What holds us to our gardens is the constant gift of slow change and evolution throughout a season: a surprise, a gift, a little joy. A flower-cutting garden will keep growers supplied with gifts of living goodness all summer long. Don’t get rid of your vegetable garden, but embrace flowers as well. The gift of food is practical and maternal; a flower is the gift of a lover: symbolic, artistic, embarrassingly flirtatious. Once started, be careful—flowers and flower-growing can become an addictive habit and they might insist on more and more space in your garden beds.
Adding flowers to the garden mix allows for the chance to rotate garden beds out of produce for a season. Rotation breaks pest cycles, balances soil fertility, and allows the gardener to express her creativity with each new season. With a few exceptions, most of the produce grown in the garden comes mainly from five plant families: cucurbits, brassicas, alliums, solanaceous, and legumes. Flowers present us with dozens of other plant families, allowing the benefit of a beautiful rotation from produce to flowers.
Everything vegetables like—full sun, well-drained soil, and good air circulation—flowers also like. If the flowers are not being planted into an existing garden space, the start of a cutting garden requires the inevitable early planning decisions about placement and size. Initially, the size of the garden should not match one’s enthusiasm but rather a realistic estimate of the amount of time the grower will be able to devote to it. Flower growing can be an easy habit to slip into, but only if the work remains manageable. Besides the work of preparing and planting the space, the gardener will be picking from the garden twice weekly, as with cherry tomatoes or green beans.
The flower garden will look great next to your vegetable plot, but do not expect it to be a glorious showstopper. The cutting garden’s purpose is to be cut. It will be planted in rows, much like a vegetable garden. In order for the plants to keep producing, the blooms must be removed regularly. The purpose of the cutting garden is not to be beautiful in its own right, any more so than its cousin the vegetable garden. Both are the source of natural gifts and the gardener should feel no inhibition in cutting into a big healthy plant, and building gorgeous displays for the house.
This annual flower garden primer will focus on springtime work: forming beds, building fertility, and mulching to prevent weeds. A solid foundation will ultimately yield the greatest harvest from the healthiest plants and minimize maintenance mid-summer, when picking is at its peak. Embrace and channel the surge of energy that comes with spring.
Approach the preparations of the beds with restrained gusto. Loosen but do not invert the soil, removing any large clumps of weeds, particularly perennial grasses with a running root that sprouts from any small piece left behind. Most soil problems can be corrected by a simple soil test—support your state’s university extension service! —and an abundance of organic matter. The less digging, rototilling, or hoeing, the healthier the soil’s micro-organisms will be. Building upwards with compost and mulch, rather than disturbing the soil at deeper levels repairs most injuries to the earth.
Generally, most flowers prefer the same pH range as most vegetables: 6.5. The soil test from the university extension will recommend amendments, some of which should be scratched into the surface of the soil—no need to dig. Other amendments, like minerals and organic fertilizers, can be sprinkled onto the soil surface before the compost goes down. Flowers like a fertile bed as much as a broccoli plant does.
Organic matter should be the love that ensures health, always on-hand and generously offered. Compost is the most efficient way to deliver organic matter to the ground. Though it might have plenty of nutrients, it should not be considered fertilizer or food for plants; compost merely holds nutrients, water, and microbes in place. The science of soil is complex and we gardeners can feel overwhelmed by nutrient needs recommended by the soil test. But our blunderings can be buffered by organic matter and a diversity of mulches.
Any small garden, vegetable or flower, should rely on mulch to cover every inch of the soil. Mulch is usually material like leaves, hay, or straw. Other kinds of mulch, like woodchips and cardboard, can be used in pathways. Plastic is also an option, but whenever an organic material is available it should be used, since it will break down into worm-food. The main reason for mulch is to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. Mulch may need to be added throughout the season, and once the plants are large and flowering, the task becomes easier. Even before your garden is planted, mulch can be laid down. Eventually plan on a thick layer to be an effective weed barrier: six inches of fluffy mulch is a minimum. Mulching is an expression of love for the soil—feeding it, protecting it, and encouraging the many tiny homes for micro-organisms which keep the crop healthy.
