If you read design magazines or watch renovation and design shows on television, there's a common theme you've probably noticed: Any professionally designed space makes heavy use of cut flower arrangements. That's because bouquets of freshly cut flowers bring a splash of bright, colorful life to even the most challenging interiors and in some cases, a pleasant scent as well. Their only downside is that weekly visits to the florist can quickly break your budget. For many enthusiasts, the obvious answer is to plant a cut flower garden that produces beautiful flowers suitable for use in bouquets and flower arrangements. It's not as intimidating a project as you might think, even if your growing space is limited.
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What Is a Cut Flower Garden?
A yard full of flower beds is a beautiful thing in its own right, but it's not necessarily suitable for harvesting your own bouquets. Your outdoor landscaping is built around the idea of making your property appealing (though you might have secondary goals, like attracting hummingbirds or pollinators) rather than brightening your indoor space. A cut flower garden is planted specifically with flower arrangements in mind and requires a different kind of planning.
It starts with choosing florist-ready varieties of your favorite flowers – kinds that reliably produce long stems and showy blooms – and then giving them the growing environment, physical support and nutrition they need in order to flourish. That doesn't mean your cut flower garden can't be a meaningful part of your existing landscaping, just that you'll need to consciously incorporate those principles into your garden planning.
How to Plan a Cut Flower Garden
The main requirements for a cut flower garden are the same as for most other gardens: a space with plenty of full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Some flowers might prefer slightly more or less acidity, but you can address those requirements by clustering them together in separated beds (or raised planters) and treating the soil with appropriate amendments.
The most efficient way to grow flowers for cutting is in beds with long, straight rows like a farmer's cornfield. For each variety you grow, you'd create a grid at a spacing that's appropriate for the plants' final size. This makes for easy fertilizing, irrigation and harvesting, which is why commercial flower farmers do it that way. This approach is best suited to large properties where you can have pretty beds closer to the house and productive beds farther away.
If your cut flowers will grow as part of your overall landscaping plan, you'll want to settle on a visual style and choose flowers that fit well with that style. For example, consider whether you prefer the chaotic jumble of a cottage garden or neatly regimented beds. Be sure to choose flowers that complement each other in size, color and physical shape. They'll look good outdoors while they're growing and will also look good indoors in arrangements. If you're uncertain about which colors go well together, you can refer to a color wheel for help.
Finally – and this is important – grow flowers you like. That may seem like unnecessary advice, but it's important not to lose sight of your own personal preferences as you wade through a sea of "must-grow" recommendations.
If you have a small space and can’t allocate an area of your garden solely for cut flowers, you can still enjoy fresh flowers with a few creative gardening hacks. It’s relatively easy to incorporate florist-quality varieties into your existing flower beds or planters for cut flowers; you’ll just need to choose varieties that go well with your existing favorites. You can even tuck flowers into odd corners of your herb or vegetable garden. Marigolds, for example, are often used for companion planting in vegetable gardens because they deter many insect pests.
Growing Your Cut Flower Garden
A well-planned cut flower garden includes a mix of annuals (flowers you'll plant every year) and perennials (flowering plants that live for many years), chosen with attention to the crucial question of when (and for how long) they'll blossom. Bulbs and perennials are your best bets for early spring color while your annuals are still growing from seed or establishing themselves as transplants. Annuals tend to be at their best by midsummer, and many can produce reliably right up until frost arrives. With annuals, the individual plants will lose vigor as the season goes on and will produce smaller blossoms. Succession planting (starting a new set of flowers a few weeks after the previous set) can help give you a steady harvest of top-quality blossoms, and you can retire the old ones to your compost as they wind down.
In most climates, you'll get a longer harvest season if you start your annuals indoors, but that requires space and good lighting that not everyone has at their disposal. Start and transplant them according to the seed company's directions, observing the usual rule of putting the tallest plants behind midsize and short varieties. Some flowers benefit from pinching, or removing the growing tip when they're about a foot high. Pinch or snip them just above a healthy set of leaves and they'll produce longer and straighter stems as a result. Finally, don't forget to choose a few plants (euphorbia and eucalyptus, for example) specifically to give you visually interesting foliage for use in your flower arrangements. Foliage isn't just filler; it plays an important role in the look of your flower arrangements.
An important step in any cut flower garden is deadheading your blossoms once they've passed their peak, which simply means removing the spent blossoms. Plants are designed by nature to slow down once they've blossomed and gone to seed, so removing those mature blossoms will help prolong the time they spend in production mode. Many reliable cut flowers, like zinnias, will blossom all summer long if you're diligent about deadheading. The simplest method is just to pinch them off with your fingers.
Varieties to Grow in Your Cut Flower Garden
No list of varieties for your cut flower garden will be completely comprehensive, and in any case, you'll want to pick and choose varieties that are suited to both your climate and your personal preferences. As a starting point, here's a brief table of widely popular cut flowers by growing season.
Cut Flowers By Growing Season
Lilies and daylilies
Pansies and violas
Echinacea (purple coneflower)
Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans)
These categories aren't cut and dry because there's usually a significant degree of overlap. Delphinium could be thought of as a late-spring or early summer flower depending on your local climate. Rudbeckias also blossom relatively early, but they'll keep going through late summer and well into autumn. For a more accurate guide to blooming times in your own growing area, turn to local nurseries, your extension service or experienced local gardeners for help.
Harvesting Your Cut Flowers
The best time to harvest your blossoms is in the cool of the morning when they're at their freshest. Snip each stem at a long diagonal (it creates more surface area for the stem to take up water from the vase) and then strip away any excess foliage that will be under the water once the stems are in your vase. Sanitize the blades with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol and then continue until you've harvested enough blossoms for the day's flower arrangement.
Don't wait until the blossoms are fully open. You'll get a longer vase life if you harvest your fresh flowers while they're near the end of their bud phase and just beginning to show the color hidden within. They'll open within a day or two, and having flowers at various stages of opening lends visual appeal to your bouquets.
Maintaining Your Cut Flower Garden
As commercial flower growers know, a cut flower garden requires a fair bit of maintenance if it's going to produce well. Deadheading your blossoms to encourage heavy production means that your beds will require lots of feeding in order to retain their fertility. Incorporating well-aged manure or compost into the bed before planting will help, along with a slow-release, flower-specific fertilizer. During the blossoming season, fertilize every two to three weeks with liquid fertilizer.
Many flowers need some form of support. Commercial growers often use a wire-mesh grid positioned about a foot above the ground, which helps keep the flowers from swaying too much in the wind. Sweet peas require some form of fence or trellis. Peonies benefit from a circular cage similar to a tomato cage to keep stems from breaking under the weight of their oversize blossoms. Dahlias and delphinium benefit from staking.
Irrigation is also important since flowers won't bloom as lavishly when they're water-stressed and won't give you as much vase life after they're cut. You can minimize your water use through creative use of mulch, and in fact, if there's a single secret to growing cut flowers, it's probably mulch. Commercial flower growers use black plastic mulch or landscaping fabric with holes at appropriate spacing for the flowers. In a home garden, you can use bark mulch, straw, shredded leaves or any other organic mulch. They'll help retain moisture (important in drought-prone areas) and suppress weeds.
Once you’ve gone to the trouble of growing your own beautiful flowers, there’s still the question of creating your own unique floral designs. You can use a color wheel to choose contrasting and complementary colors if you’re not confident in your design sense. You can create eye-leasing effects by varying the height and texture of your flowers and by mixing in foliage for added visual appeal. You can use foliage from the plants you grow specifically for this purpose, or if you have shrubs that need pruning anyway, you can time that routine chore for days when you’re constructing bouquets.