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While growing vegetables is my passion, I also grow a cut flower garden because I enjoy having a non-stop supply of beautiful flowers to harvest for homegrown bouquets. And while many plants are grown for their flowers – perennials, biennials, bulbs, and even edibles – annual flowers like zinnias and sunflowers are among the most popular type of cut flowers grown by gardeners. They’re productive, easy to grow, beautiful, and can be planted in gardens or containers.
Planning a cut flower garden
If you’re new to gardening, start with the right spot. Flowers need plenty of sun and rich, well-drained soil. Prep the site before planting by loosening the soil and digging in some compost and a slow-release flower fertilizer. Raised beds are a popular choice for gardeners who want a tidy garden that is easy to care for. No space for a cut flower garden? No worries! If you’re a casual cut flower gardener like me, you can tuck annual flowers wherever you have space – between vegetables, amongst your perennials and shrubs, or even in pots and planters.
First timers may want to stick to a few easy-to-grow annual flowers like zinnias and sunflowers. Read the descriptions in seed catalogs or on the plant tags at the nursery carefully. You’ll want to organize your cut flower garden so that the tallest plants are at the back of the bed, medium-sized ones in the middle, and short stature plants at the front. Also take note if certain cut flowers, like sweet peas or climbing nasturtiums grow on vining plants. These will need netting or a trellis to climb. Tall annuals, like certain zinnia and sunflower varieties, may need stakes or other types of support to prevent them from toppling over as they grow.
Planting a cut flower garden
While many annual flowers are fast-growing and can be direct sown in the garden in spring, planting seedlings gives you a head-start on the season. Generally, I start my annual cut flowers inside under my grow-lights around 6 to 8 weeks before our last expected frost. Read the seed packet or catalog for variety-specific growing information.
You can also buy annual flowers like cosmos and phlox at your local nursery, but it can be hard to source the varieties that have been bred for cut flower production. And if you want high-quality cut flowers, these are the varieties to grow. They offer outstanding characteristics like long vase life, longer stems, and bigger flowers. Again, it pays to read seed catalogs carefully.
The key to a non-stop supply of beautiful blooms is succession planting. Cut flower farmers don’t plant zinnias, for instance, just once. Why? After a few weeks of intense blooming, the flower production of many annuals declines or the bloom size shrinks. Planting fresh seedings every two to three weeks ensures a steady supply of large, florist-quality flowers. My season is short, but I still make three plantings of zinnias so that I have gorgeous, huge blooms for my bouquets.
Growing cut flowers
There are a few tasks to keep on top of as the growing season progresses. Many plants, like zinnias and Celosia benefit from pinching. Pinching is done to young plants to encourage them to branch and produce longer stems for bouquets. Plants are usually pinched when they are 10 to 12 inches tall. Use your fingers or a clean pair of pruners to remove the growing tip, pinching back to a healthy set of leaves.
Pay attention to watering as water-stressed plants produce fewer and smaller flowers. Hold soil moisture with a mulch like straw, shredded leaves, or black landscape fabric applied to the soil surface. Mulch also reduces weed growth and, if a black landscape fabric is used, it will warm the soil promoting growth, especially in late spring and early summer.
To keep flower production high, feed the plants every two to three weeks with a liquid organic flower fertilizer. Never leave dead flowers on the plants. If they are producing more flowers than you need, harvest them all as they open and share them with friends, family, neighbors, or a local nursing home. Spent blossoms that are left on the plant reduce production so be sure to pick all newly opened blooms several times a week.
Picking flowers from a cut flower garden
Did you know that proper flower harvesting can extend the vase life of cut flowers? Here are a few cutting tips:
- Harvest in the morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day.
- Harvest flowers from plants that are well irrigated and not water stressed.
- Have a clean bucket (or two if you’re harvesting a lot of flowers) ready and filled with cool water.
- Make sure your pruning shears or snips are sharp and clean.
- Cut flower stems at a slant to increase surface area and water update.
- Remove any foliage that would be under water.
- As soon as the bucket is full or you are done harvesting, bring it into a cool, shaded space to arrange your flowers.
