Cutting gardens bring the outdoors in

Lovely flowers for vases

By Martha Swiss
Penn State Master Gardener ©2012

Cutting fresh flowers for a vase

Cutting gardens are simply those that are established to produce cut flowers for the vase. They are functional, not designed for visual appeal, but they can be beautiful. They can contain annuals, perennials, shrubs, bulbs--really any plant you enjoy as a cut flower. Including foliage plants adds to visual interest of bouquets too.

Here is a sample of cutting garden arrangements you can make throughout the seasons:

>  A bouquet of spring’s first tender blossoms: hellebore, pulmonaria, grape hyacinth, and daffodils, surrounded by new hosta leaves just unfurling.
> Magnificent, fragrant, billowing arrangements of spring peonies and lilacs, or summer roses.
>  A tiny spray of colorful summer flowers to tuck on a bathroom shelf.
> A single perfect dinner plate dahlia floating in a low glass bowl on a dining table.
Late-season zinnias hastily cut before the first hard frost, to cheer a sick friend.

Establishing a cutting garden - Start as for any garden bed, by choosing a site that gets the correct amount of sun for the plants you will grow. If you have space to establish a separate cutting garden that’s great; if not, grow your favorite cut flower plants in already-established garden beds. Create the bed and improve the soil as for any new garden using lots of organic matter.

Choosing what flowers to grow

This is the fun part. Start by choosing your favorite flowers in colors you like, and try something new or different too. Don’t forget woody plants, perennials, and bulbs. You can start many cutting garden varieties from seed. Plants purchased from a nursery will give you blooms sooner.


Here are some plants that make great cut flowers (and foliage)

Annuals: Ageratum houstonianum (floss flower), Angelonia (angelonia), Antirrhinum (snapdragon), Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed), Celosia (cockscomb), Cosmos (cosmos), Gomphrena (gomphrena), Helianthus (sunflower), Helichrysum bracteatum (strawflower), Limonium (statice), Moluccella (bells of Ireland), Salvia (salvia), Nigella (love-in-a-mist), Tagetes (marigold), Verbena bonariensis (verbena), Zinnia elegans (zinnia)


Perennials: Delphinium (larkspur), Echinacea (coneflower), Ferns--many varieties, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Gypsophila (baby’s breath), Helleborus (Lenten rose), Hosta (plantain lily), Leucanthemum (daisy), Liatris spicata (blazing star), Lilium (lily), Ornamental grasses--many varieties, Paeonia (peony), Phlox (phlox), Stachys (lamb’s ear--for foliage)


Bulbs: Narcissus (daffodil), Tulipa (tulip), Hyacinthus (hyacinth)


Woody shrubs: Cornus (dogwood), Forsythia (forsythia), Hydrangea (hydrangea), Itea virginica (sweetspire), Malus (crabapple) Prunus (cherry), Rosa (rose), Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’ (curly willow), Salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’ (Japanese fantail willow), Syringa (lilac)


How to cut & condition flowers

Fill a clean, non-metal bucket with warm water and floral preservative and take it with you into the garden as you cut the flowers. The flowers will absorb the warm water more readily than cool water, and there is less chance of air blockage in the stems. It’s best to cut in the morning or evening, when flowers are full of moisture. After gathering the flowers, take them indoors and using a sharp knife or pruning shears recut the stems on an angle, underwater. Remove the foliage from the lower part of the stems since it rots under water. Leave flowers in the bucket in a cool dark place for a minimum of two hours, but ideally overnight, before arranging.

Some flowers require special conditioning

Poppy stems ooze a milky sap and should be sealed with a flame or dipped in very hot water for a few seconds after cutting.

Daffodil stems contain a substance that rots other flowers so condition separately.

Flowers with hollow stems, like delphiniums and lupines, should have their stems plugged with a bit of cotton after conditioning.

Stems of woody plants should be split an inch or two from the bottom.

Rose thorns can be clipped off.

Tulips should be wrapped tightly in newspaper during conditioning to keep them from opening too fast.

Arranging and caring for bouquets

As you arrange flowers, make a fresh angled cut on each stem. You can arrange in your hand, in a vase, or in moistened floral foam that can be used in a variety of containers. Use your creativity and have fun with colors, textures, and forms of flowers and foliage.

Prolong the life of your arrangement by using a floral preservative in the water. Change the water daily and re-cut stems every few days for maximum life.  Do not re-use floral foam, as the water holding capacity decreases and the flowers may wilt prematurely.

rose bouquet

Dried flower arrangements

Flowers from the list above that dry well include strawflower, zinnia, coneflower, statice, baby’s breath, roses, celosia, tall ageratum and hydrangea.

The simplest way to dry flowers is to tie in small bunches and hang upside down in a warm dark room until dry. Great results can be had by cutting stems to an inch and layering flowers in silica gel or fine sand in a cardboard box. It takes about six weeks for most flowers to dry this way.

To arrange dried flowers, add a wire stem and wrap with floral tape then position in a styrofoam-filled container. Dried flower arrangements can last a year or more. Remove surface dust by spraying with canned air or using a hair dryer on a low cool setting.


Pickling the Harvest

Fall gardening tasks

Garden Planning


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