One of the great joys of tending a garden is bringing some of it indoors -- fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs for the kitchen, or a bouquet of flowers to adorn the home or share with others.
But gardeners are often reluctant to cut the flowers they worked so hard to grow. Planting a cutting garden can help overcome this reluctance so you can enjoy growing, arranging and sharing flowers from your garden.
Cutting gardens are simply those that are established to produce cut flowers for the vase. They are functional, not designed for visual appeal, but they can be beautiful. They can contain annuals, perennials, shrubs, bulbs -- really any plant you enjoy as a cut flower. Including foliage plants adds to visual interest of bouquets, too.
Here is a sample of cutting garden arrangements you can make throughout the seasons:
• A bouquet of spring's first tender blossoms: hellebore, pulmonaria, grape hyacinth and daffodils, surrounded by new hosta leaves just unfurling.
• Magnificent, fragrant, billowing arrangements of spring peonies and lilacs, or summer roses.
• A tiny spray of colorful summer flowers to tuck on a bathroom shelf.
• A single perfect dinner plate dahlia floating in a low glass bowl on a dining table.
• Late-season zinnias hastily cut before the first hard frost to cheer a sick friend.
To establish a cutting garden, start as for any garden bed, by choosing a site that gets the correct amount of sun for the plants you will grow. If you have space to establish a separate cutting garden, that's great. If not, grow your favorite cut flower plants in established garden beds. Create the bed and improve the soil as for any new garden, using lots of organic matter.
Choosing what to grow is the fun part. Start by choosing your favorite flowers in colors you like, and try something new or different, too. Don't forget woody plants, perennials and bulbs. You can start many cutting garden varieties from seed. Plants purchased from a nursery will give you blooms sooner. Go to the end of the column for a list of plants that make great cut flowers (and foliage).
Once you have flowers, you must properly cut and condition them. Fill a clean nonmetal bucket with warm water and floral preservative and take it with you into the garden. The flowers will absorb the warm water more readily than cool water, and there is less chance of air blockage in the stems. It's best to cut in the morning or evening, when flowers are full of moisture.
After gathering the flowers, take them indoors and, using a sharp knife or pruning shears, recut the stems on an angle, underwater. Remove the foliage from the lower part of the stems because it rots under water. Leave flowers in the bucket in a cool dark place for a minimum of two hours, but ideally overnight, before arranging.
Some flowers require special conditioning:
• Poppy stems ooze a milky sap and should be sealed with a flame or dipped in very hot water for a few seconds after cutting.
• Daffodil stems contain a substance that rots other flowers, so condition separately.
• Flowers with hollow stems, such as delphiniums and lupines, should have their stems plugged with a bit of cotton after conditioning.
• Stems of woody plants should be split an inch or two from the bottom.
• Rose thorns can be clipped off.
• Tulips should be wrapped tightly in newspaper during conditioning to keep them from opening too fast.
More details about conditioning are available at www.thegardener.btinternet.co.uk/conditioning.html.
As you arrange flowers, make a fresh angled cut on each stem. You can arrange in your hand, in a vase or in moistened floral foam that can be used in a variety of containers. Use your creativity and have fun with colors, textures, and forms of flowers and foliage.
Prolong the life of your arrangement by using a floral preservative in the water. Change the water daily and re-cut stems every few days for maximum life. Do not re-use floral foam, as the water-holding capacity decreases and the flowers may wilt prematurely.
Some flowers dry better than others. Flowers that dry well include strawflower, zinnia, coneflower, statice, baby's breath, roses, celosia, tall ageratum and hydrangea. The simplest way to dry flowers is to tie in small bunches and hang upside down in a warm dark room until dry. Great results can be had by cutting stems to an inch and layering flowers in silica gel or fine sand in a cardboard box. It takes about six weeks for most flowers to dry this way.
To arrange dried flowers, add a wire stem and wrap with floral tape, then position in a plastic-foam-filled container. Dried flower arrangements can last a year or more. Remove surface dust by spraying with canned air or using a hair dryer on a low cool setting.
Annuals: Floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum), angelonia, snapdragon (Antirrhinum), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), cockscomb (Celosia), cosmos, gomphrena, sunflower (Helianthus), strawflower (Helichrysum bracteatum), statice (Limonium), bells of Ireland (Moluccella), salvia, love-in-a-mist (Nigella), marigold (Tagetes), verbena bonariensis and ainnia elegans.
Perennials: larkspur (Delphinium), coneflower (Echinacea), ferns -- many varieties, blanket flower (Gaillardia), baby's breath (Gypsophila), Lenten rose (Helleborus), hosta, daisy (Leucanthemum), blazing star (Liatris), lilies, ornamental grasses -- many varieties, peony (Paeonia), phlox and lamb's ear foliage (Stachys).
Bulbs: Daffodil (Narcissus), tulips and hyacinths.
Woody shrubs: Dogwood (Cornus), forsythia, hydrangea, sweetspire (Itea virginica), crabapple (Malus), cherry (Prunus), roses, curly willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa'), Japanese fantail willow (Salix sachalinensis 'Sekka') and lilac (Syringa).
Martha Swiss is a Penn State Master Gardener. Columns by master gardeners will sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Cooperative Extension agent.