Saturday, September 5, 2015

My Redesigned Cutting Garden

Strawflowers, zinnias and poppy heads a couple weeks ago.

We've been having some pretty hot, muggy days here in Iowa, so I thought it might be a good time to stay indoors and review how the changes I made to my cutting flower garden this year have turned out. I apologize that this post has turned out to be somewhat long.

Some background: When I laid out our new Kitchen Garden design in 2013, I provided for eight rectangular beds for cutting flowers, which turned out to be far more space than I actually needed for growing flowers specifically for cutting.

Back in 2013, I used the six beds shown in the right and bottom parts of this photo, plus two more to the left out of the picture. The sparse planting only encouraged weeds and many of the flowers I planted weren't all that great for cutting.

The following year, in 2014, I tried again to do a better job of filling the beds with flowers that are good for cutting, but the results were even worse, as many of the perennials, such as Shasta daisies, had died over the winter, and several kinds of flowers, such as Love-in-a-mist and Brown-eyed Susans, had seeded around throughout the cutting beds.

And I ended up not liking many of the flowers -- the pink Achillea I planted turned brown in the vase, the dahlias were a weird purple color, the irises had a very short bloom time, and the Blanket Flowers were too short-stemmed and coarse looking for my taste (although I like them planted outside).

Last fall I resolved that this year I would reduce the size of my cutting garden area by half, and try to plant flowers that are better for cutting. This spring, I moved the few perennial flowers that I wanted to keep to one of the four beds (down from eight) that would remain as my cutting garden beds. Then I redesigned those four remaining cutting flower beds:

A plan I made of the redesigned cutting beds this May.

  • One bed for perennials (Top Right): These included Shasta daisies, painted daisies, carnations campanulas and mums. I also tried to grow a packet of delphinium seeds, but they look identical to the annual larkspur that I planted in another bed, so they aren't what I was looking for. Because I have had trouble keeping perennials alive over winter in this exposed location, I will try to cover the bed with straw and/or leaves this winter. 
  • One bed for spring and summer bulbs (Top Left): Tulips followed by dahlias, cannas and a few gladiolus.
  • One bed for annual flowers from seed (Bottom Right) These include some remaining Love-in-a-mist, bachelor buttons, strawflowers, Canterbury bells, annual poppies and larkspur. I planted these in neat rows, something I had not done before, to make it easier to control weeds.
  • One bed for any leftover flowers (Bottom Left): more gladiolus (planted in succession), annuals that didn't fit in the annual bed such as zinnias and cosmos, some alliums, and some snapdragons and salvia transplanted from other parts of my gardens.

The four beds this spring in early May, with tulips and alliums planted the fall before, plus daffodils that never bloomed. You can see that the beds are being taken over by Love-in-a-mist that is sprouting up everywhere, especially in the right-most bed.

Later in May, after getting the Love-in-a-mist mostly under control (I allowed some to grow in the left edge of the closest bed, and deadheaded it after bloom this year to prevent reseeding). The perennial bed at far right has been planted, and the rows of seeds have been sown and marked in the closest bed.

Since these beds are supplemented by a number of other flowering shrubs and annuals, such as peonies, roses and the sweet peas that I grew successfully for the first time on the east side of my house, these four small beds provided more than enough flowers for me to cut and bring into the house, without subtracting from the beauty of my borders.

By the end of July, the Shasta daisies were lovely, and the seeded annual bed beyond was quite productive, yielding larkspur, poppies, bachelor buttons and Love-in-a-mist.

Zinnias, cosmos and gladiolas were also blooming by the end of July.

I am much happier with my cutting garden this year, although this is still a learning process for me. Not all the flowers I grew ended up being nice flowers for cutting for one reason or another. Here are a few observations about the flowers I grew this year:

My favorite cutting flowers that I had the best luck with:

1. Gladiolus: these were absolutely magnificent this year! Next year, I will try to stake them so they grow more upright, perhaps by growing them through a piece of cattle panel or other grid with large openings.

2. Zinnias: I love the rainbow of colors they come in (all except blue).
3. Shasta Daisies: The cheeriest of flowers.
Zinnias, Shasta daisies, coneflowers,
larkspur and snapdragons. All my

4. Snapdragons: These are my go-to flower for adding spikes to a bouquet, as they bloom from the end of May until frost in my gardens, self-seeding themselves in numerous places, and all of them welcome. I may plant some longer stemmed ones for cutting in my cutting beds.
5. Larkspur: I may try to plant these in successive groups next year so that they don't peter out by August, as they have this year. They were great for bouquets when they were blooming.
6. Poppies: The first ones I picked drooped immediately until I seared the stem ends on my stove gas burner and then put the whole vase in the refrigerator for a while. Then they looked beautiful for several days. It's not that much trouble, really. Plus, the ones I didn't pick have great-looking seed pod heads that are nice in a bouquet too.
Poppies and larkspur.

7. Sweet Peas: I didn't grow these in my cutting garden beds this year, as I think that location gets too much full sun. Instead, I tried planting them as early as possible (early March) against a trellis on the east side of my house, to avoid afternoon sun. They have been pretty nice, blooming from the first of June until now (they're finally giving out in this burst of heat we're having now). Next year I think I'll try to make sure I water them more and keep cutting them to discourage seed production. Perhaps I can shade them somehow on the hottest mornings too? Or maybe I can start a second batch in mid-summer?
Sweet peas in early July. I've noticed that
the kind I grew smell wonderful, but only
for 24 hours after cutting them. Then they
lose their scent.
Has anyone else noticed this?

