Create your own floral arrangements with homegrown cutting gardens.
FRESH CUT FLOWERS MAKE YOUR HOME BLOSSOM. WHETHER ADDING a touch of formal to a dining room or brightening a casual kitchen, floral arrangements bring the vibrancy of nature into the house. And while local florists are happy to supply you with a mix of blooms from around the world, New England gardeners can easily grow beautiful bouquets right in their own backyards.
THE MOST PRODUCTIVE CUTTING GARDENS COME FROM GARDENERS who plan. First, be honest about how much sun your garden gets. Most cutting-garden flowers prefer sun, says Karen Howard, a principal of Howard Garden Designs in West Newton, but that doesn’t mean the entire garden needs to be shade-free. “If somebody has a border, and they have one sunny part of the border, you might put particular plants in there for cutting,” she says.
For a traditional cutting garden, think annuals. While most perennials bloom only a few weeks each season, annuals will usually keep on blossoming as long as you assiduously deadhead. Annuals such as marigolds or the locally popular zinnias require a tad more care in the very beginning of the season, says Howard, but the payoff is flowers until frost. To make the most of New England’s brief growing season, Howard suggests using bulb flowers, such as daffodils, to design lovely, early spring bouquets. Once the fear of frost has passed, Howard advises starting with seedlings or small plants, rather than seeds. “This way, you get anywhere from a 6-week to a 12-week jump on things,” she says.
Young plants need careful attention. “Because they don’t yet have well-developed root systems, you have to be very attentive to watering,” says Howard.
While you’re dreaming of how you’ll be displaying bursts of color throughout your home, you should also consider other vase fillers. “I usually only grow things to cut,” says Julie Lapham, of Southborough’s Julie Lapham Designs. That broad intention means her garden also contains greens such as rhododendron and ornamental grasses. Even her Harry Lauder’s walking stick, she says, gets pruned to provide branches
“Wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susans or phlox, look great in arrangements,” says Barbara Popolow, a landscape designer and owner of Derby Farm Flowers & Gardens in Arlington. “They can be low-maintenance, and people overlook the beauty of foliage.”
Herbs, as well, can serve double duty in cutting gardens. A spiky rosemary leaf, says Popolow, has “great structure, plus it smells nice.” Lavender is another favorite with Marc Hall, creative director of events at Boston-based Winston Flowers. “And some salvias have amazing foliage,” he says.
A Cut Above
ONCE YOU’VE GOT YOUR GARDEN GROWING, give some thought to the actual cutting. Hall says early morning is the optimum time. “The sun is just waking up, the plants are just waking up,” he says. “Cutting them then doesn’t put them under any stress.”
Where to cut is important, too. “It depends on the blossom,” says Hall. Ideally, you can cut at the length you want for the arrangement, if the plant has enough stem. But remember to allow a little extra so you can trim again when you condition.
To prolong freshness of newly cut flowers while harvesting, Hall says, “walk around your garden with a bucket or pail of water.” Sure, we all know cut flowers should go immediately into water, but too often life intervenes. “All of a sudden a phone call comes in, but if you’ve put them in a pail, they’re fine,” he says. “They’re in a holding tank, drinking.”
To maintain display-worthiness, cut flowers should be conditioned, which means keeping stems free of any blockage that could stop the flower from hydrating. Conditioning also keeps down bacteria that will not only clog those stems but speed decay as well. First, any foliage that might go under the water line should be stripped off. Then, if the flower hasn’t been in water since it was cut, the end of the stem should be trimmed again. “Just a quarter of an inch will do it,” says Hall, to remove already stopped-up capillaries. While some purists insist on sharp-bladed knives for the best cuts, scissors are actually fine, says Hall. “Keep your blades sharp,” he says. Blades, as well as vases, should also be kept scrupulously clean. Consider washing with bleach to eradicate bacteria.
Commercial flower preservatives, such as Floralife, also help suppress bacteria and prolong life. But the surest way to keep your bouquet fresh is to change its water, re-trimming the stems each time. “Cutting the stems under water is best,” says Lapham. However, she says a quick cut and speedy re-immersion is sometimes more practical, and almost as good. Worried about running out of stem? Choose the flowers you plant wisely. Tulips, says Lapham, will keep growing after they are cut.
With proper planting, flower lovers can harvest blossoms with regularity. “If you have enough plants, you definitely could cut every day of the week,” says Howard. Keep in mind, she says, if you cut all of an annual’s flowers, you’ll have to wait three to four weeks for more color. But because of the way most plants bloom, this isn’t usually a problem. “You might cut a fully open flower, but there might be buds that will be flowering next week,” she says. “The whole point of annual plants is that they will flower and flower until frost.”