Grow flowers for cutting, to make your own fresh bouquets.
This summer we’re hosting the garden wedding of our youngest son, William. My gardens grew as my children did, and I’ve long dreamed of gorgeous home-grown flowers for fresh bridal bouquets with an abundance left over to decorate every room of the house.
Yet on that wondrous day of days, the display in my perennial beds must be just as lavish and extravagant. How can I have my flowers, and pick them too?
The solution to this delightful dilemma is to plant a separate cutting garden, where I can snip to my heart’s content and not fret about the appearance of the bed when I’m finished. With that in mind, I’m taking over part of my husband’s vegetable garden — but don’t tell him yet. I like to think that I’m growing food for the soul this season, as essential as any vegetable crop. Add some garden-grown flowers to your life: burying your head in a bunch you’ve just picked is an amazing way to begin your day.
Start with a well-drained site that receives full sun. No worries if it’s in a neglected corner or behind the shed; this can be a utilitarian production garden where appearance is not a priority. Or maybe you’d like to create a cutting garden as a feature too spectacular to conceal. In either case, the first consideration must be a convenient water source. Drip irrigation is preferred, but if you must provide overhead irrigation, water early in the day to make your plants less susceptible to disease.
Work in plenty of compost or humus before you plant, along with a few handfuls of time-release fertilizer. This is a garden for just one season, so provide your hard-working plants with all they need to produce a bounty without running out of energy. When the soil warms and the danger of frost passes, it’s time to plant. But some flowers — like sweet peas, larkspur and poppies — have greater hardiness and can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked.
Think like a vegetable gardener and plant in rows that can be easily navigated for snipping, cutting, watering and weeding, or opt for an intensively planted, square-foot gardening scheme that eschews rows. Regardless, deter weed germination in open areas with shredded newspaper, cardboard, organic mulches or other barriers. As your plants begin to grow, mulch them too, but keep the mulch from contacting their growing stems.
Generally annuals are better than perennials for cutting since they tend to bloom profusely over a long season. Certain perennials bloom only once or twice a summer, and it’s wrenching to part with those. By selecting annuals that bloom at different times, it’s possible to have cut flowers from early spring until the first frost. This year, I’m looking exclusively for flowers that peak in early August.
Remember that a variety of flower forms make the most interesting bouquets, so choose a diverse array of flower shapes, textures and fragrances. The point of a cutting garden is to have abundant blooms, so be diligent in removing faded flowers before they go to seed, which signals the plant that the season is over. If your plants come from the garden center with buds, pinch them off before you plant, and do the same with the growing tips of annuals grown from seed. It’s hard to do, but you will be rewarded by bushier, more productive plants before you know it.
These flowers grow quickly from seed and have a long life in a vase or bouquet. Add some sticks, branches, berries or bark to create an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind bouquet.
Amaranthus caudatus ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ This is an heirloom spiller with long, drooping flower spikes that look like chenille ropes. Grow it in green or burgundy. The more you pick, the more this stalwart will provide.
Celosia spicata ‘Flamingo Purple’ Add texture with dark pink, wheat-like flower spikes on long stems that emerge from purple foliage.
Dahlia I already have a dahlia cutting garden, but one can never have enough of these focal flowers. They reliably come into their glory when the weather heats up and don’t stop until frost. Available in a dazzling array of colors and flower forms, plant tubers in early May, stake them with something sturdy, and stand back. I use 6-foot metal fence posts; these big boys mean business and will grow to 5 feet or more, providing you with armloads of bouquet material.
Zinnia One of the longest-lasting cut flowers, zinnias love hot Yakima summers, but resent transplanting. So seed them directly into the garden when it’s warm enough to plant tomatoes. I’ve found packages of single colors like coral, peach, purple, lime green and orange to match our color scheme.
Sempervivum Tuck ‘hens and chicks’ into the corners of your garden, and let them spread and become a living mulch. Attached to a wire stem, they are unique bouquet elements.
