A cutting garden – a piece of earth used primarily for cutting flowers and bringing into the house for arranging in vases – sounds kind of elitist. Like a prim and proper English lady who has a team of gardeners, and ventures out to the garden with a floppy straw hat with her “secateurs” to cut flowers at the ‘peak of perfection’ and places in her English trug. After cutting the flowers, she brings them in to arrange them in fabulous vases that will decorate her wonderful English Cottage.
I am more of the type that I have slaved over starting seeds inside, planting out, harvesting and after picking, placing them casually in mason jars, a simple water pitcher or an old bud vase. A cutting garden can provide you with material for both the formal art of flower arranging or a simple everyday mason jar arrangement to brighten your mood.
At its simplest, a cutting garden is just that – a garden used primarily for cutting flowers. I have established ornamental perennial borders that I cut from frequently, but a cutting garden gives you a separate space where you can remove broad swaths of fresh cuts to plunge into deep vases and enjoy.
A purely utilitarian apace, it should be designed for usefulness, not for beauty. The goal is to have lots of flowers for cutting to bring in armfuls of flowers all season long. Since the true cutting garden, unlike the border, is all about the floral harvest, don’t worry about artistic plant combinations- simply plant for plant utility and provide support!
The production of multitudes of flowers in a very short time severely drains and depletes the soil. So, choose a site in full sun, and work as much compost and fertilizer into the soil as you can. I use Espoma Organic Flowertone found in most every nursery or garden center and add to the soil after tilling and rake it in.
Your cutting garden will require at least an inch of water of week in the absence of rain, and a layer of landscape cloth for weed suppression 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 cut and used. Many varieties will cease flowering if allowed to go to seed. But going to seed for some varieties is a good thing, as you will have seedlings in the spring that will spring up and grow without much attention.
Finally, give some thought to broadening your plant selection beyond common annuals, such as zinnias or cosmos. 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. A great example is yarrow, a perennial that I use for a filler.
Also, be sure to include members of each of three general flower types when you choose your plants: tall, spiky blooms, such as larkspur and liatris; disk shaped flowers like peonies, asters, and daisies, as well as small, lacy, fillers like forget me nots or baby’s breath. And don’t forget the bulb family. Tulips, which I treat like an annual, are one of my favorites and are ready to pick in early spring when annuals are still small transplants. When you are ready to pick them, just pull up the entire plant, bulb and all, and cut the stem and discard the bulb.
Say It With Flowers
Cutting Garden Tips
I like to set aside a garden totally dedicated to cutting and arranging. One reason is that they aren’t as attractive when they are finished and going to seed, but during the spring and early summer while active blooming, they can be striking.
With all the new intros of flowers, people forget the old-fashioned flowers that our grandmothers grew and enjoyed. ‘Flowers with a past’, or ‘flowers with history’ intrigue me even in the face of the preference of perennials in recent years. So many people when they hear that a plant is an annual turn up their nose and dismiss it as not worth the time and money to plant. But I love annuals and they bloom all summer long, unlike perennials that bloom for just a couple of weeks.
Pushed to the side for many years in favor of newer, supposedly better cultivars, I always remember growing old fashioned annuals as a child and seeing them in my parents garden. I couldn’t wait to squeeze the snapdragon flowers to make the “mouth” open like a dragon when I was little. Or being fascinated by the pansy faces that I grew and pressing them between the pages of a phone book.
I have never stopped growing these neglected blooms and invite other flower lovers to embrace them as well. Neglected but not forgotten, all these flowers should be planted and enjoyed by another generation.
Heirloom annuals are plants that have been cultivated for at least one hundred years, and some for much longer. Unimproved flowers that hybridizers haven’t got their hands on, antique annuals bloom profusely all season long and set seed so that you can collect them to flower for another year. Even better, many reseed to continue growing for the next season. Balsam flower reseeds like clockwork in my garden. Many are tall and graceful, not short and stocky hybrids that fit into containers and smaller gardens that are more prevalent today.
Difficult to have something in bloom all season long, a perennial border is just shouting out to have annuals inserted in empty spots so you can have a constant parade of blooms.
Perennial purists who will not allow an annual to enter their garden gate are missing out on the dizzying palette of flowers that bloom and die in one season. Perennial is a term that can be interpreted several ways. I have some short-lived perennials that only last two or three seasons, like lavender or Gaillardia. The drainage issue always does these perennials in for me in the mid-Atlantic. So, the term perennial could mean – lasts for many seasons, like a peony… or perennial for a few seasons, like some of the new Echinaceas. Echinaceas don’t seem to last very long at all and yet they are called perennials.
When most perennials are on their last gasp in late summer, many annuals are still running strong with little care. A bit of dead heading, sometimes staking, and an infusion of fertilizer is enough to keep them in good form all summer. Some annuals like Poppies, Love in a Mist, Bells of Ireland, Clarkia, and Larkspur are definitely cool weather plants finished by June. See my post on Cool Season Annuals.
Cultivated for thousands of years in the Americas, Zinnias are a true antique classic. According to Burpee’s website, “Zinnias are undemanding annuals that simply need full sun, warmth, and well-drained soil rich in organic matter. If soil is poor, incorporate lots of compost or leaf mold”. Like many old-fashioned annuals, Zinnias do better sown directly into the garden instead of being transplanted.
Plumed Celosias are bursting with new cultivars but I really like to grow the unique Crested Celosias. I love the brain-like texture of the velvety bloom and it dries beautifully.
All of these heirlooms draw pollinators in droves to their open faced flowers, with easily available pollen and nectar. To see more plants and flowers that attract pollinators, go to Plant These For Bees.
Here is my listing of favorite Heirlooms. But there are many more that you can try.
False Queen Anne’s Lace, Ammi majus
Love Lies Bleeding, Amaranthus
Spider Flower, Cleome
Corn Cockle, Agrostemma
Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena
Balsam, Impatiens balsamina
Sweet Pea, Lathyrus
Four O’Clock, Mirabilis
Pansy and Viola
Flowering Tobacco, Nictotiana
Love in a Mist, Nigella
Dusty Miller, Senecio
Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia
Blue Lace Flower, Trachymene coerulea
Verbena, Verbena bonariensis
Calendula, Pot Marigold
Blue Floss Flower, Ageratum
For my PDF on growing your own cut flowers, go to the tab ‘Cut Flower Recommendations’ on my menu at top and download the information.