5 Awesome annuals for your cut flower garden:
Sunflowers are a must in a cut flower garden. Not only are they easy to grow, their cheerful flowers come in a wide array of colors, sizes, and forms. There are two main types of sunflowers: single stem and branching. Single stem sunflowers do exactly what you think – they produce a single stem that is topped with one flower. When growing single stem varieties, like the Pro Cut series, you can plant the seeds close together (6 to 7 inches apart) to get more from your growing space, but expect smaller flowers. Those planted on a one-foot grid spacing will produce larger blooms. Single stem sunflowers last up to two weeks in water.
Branching sunflower varieties, on the other hand, yield plants that produce flowers over an extended season. The stems are generally not as strong as those of single stemmed sunflowers and they do take several weeks longer to flower. Personally, I like to plant some of each type so that I have a long harvest season and plenty of variety.
One last note about sunflowers – certain hybrids are pollenless and don’t drop pollen that can stain clothing and tablecloths. You may wish to grow these in your cut flower garden.
I am a BIG fan of the velvety, long-lasting flowers of Celosia which come in a tempting palette of colors. Some species have feathery plumes, while others have rounded, folded combs and are also known as cockscomb. All make excellent cut flowers for homegrown bouquets.
Celosia takes a bit too long to go from seed to harvest to direct seed in my zone 5 garden and therefore I grow them from seedlings. You can grow the seedlings yourself or buy them from a local nursery. If you’re after a certain variety however, I’d recommend starting your own seeds indoors about eight weeks before the spring frost date. Chief Mix is a choice blend of cockscomb-types in bold shades of dark red, fuchsia, carmine, and gold.
Celosia is a heat-lover and wants a site with plenty of sun as well as compost enriched soil. The two to four foot tall, top-heavy plants benefit from sturdy support, so after planting it’s a good idea to erect horizontal netting over the bed to encourage tall, straight stems.
If I could only grow one type of cut flower, it would be zinnias. I grow several species and at least a dozen varieties every summer in my veggie garden. Zinnias bloom all summer long, require little fussing, and have an incredible range of flower sizes and colors. Plus, they’re super fast from seed to bloom. That said, I still prefer to start them indoors so that I don’t have to wait as long for the show to begin.
To plant a bed of zinnias for cutting, space the seedlings around 10 inches apart and erect horizontal netting a foot above the ground. As the plants grow, they will grow up through the netting and not flop over in high winds or heavy rain.
Once zinnias have been flowering for a few weeks, the bloom size begins to diminish. Succession planting fresh seedlings every few weeks extends the crop of large, high-quality blooms. Cut flower farmers often pinch their zinnia plants to encourage longer stems. Zinnias should be pinched when they’re around a foot tall. Using clean pruners, remove the top few inches and cut back to a fresh set of leaves.
While there are hardy perennial Rudbeckias, there are also some, like Rudbeckia hirta, that are grown as annuals. When started indoors and planted out after the last spring frost, this hardworking cut flower begins to bloom by mid-July and continues all summer long.
Like zinnias, these are super easy to grow, but unlike zinnias, they don’t need to be pinched to produce plenty of flowers. Cherokee Sunset mix yields large four to five inch diameter flowers in rustic red, orange, bronze, yellow, and gold. Many of the flowers are doubled, but there are also single and semi-doubled flowers too – a wonderful mix of flower colors and shapes.
Phlox drummondii is an under-appreciated annual that produces charming clusters of dainty flowers. Some are dwarf plants, growing just a foot tall, while others grow up to two feet and make excellent cut flowers. My must-grow varieties include Art Shades Mix or Cherry Caramel which add old fashioned charm to bouquets.
Unlike most of the annual flowers I’ve featured, phlox does not transplant well and is often direct seeded in mid-spring, or as soon as the soil can be prepared. If you do wish to start the seeds indoors, use care when transplanting the seedlings to the garden and avoid disturbing the roots.
For further reading on how to grow a cut flower garden , check out the wildly popular book, Floret’s Farm Cut Flower Garden.
To learn more about growing beautiful flowers, check out the following articles:
- Container plants for full sun
- How to grow SunPatiens
- 10 plants with showy blooms
- How to grow bells of Ireland from seed
Are you going to grow a cut flower garden this year?