Ornamental Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora)
Do you yearn for a garden that is more sensitive to our unique Yakima Valley climate and ecology? One that is not chemically dependent and less demanding of water resources (and that most precious commodity of all, your time)? No matter how well planned it was at its conception, every garden will grow to need updating and editing. In the last two decades, an array of ornamental grasses has transformed the American garden. As your garden awakens this month, reevaluate the plants you may have chosen years ago, and consider replacing lackluster, high-maintenance performers with a gorgeous grass.
Calamagrostis acutiflora, ‘Karl Foerster,’ is the most popular ornamental grass in the world, taking its place in local gardens, commercial landscapes and even the planters lining the business district in downtown Yakima. But there is so much more. Ornamental grasses come in all sizes, from ground-huggers to clumpers as tall as towers. They come in many forms, too, from upright tufts to mop-top mounds, to arching fountains. Most grasses will thrive in containers, and some aren’t even green.
Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Blue Grama Grass)
Its profusion of big, showy chartreuse flowers, held horizontally like flags above the leaves on 2 ½ -3’ stems, is unusual. Extremely cold hardy, ‘Blonde Ambition’ is a new selection of a native North American prairie grass that has been widely used as a drought-tolerant turf substitute in the Southwest and Prairie states.
Carex elata ‘Aurea’ (Bowles Golden Sedge)
In our hot summers, give the 2’ clumps some shade in the afternoon, and keep the soil moist. I think most gardeners will also love Carex morrowii ‘Goldband’ and ‘Variegata,’ since it’s impossible to find a color that these evergreen chartreuse beauties don’t pair well with.
Chasmanthium latifolia (Wild Oat)
Extremely adaptable, this one is happy in both wet and dry shade gardens, yet can thrive in the sun. A finely textured, well-mannered grass that reaches 3’ in height and 2’ in spread, I grow it for its pendulous seedheads, which remain beautiful all winter long, and can be used fresh or dried in arrangements.
Elymus magellanicus (Magellan Wheat Grass)
The first grass I ever planted, this clumper is arguably the bluest of all the grasses and grows to an iridescent 2’ x 2’. Give it adequate water; it’s worth it. This grass remains fairly evergreen. Come spring, I pull out the faded foliage with my hands, rather than cutting the whole plant back.
Hakonechloa macra (Japanese Forest Grass)
This slow-growing creeper has dense cascades of arching, lime-green leaves on stems up to 16” tall that undulate in the slightest breeze. Use it in your shade garden with hosta and heuchera and provide even moisture. ‘Aureola’ is the showy variegated golden form that absolutely glows and may be my current favorite grass.
Miscanthus sinensis (Maiden Grass)
These clumpers produce silvery seed heads late in the season. Forms with fine-textured foliage include ‘Gracillimus,’ ‘Sarabande,’ ‘Graziella’ and ‘Morning Light,’ with white leaf margins. ‘Cabaret’ has cream-colored foliage edged in green; ‘Strictus’ has horizontal bands of yellow on its green foliage. Flame grass, M. ‘Purpurascens,’ grows to 3’ and develops majestic red-orange fall color.
Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass)
This prairie native works in wet or drought conditions and can take full sun or partial shade. It grows narrowly upright, reaching 3’, with nodding panicles of purple in summer that fade to golden. Give it some back-lighting and stand back: the inflorescences absolutely shimmer. I’ve adored ‘Heavy Metal’ with metallic-blue foliage that becomes bright yellow in fall, but when I saw ‘Ruby Ribbons,’ I forgot about every other panicum I had ever seen. With burgundy color that develops early and continues to deepen, it could be a stand-in for the annual Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum.’
Pennisetum (Fountain Grass)
Gracefully mounding and topped by blooms in late summer, check out the array of gorgeous cultivars of P. alopecuroides, such as ‘Hameln,’ ‘Piglet,’ variegated ‘PennStripe,’ and ‘Burgundy Bunny’ with wine-red foliage. P. orientale ‘Karly Rose,’ happy in heat and drought, delights with a heavy bloom of rose-purple all summer.