Once the soil has been prepped, separate and mark garden beds from walkways to minimize compaction in the areas that will be planted. Decide where the beds are and where the walkways will be. When the time is right, after the last frost is a week gone by and the transplants are an appropriate size, use a leaf rake to create furrows (shallow, long ditches) by pulling the mulch back and exposing the soil where the transplants will be planted. Once the transplant is settled in, gently replace the mulch around the baby plants and water them well. Soaker hose on a timer is an excellent way to keep crops watered all season. This should be below the mulch, so as not to wet the foliage.
Sprouting flower seeds will give you a renewed respect for diversity in the world of plants. Unlike vegetables, which over thousands of years have been bred for food and thus have a certain homogeneity, most flowers are somewhat closer to the wild. For some seeds, light triggers germination. Other seeds require scarification (scratching), or vernalization (cold treatment) and long waits. For the dozen flowers varieties recommended here, germination is fairly simple, except the tricky sweet pea, but this earliest effort is still rewarding and somewhat addictive.
Sometime, during the late winter or early spring, space will need to be created in a sunny, warm window to start all the seeds. In some cases, as the sun moves around the house during the day, the amount of light will be inadequate for the little baby plants to grow without becoming spindly. Consider a grow light that will turn on after the morning sun moves to the other side of the house. Imagine replicating natural growing conditions.
Starting with transplants in the garden versus direct seeding provides a couple of advantages. When direct seeding, mulch can’t be applied to the area until the pants have emerged. Unfortunately, weeds will emerge as well, demanding the extra chore of weeding. Plants started indoors can be babied. For the control freaks out there—anyone who gardens is ultimately trying to control a little bit of nature—transplants are highly managed and the little spots of hopeful green inside will only serve to foster the excitement about planting time.
The transplant table is a mini-garden. Light, temperature, moisture, and pest issues can all be addressed in miniature with transplants. Seeds can be started in any type of container that will hold soil and water and has an opportunity for drainage. From tofu containers to small clay pots or old tea cups with a sprinkle of gravel at the bottom, all of these are utilitarian seed-starting vessels. Once the transplants leave the house and are planted in the garden, managing all the variables that make for success in growth becomes a greater challenge. It’s like sending a child off to school, hoping she is healthy and strong and instilled with everything she needs to flourish. As with children, it is helpful to set the seedlings outside in nice weather as their big day approaches. Start plenty more seeds than needed. Extra transplants that will not fit into the space allotted in the garden can always be shared with friends.
After the seedlings have a good set of true leaves—the first leaves, or cotyledons don’t count—they can be set out into the garden. As long as the plants’ roots have room to grow, the seedlings can remain indoors and grow all that much bigger and more robust. When the time comes to move all the precious little babies out into the big garden, make sure they are well watered and have a good spritz of fish emulsion. Ideally, morning or evening transplanting is best since wind and bright sun will shock the seedlings, stunting growth. Just as broccoli will button-up with a stressful transition, flower plants will produce flowers with fewer petals and less vigor.
Organize the order of where things are planted based on height. Taller plants want to be placed so that as the afternoon sun moves around, they do not cast a shadow over the shorter plants. Unlike vegetables, flowers should be tightly spaced to encourage tall flower stems. The plants will compete for light and reach high, resulting in stem length best for cutting. As a general rule, the flowers listed in the Dozen Favorites list can all be spaced at eight inches within the row and eight to twelve inches between rows. The tighter the spacing, the less chance of weed pressure as the plants out-compete the weeds.
Once the garden is prepped, mulched, and planted, the countdown to bloom time is less than six weeks. With a few exceptions, growing on of flowers will be similar to vegetables. Monitor the plants regularly for pests. Remove any weeds that appear through the thick mulch. If any of the mulch has been disturbed and soil is showing, heap more in place from a nearby stock-pile. Since flower crops are in the soil for so long, they will need more fertility over a longer period—a perfect excuse for using organic fertilizers like manure, fish meal, or soymeal. Even so, a second feeding alongside the plant might be necessary. As stable organic matter gradually builds in the soil, fertility will not need to be spoon-fed. Foliar feeds encourage an environment for microbial communities that live on the surface of the plant. These “good bugs” help the plant fight fungal and bacterial infections, as well as infestations by uninvited insects.
Some of the taller varieties may need to be staked, depending on how strong the wind is. Tomato cages, bamboo stakes, old metal bed frames, rebar, t-posts, and twine can all be used in creative ways to create trellising and support systems for flowering plants. Sweet peas need something to grow on, and nasturtiums can be trained to climb. Cosmos can topple without support in the strong wind of a summer thunderstorm.
