Cut Flowers, Three Ways

People, like bees, are attracted to flowers, always for beauty (and occasionally for food).

We enjoy flowers in our gardens, but we want them indoors, as well. Americans buy some ten million cut flowers a day. About eighty percent are grown outside of the United States and brought in by air, in a stunningly efficient transition from field to vase.

Amy Stewart told the story of the global flower industry in Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful (Algonquin Books, 2008). Her fascinating book explores “the startling intersection of nature and technology, or sentiment and commerce.” According to one reviewer, Flower Confidential reveals so much about the technology and chemistry of the flower biz that it “may compel us to return to something purer, more local.”

Stewart’s fellow garden writer, Debra Prinzing, responds to that vision in The 50 Mile Bouquet: Seasonal, Local and Sustainable Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012).

Prinzing clearly favors emerging alternatives to the $40 billion dollar floriculture industry, which focuses on uniformity and durability. In her view, “factory flowers” may seem close to perfect, but they offer little or no scent, a maximum of preservatives and pesticides, and by the time they reach your vase, a relatively short life. She writes that they “have lost the fleeting, ephemeral quality of an old-fashioned, just-picked bouquet.”

The alternative she applauds is the nascent industry for producing cut flowers that are sustainably grown and locally sold. The 50 Mile Bouquet profiles a series of small-scale organic flower businesses, mostly on the west coast, and operated mostly by couples that are inspired by nature and particularly by flowers.

Prinzing explores floral design, featuring imaginative individuals who advocate “green” floral design. Their arranging supplies do not include green foam, the main ingredient of which is a known carcinogen, formaldehyde.

A chapter on “The DIY Bouquet” explores flower arranging by amateurs who love flowers, including some who prefer their flowers in the garden, arranged by nature.

The final chapters address the role of florals in celebrations & festivities, and resources for flower growers and arrangers.

The book is a feast for all who enjoy having flowers in their lives and in their gardens. It is the product of a flower lover and gifted writer (and president of the Garden Writers of America, no less). This beautiful book also includes fine photographs by David E. Perry, whose pictures capture the book’s spirit and the commitment of many flower growers and floral designers that we come to know.

My third perspective involves designing and cultivating personal cutting gardens, and “The Gardener’s Dilemma.” Read on!

One of a gardener’s dilemmas (there are several) is whether to enjoy flowers in their natural state, in the garden, or to cut them for indoor display.

George Bernard Shaw said, “I like flowers, I also like children, but I do not chop their heads and keep them in bowls of water around the house.”

He was one who prefers to enjoy flowers in the garden!

There is a solution to this dilemma: the cutting garden.

By definition, a cutting garden functions as a bloom producer. By comparison, a tropical flowerbed has the very different purpose of providing an attractive vista.
In planning a cutting garden, the gardener’s priority is to prepare an efficient growing ground, one that can be used to produce a large number of blooms with a minimum of effort.

This perspective leads the gardener firstly to selecting a site that receives at least six hours of sunlight each day, because plants that produce a lot of blossoms need full exposure to the sun.

The size of the site depends on how many flowers the gardener wishes to grow. A bed of just twenty square feet could accommodate a couple dozen plants.

An important consideration is that the bed will be fully accessible by the gardener, for preparing the soil, planting seeds or seedlings, mulching, weeding, and harvesting blooms. For good access, the bed should be no deeper than four feet, and accessible from both sides. A larger bed should have a path every four feet to provide equivalent access.

Because the cutting is intended to be productive rather than beautiful at all times, it could be located in a less prominent area of the garden.

Secondly, the soil in the cutting garden should be have soil that is not mostly sand, so it will hold moisture, and not mostly clay, so it will drain well. Stated differently, the soil should be good garden loam, with a balance of sand, clay and organic material. If your soil is less than ideal, dig in a generous measure of compost, or, for extremely poor soil conditions, consider installing raised beds and filling them with amended soil from a landscape supply outlet.

The third consideration is that the site should have easy access to water. A automatic irrigation system would be most convenient, but at least hose watering should be readily available.

Then, select plants that produce the flowers you want. A great many flowering annuals and perennials would be suitable for a cutting garden, so the selection is a personal matter. If you need suggestions, consider the nominations of Roger Cook, landscape contractor, visit the This Old House website and search for “cutting garden.”

Buy either seeds or seedlings, again depending on your preference. Seeds are less expensive; seedlings are easier and faster to grow.

Read the seed packages or plant tags to learn how large the plants will grow, how to space them, when they will bloom, and other useful information. You might want to select plants that bloom at different times, to provide cut flowers over a long period.

Place taller plants where they will not block your access or the sun’s access to the smaller plants. This might be in the middle, or on the north side of the bed.

Other placement issues to consider include grouping plants with similar sun, water and drainage needs.

After watering in the plants, plan on mulching the bed, providing regular water and weeding as needed. When the plants begin to bloom, deadhead the blossoms to enjoy them indoors and promote more blooms.

Enjoy your cutting garden.

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