Stipa tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass)
Noted to be hardy to Zone 7, my plants have survived two winters in a Zone 6b garden. With a form that soothes and flows, and with silky green blooms in June that become golden at maturity, pick some for a bouquet. Or give it a real job: it can provide good erosion control on difficult slopes. Cut the 1 1/2’ x 1 1/2’ clumps back in the spring.
Purple fountain grass is surrounded by parsley, orange diascia, begonias and marigolds.
The local garden of Linda Knutson and Ron Sell is a good example of how to use herbs. Photo courtesy of Linda Knutson.
Herbs are found in almost every home garden. Traditionally, we expect to find them in manicured beds all their own, or out in a tangle with the vegetables. But why limit these versatile, hard-working plants? Lavishly ornamental, many can hold their own in any area of the landscape.
Planted among your roses, in the front yard parking strip, between trees or shrubs or in the spaces between pavers, these ancient plants add another dimension to your outdoor spaces.
Interplanting like this re-establishes biodiversity in the garden, which is what nature intended. Confound insect pests by layering things they love with things they won’t touch, and attract beneficial insects, birds and butterflies to the garden. If that wasn’t enough, most herbs require minimal care and water once established, and they look amazing in a bouquet.
For example, take an honest look at your rose garden. Despite the extravagant bloom, a rose framework can be angular and prickly, with foliage that suffers in the summer heat. After years of laying nothing more than mulch at the feet of my roses, I’ve added a carpet of fragrant, flowering Nepetas, or catmints, to the bed, creating a billowing petticoat that disguises the bushes’ naturally knobby knees and adds the element of lush informality I’ve been searching for. I can’t get enough of the soft haziness of N. “Walker’s Low” and its taller relative, N. “Souvenir d’Andre Chaudron” — larger flowered and more upright. Their gorgeous violet-blue bloom begins in late spring and will continue until frost if you periodically remove the faded undergrowth.
Working in the herbs is a sensory delight, as your head and hands soak up the fragrant perfume of cut stems and bruised leaves. It’s amazing how quickly a fresh flush of new bloom emerges from the center of these catmints. I use Stachys byzantina — the familiar downy Lambs’ Ears — as a dense ground cover in the roses, inhibiting weed growth and softening sharp angles. Try the superior forms, giant leaved and silver “Helen von Stein” and buttery chartreuse “Primrose Heron,” both of which can be gathered by the armfull for filler in bouquets.
Between perennials and shrubs, and especially among ornamental grasses, add Agastache, or “Hummingbird Mint.” This perennial herb grows in bushy clumps, with upright branching stems topped with spikes of bottle-brush flowers over a long season.
I swoon for anything violet, and the recently introduced A. hybrids, such as “Blue Fortune,” “Black Adder” and “Purple Haze” bloom in my garden into October. With leaves and flowers that smell like anise, they make gorgeous cut flowers and are a magnet not just for hummers but bees and butterflies as well.
For a bright pink or orange color vibe, try A. cana, with flowers that smell like bubble gum or A. rupestris, with hints of licorice. When the plants reach 12 inches in height in the spring, I cut them back by half, which encourages a more bushy form and abundant flower spikes.
As a landscape border, lavender is everywhere, so why not try some of the culinary sages? S. officinalis, and its more colorful forms, “Icterina” or “Purpurescans,” are evergreen sub-shrubs with fabulously pebbled foliage that goes with everything you site next to it. Choose gold margined bright green or steely purple to provide a pop of color and fragrance that will spill over a walkway or edge a border. Chartreuse is a tough color to wear, except if you’re a plant. Santolina “Lime Fizz” is a gorgeous lemon-green form of an old favorite of Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny. It forms a bun-shaped evergreen mass of delicate fern-like foliage, blanketing itself with the palest of yellow flowers, perfect for picking. Growing to 18 inches, use it with any of the sages.
