vase, and are good for drying as well. Sedum also has the benefit of being a dual use plant: you can cut the blossoms while they are still greenish, or wait and allow the pinkish/rust tones to emerge.
• Rudebekia The perennial forms of the rudebeckias, (aka Black-Eyed Susan’s) like the variety ‘Goldsturm’ make an excellent cut flowers, especially when mixed with sunflowers. The lesser known annual varieties are also worth trying. Two of my personal favorites: ‘Indian Summer’ with chartreuse centers, and ‘Cherokee Sunset’ which produces flowers in a rich shade of brown
• Peonies Who can have too many peonies, especially indoors? Peonies also look well when dried, and the foliage can be treated with glycerin to produce rich green leaves for winter arrangements.
• Grasses Ornamental grasses are generally neglected in the cutting garden, but their variegated leaves offset many flower colors nicely, while their stiff spiky shape adds a bit of drama any almost any vase. Many varieties also produce interesting seed tassels, which look great in fall arrangements.
• Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) The dramatic blossoms and spiky leaves of the globe thistle make excellent cut flowers, and have the added advantage of adding a touch of soothing blue to brightly colored arrangements .