Like vegetables, the flowers need one inch of water per week, either via rainfall or irrigation. When rain is scarce, a soaker hose placed under the mulch can be turned on to provide the necessary hydration. Avoid overhead watering with sprinklers. As with vegetables, infrequent deep watering is better than daily light watering.
Before long, each variety will start sending up flower buds. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators will arrive to gather nectar and pollen. This is plant sex, and it is incredible to invite such shameless revelry into our cultivated space. But do not get too carried away. Seed production is the goal of flowering plants, and once that is achieved, flowering will ebb and vigor will decline. If the blooms are not continually cut, the plant will assume its job is done and stop flowering.
Some varieties, like zinnias or snapdragons are easier to keep up with, but calendula and nasturtium will likely blossom many more flowers than wanted. These seed-producing flowers need to be cut and simply left on the ground, a job called dead-heading. Let the chore of dead-heading be an excuse to harvest flowers boldly. Harvest the annual flowers on the dozen favorites list when they are open and do not be afraid to cut low down on the plant, sacrificing a few buds for a nice usable stem. To harvest properly, every few days carry clippers out to the garden. Bring a bucket of fresh, cool water along. Move through the rows, systematically addressing each plant. Remove any injured, unusable, or spent blooms. As the season progresses, stems will get longer, but even in the early summer, cut boldly. More flowers will come if the plant thinks it still needs to produce seed. Once cut, strip off the foliage from the stem, leaving just the last two whorls of leaves at the top near the bloom. Everything under water in the bucket should be leafless. When finished, the garden should only have the smallest hint of color from the blooms that are just starting to open.
That bucket full of blooms is the gift to be brought inside. Mix these pops of color with herbs, foliage, branches, grasses, and any interesting pods foraged from the yard. This is the time to experiment with design. In Maine, we only lock our car doors in August when we might otherwise find the passenger seat filled with produce (specifically huge zucchinis) from the neighbor’s garden. We have yet to scare anyone away with the gift of flowers.
END OF SEASON
Once the fall frost has killed most of the flowers, cut all the plant material down to the ground. Leave the roots in the ground and the mulch on the beds to help prevent erosion over the winter and during the spring thaw period when rains can wash exposed soil away. This is the time to jot down a few notes about what did well and what would be worth planting again.
Once the first cutting garden season has passed, the desire to branch out and grow some more challenging plants will emerge. A natural curiosity and sense of gardening adventure will draw the intrepid gardener onward. The desire for another shape, another color, another bloom in an arrangement will stoke the habit. Far from being a superfluous fancy, flowers quickly become a mainstay of the garden. As the gardener matures, he plants less cucumber and less cabbage, but the flowers remain, a sign of distinction; a calling card of his love for plants.
There are a multitude of perennials you can add to your cutting garden for unparalleled blooms. Peonies, garden roses, perennial phlox, echinacea, clematis, and bee balm are all favorites. Perennials are a more substantial investment in time and money. As a plant, they need more time to mature before they start producing a usable crop. Investment always requires stability and awareness of your living space. As gardening becomes an annual ritual, perennial beds will fill in spaces around your main garden. The financial investment is well worth it. Most perennials don’t produce blooms all summer long like some annuals. Normally, they have a bloom window. They can be difficult to start from seed so most gardeners either collect divisions of perennials from other growers or purchase plant stock from a reputable supplier.
GERMINATING SWEET PEAS
Soak the sweet peas seeds for twenty-four hours. Rinse the soaked seed. Using a cookie sheet spread with a few layers of wet newspaper, pour the soaked seed out onto the wet paper. Cover and keep dark and cool (around 60ºF). Check moisture daily and once seeds germinate, pot on into soil.
A Dozen Annuals To Get You Started
Cosmos bipinnatus: Double Click Mix
Zinnia: Benary’s Giant, Persian Carpet
Ammi: Green Mist
Snapdragons: Rocket Mix
Digitalis: Camelot Mix
Gomphrena: Qis Mix, Strawberry Fields
Nasturtiums: Peach Melba, Jewel Mix
Sweet Peas: Mammoth Choice Mix
Rudbeckia: Prairie Sun, Goldilocks
Scabiosa stellata & Scabiosa atropurpurea
(Download and print our illustrated (by Phoebe Wahl) Planting Guide.)