Planning a Cutting Garden

It’s a classic gardener’s dilemma: The flowers look so attractive in the garden that there is an overwhelming temptation to cut some for the house, but if the flowers are cut for the house, the garden doesn’t look as nice any more. The sensible solution is to set aside some space for a cutting garden.

The cutting garden solves another pressing problem of gardening: Some flowers make splendid cut flowers but, for one reason or another, are less than lovely in the garden. Old-fashioned clove-scented carnations are a perfect example. They have a deplorable tendency to flop, and will stand up straight only if every stem is propped or staked or tied—not a particularly charming look. On the other hand, their flowers and fragrance are delightful. They are best grown discreetly out of sight in the cutting garden.

Chrysanthemums are very much the same: They need regular pinching and staking to bloom well, but that much tromping about in the border doesn’t exactly benefit the other flowers. Freesias, too, are inclined to collapse just as the blooms open, but how could one have spring without that wonderful fragrance? Shasta daisies are inclined to sprawl, but their big, shaggy heads are terrific in bouquets. Sweet peas have to be grown on strings or on a fence, which is utilitarian and, alas, looks it—but the flowers are so charming and smell so sweet, it’s a shame to be without them. Tall delphiniums and dahlias, summer lilies, and foxglove are all excellent cut flowers, but taking enough for a good bouquet spoils the border. For these reasons, a cutting garden is preeminently useful.

Perennial flowers are among the most prized of all cut flowers, lending themselves particularly well to large bouquets of striking impact. A dozen or so red-hot-pokers in a tall glass cylinder, an armload of cobalt blue delphiniums in a big Delft blue-and-white pitcher, a combination of sunflowers and coreopsis in a rich green Provencal vase, or masses of pale pink peonies in a stone crock are just a few possibilities.

Because the cutting garden is basically utilitarian, lay it out in the simplest, most practical manner. Plant the perennials in rows like a vegetable garden, with the tallest flowers set so that they don’t shade the shorter ones. A little-used side yard is an ideal place for a cutting garden as long as it receives at least a half day of sun; an isolated corner of the back yard also works well, or the little strip of land often found behind the garage. Prepare the soil properly; few things thrive in genuinely poor soil. Turn the soil at least 6 inches down, rake it free of clods or rocks, and dig in some compost before seeding or setting out seedlings.

Cut flowers keep longer if you follow a few simple rules. Cut them in the morning or evening when they are most turgid with water; flowers cut in the middle of the day are somewhat wilted, and once cut, have difficulty absorbing enough water to either look good or last long.

Use a sharp knife or pair of scissors to cut flowers, and make a clean cut. Take a pail or pitcher of warm water into the garden and plunge the stems into it immediately. When arranging the flowers, remove any foliage from the base of the stems; leaves left underwater discolor the water and begin to smell nasty in a remarkably short time. Professional flower arrangers often cut the stems again before putting the flowers into the vase. For the longest life, cut the stems underwater and make the cut at an angle.

Cut flowers do best in a cool room out of direct sunlight. Changing the water daily also helps the bouquet last longer. Cut flower “foods” available at some garden centers and from florists can be added to the water to prolong the bloom even longer.

A cutting garden is also an excellent place to hold perennials in reserve until you are ready to plant them in the landscape or garden. For example, nurseries often put perennials on sale once they are past bloom. You can get good buys during these sales, but it’s not really the best time to put the plants in the bed or border. Tuck them in the cutting garden until fall or spring.

The cutting garden is also a good place to practice with a new perennial to get a feel for how well it performs in your garden before setting it out in a bed or border. If you aren’t quite sure what a daylily will look like in your garden, give it a year in the cutting garden to find out. Perennials that make outstanding cut flowers appear in Qualities of Perennials.