Master Gardener Column by Gail Culver, Consumer Horticulture Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension
Consider a cutting garden
Everyone loves to give and receive flowers. For gardeners, the ultimate pleasure is to be able to cut flowers from their own garden to bring indoors and to give away to friends and family. Many also love to have homegrown blossoms, foliage and seed heads handy for fresh or dried floral crafts and cooking. However, the problem is that picking flowers from the garden reduces the floral show in the yard. It is a tough decision whether to cut flowers for indoors or leave them on display outdoors. The perfect solution to this problem is to establish a separate cultivated area specifically as a cutting garden. Then you can have your flowers and pick them too!
Fill your cutting garden with plants that produce the flowers and foliage you love. Use it as an area to experiment with new plants and colors. Place it where it is not on public display and indulge your fancy. Consider making it part of your vegetable garden. This is a production garden, created to be cut down, so do not worry about design correctness.
Create a cutting garden much the same way you initially establish a flower garden. Choose a site that receives generous sun and prepare the soil so that it drains well. Add humus in the form of compost, peat moss or chopped leaves to improve clay or sandy soil. Create one or more beds of whatever size and shape to accommodate the available space. They can be tucked into sunny spots along the back boundary, in a neglected corner or behind the garage. By their very nature, they are transient, so they can be easily changed or reconfigured next season if necessary.
While cutting gardens often look beautiful at the peak of the season, this is incidental. So, because they are not intended for display, a purely utilitarian layout makes the most sense. Once they are established, they are easier to maintain and require much less attention than ornamental beds. For this reason, cutting gardens usually resemble traditional vegetable gardens. They are typically planted in widely spaced rows that are easy to move through and between while planting, thinning, fertilizing, deadheading and of course, harvesting.
Be sure and mix into the soil a granular, slow‑acting fertilizer at the beginning of the season. This will provide consistent, balanced nutrition to the plants over many, many weeks. Periodic doses of diluted liquid fertilizer sprayed on plant foliage will boost the energy of certain heavy blooming plants during peak production.
Rather than interplant seeds or young transplants of many different kinds of flowers, group the species of plants for efficient use of space and easy harvest. To get maximum production, plant annuals in succession ‑‑ early season, mid‑season and late-season bloomers grouped together. Cluster plants with similar requirements for sun, water and drainage for easier maintenance. Plant tall types together, away from where they might shade smaller ones.
To minimize watering and weeding maintenance, spread a 2- or 3-inch layer of some organic mulch on the soil around the plants in the cutting garden as soon as they are a few inches tall. It does not have to be attractive, so use whatever is inexpensive and at hand, such as chopped leaves, shredded newspaper or straw. The mulch will discourage weeds, keep the soil moist longer and contribute nutrients to the soil as it decomposes in the summer heat. Add to the mulch layer if it breaks down to less than an inch. If you grow plants that are notorious self‑seeders, such as spider flower (cleome), removing the mulch at the end of the season will help to clear away most of the seeds as well.
To spur and maintain flower production of annuals, pick blossoms regularly. Deadhead those that remain and become faded. This prevents them from forming seeds, which slows flower production. Water about an inch per week if rainfall is unreliable. Unmulched beds will need more frequent watering, especially in the summer. Keep a lookout for aphids on tender young growth or plants that are stressed and unhappy. Pinch infested tips off or wash the foliage with a strong stream of water from the hose. Insecticidal soap spray will take care of stubborn infestations.
As soon as the blossoms from a stand of flowers have been cut and/or the plants begin to weaken, pull them, cultivate the bed and plant new seedlings to provide cut flowers for the weeks to come. For instance, plant only pansies in an area for an early season supply of flowers. Then, when summer heat arrives, replace them in that area with American marigolds or zinnias.
Lots of different kinds of flowering plants are suitable for a cutting garden. Long‑stemmed annuals or perennials are most useful. Typically, colorful annual flowers dominate these gardens, because they are such enthusiastic bloomers. Cutting their blossoms only encourages them to produce more. All kinds of daisies are enormously popular and combine well with lots of other flowers.
Long-blooming perennials have a place in the cutting garden as well as in the more formal flower border. Plants such as coral bells and fringed bleeding heart will produce flowers all season, especially if they are regularly picked. Some, such as purple coneflowers and black‑eyed Susan’s produce bold, bristly seed heads that are ideal for floral crafts. Of course perennials can be depended upon to bloom next season so there is no need to replant that part of the cutting garden.
Don't forget foliage plants that contribute texture and color to both fresh and dried arrangements. Silver‑leafed Artemisia varieties, lamb's ears and herbs such as lavender contribute grayish‑silver foliage that is both handsome and aromatic. (The source of this information is Professor Raymond T. Fox, Department of Floriculture, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.)
For gardening tips and assistance, Master Gardeners are available Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until noon at the Cooperative Extension office, 420 East Main Street, Batavia. They may be reached by calling 343-3040, ext. 127, or by stopping in at our office, or by email HYPERLINK "mailto:[email protected]" [email protected].