8. Straw Flowers: (See first photo). I tried growing these last year, but to no effect. I think planting them in rows and watering them well has helped. These are such cool flowers, which make a strange, dry, crackling sound when you touch them. I'm drying some to keep for winter.

In addition, I can't leave out roses, peonies and mock orange shrub branches, which smell so wonderful, although they are planted in different spots in my gardens, not in the cutting beds.
Back in May, I made a bouquet out some delphinium stalks that broke off :-(
and several mock orange branches with a heavenly scent.

Some flowers I tried growing with less success:

1. Bachelor Buttons: I love these in the garden, especially because they self seed and bloom quite early. But the ones I grew in the cutting bed had short stems, too much foliage that had to be painstakingly removed, and in a vase they either wilted immediately or dropped a white powder all over my table. Perhaps I'll just leave these outside from now on, although it could be that the variety I grew just wasn't so good. I did cut a few others that self-sowed elsewhere earlier in the summer, and they weren't so difficult. Maybe I'll just cut those volunteers next year.

2. Dahlias: I haven't liked the colors and shapes of the dahlias that I have bought at Menards for the past several years. Perhaps I'll have to order some better ones with nicer colors and shapes through a catalog next year. Another problem however, is that the flowers seem to be eaten by insects by the time they are ready to cut, so there have been few blooms that I have been able to cut this year. Hmmm.

3. Love-in-a-mist: These never seem to last very long in a vase for me, plus they seed all over the place and don't seem to bloom for a very long period before going over. And even worse, they somehow remind me of spiders with their fine foliage near the flowers, which kind of creeps me out (perhaps I'm just weird).

4. The tulips that I planted seemed to bloom disappointingly late (and the daffodils, not at all). I yearn for flowering bulbs to cut in March and April, not May, when all sorts of other things are blooming already. I'll try to plant some earlier varieties this fall, and maybe I can accelerate their bloom with a cold frame or something? (My efforts to force bulbs in pots was an utter failure last winter, as I'll write about in another post....) Perhaps I'll just have to buy cut flowers in winter and early spring.

5. The jury's still out about the mums I planted. Maybe I need to remove lower branches to encourage longer stems and bigger flowers (the opposite of pinching out mums to promote bushy growth). Some other colors might be good too.

6. I'd like to grow more carnations (especially the white ones, which smell so spicy) and/or fragrant pinks, but carnations never make it through my winters and pinks have such short stems. Perhaps covering the perennial bed with straw will help them overwinter? And I never know when to pick carnations, because the side buds don't bloom at the same time as the main buds; do I wait until the main bud is past, or sacrifice all the side buds? Aagh!

An all-white bouquet from last week, with carnations, cosmos and
snapdragons. The carnations smell so lovely -- I wish I could
grow more of them!

Anyway, this year has been a great year for learning for me. I have learned more about which flowers I like best, which flowers perform well in a vase, and how to grow them successfully. Next year I'll make some more changes (although I think I'll stick with the four-bed approach, which worked pretty well and seemed like the right amount of space to devote to cutting flowers).

I'd certainly like to hear from you about which flowers have worked particularly well as cutting flowers in your own gardens, or any advice or thoughts about the issues I have mentioned here.

I appreciate your patience in reading all the way to the end of this long post -- Thanks! -Beth


  1. Lovely experiences about your cutting garden, I love to experiment with annuals too. Fom the bulbs Gladiolus are always great, I had many dahlias over the years, this year less, but still have some good ones. Your zinnias and white cosmeas are wonderful. Love-in-a-mist are beautiful but always a bit messy, not so good for cutting. I can recommend stocks and Campanula medium which are biennial.
    Wish you happy gardening.

    1. Hi Janneke, Thanks so much for reading and for your suggestions. I would love to be able to grow stocks here, but I think our summers might be too hot -- although perhaps I could try winter sowing them with the sweet peas right next to them... Nice thought for next spring -- Thanks! -Beth

  2. I so admire what work you put in your garden! It's beautiful. And what interesting vases. How funny, I have the opposite problem with bachelor's button. Mine have always grown very tall.

    1. Hi Stephen, I guess my BB were pretty tall too, but there was so much foliage and branches on them that the stems somehow seemed short for cutting -- I'm probably not describing it very well.... Oh well. Thanks for stopping by! -Beth

  3. Hi Beth, This was an interesting and informative post. Your white vase, and your vase of poppies, and your delphiniums are all lovely. I don't cut flowers as I have a house cat and she always bothers any plants on the table. If I do cut some, they have to be on my mantel or in a room behind a closed door. :(
    Your pink glads are really lovely. I have some glad corms in my basement that I've not planted for two years but had planted before. I wonder if they will bloom again? I might try it next year. Enjoy your fall, here's to cooler days!

    1. Hi Beth, Thanks for reading -- I understand about the house cats. I have an indoor cat too, and I'm careful never to bring lilies inside because they are extremely toxic (my husband is a vet and has told me very sad stories about this). But usually my cat ignores flowers -- except baby's breath, which he seems to like to munch for some reason. You should definitely try to plant your glads next May -- nothing to lose in doing so, and much to gain. Thanks again for stopping by! :-) -Beth

  4. Gardeners never stop learning, do they, Beth? I do tend to stick to 'what works' for me and should really experiment more. My favorite cutting flowers are zinnias, shasta daisies, purple cone flowers, and snapdragons. I use yarrow 'The pearl' (which looks like babies breath but is more sturdy) for filling in my vase arrangements. I want to try gladiolus since reading your posting. P. x

  5. I agree with your choices for great cut flowers...and I also have had similar issues with those you had less success with. I am trying to set up a few small cutting beds for those special flowers I grow from seed each year.