One of the best low-growing ground covers is creeping thyme. Use it as you would grout between pavers, stepping stones, in the spaces of rock walls or as a lawn substitute in a hot parking strip. It holds up well to foot traffic, doesn’t need very deep rooting and as a bonus it gives off a delicious scent when brushed. Many varieties are available, with green to silver foliage, and with flowers that range from purple to pink to white.
Another beautiful view of Knutson's garden.
Terrariums, like these created by Carol Barany, create tiny gardens indoors during winter. Photo by Robin Beckett.
After spending the last eight months in the garden, I’m coming inside. I’ve mulched and mowed, propagated and pruned. I’ve cried tears of astonishment and inspiration, as well as bewilderment and defeat, in my latest partnership with nature. I’ve practiced sustainable horticulture and integrated pest management, day in, and day out. I’ve created a compost pile large enough to be seen from the moon.
When November comes, I need a breakut like most gardeners, I still crave a daily link to the good green that gives beauty and richness to my life. Come November, I could use some botanical bling, and there’s an easy way to get it: create a terrarium.
A terrarium is a biosphere of any size, from a brandy snifter to a fish aquarium, with a tightly fitting lid. You can even push the boundaries and use an un-lidded glass vessel, if the opening is smaller than the rest of the container.
Inside, compose a landscape in miniature, such as a woodland. Think rainforest, and include plants that thrive on humidity, such as ferns, lichens, mosses or small tropical houseplants. If you are absolutely scrupulous and avoid the slightest overwatering, you can dare to plant succulents in an open terrarium. I have some tender echeverias that spend the summer outside in mixed containers, and they must come in with me when the weather cools. Too gorgeous to tuck away, I showcase my favorites in a large, open glass bowl.
There are endless possibilities. If you spend your days at a desk with a phone and computer for company, add a glass globe containing a few plants mixed with some mementos from your last vacation, like shells or driftwood. Green growing things, close at hand, will sooth and relax you. Terrarium building is a wonderful way to teach children about plants, too, and who is to say you can’t add some tiny dinosaurs or action figures to the mix? Regardless of your style of decorating, a collection of plants flourishing within sparkling glass is always elegant, not only enhancing your home but making a statment about you as a designer.
To make a terrarium, spread a 2-inch layer of ¼-inch gravel on the bottom of the container to serve as a dry well for drainage. Larger stones may be beautiful, but can allow water to collect at the bottom and lead to the need for occasional drainage. If you must use larger stones, place a layer of sheet moss between the soil and gravel to keep water from percolating to the bottom. The moss will also keep the roots of the plants drier and healthier. Regardless, mix some aquarium charcoal into the gravel to filter the water, sweeten the soil, and prevent stagnation and fungi that can grow in a container that lacks a drainage hole.
Now comes the next layer: your favorite sterile potting mix. The thickness of this layer depends on the size of the terrarium and the plants you’re using, but plants in plugs or 3-inch pots should grow well in soil that is 2-3 inches deep. Select an odd number of plants such as three or five, in a variety of leaf shapes and textures. Some should have slender stalks and others should have round and full leaves. For interest, try to vary the color of the foliage. Shop for your plants by placing them side-by-side at the store to see what they will look like in your arrangement. When you plant, make sure only the roots, not the plant stems or crowns, are buried in the soil. Top dress with sheet moss or more pebbles, which act like a blanket and keep the soil from drying out.
Once everything is in place, spray the interior lightly with a mister and put the lid on, if there is one. Place in bright but indirect light, such as a north or east-facing window. Too much direct sun can burn the plants, since solar energy can heat up a terrarium easily. A properly planted and lidded terrarium will maintain a good moisture balance for about three weeks. Condensation on the glass is normal, but if the interior mists up, the planting is too wet, and you should remove the lid for a day. If the mosses or ferns appear too dry, give a light misting and replace the lid. If the container is open, inspect the plants every week or so, and feel the soil. Water whenever it seems dry.
Fill your terrarium with elements from the outdoors. Photo courtesy of Istock.
Green cascading plants trail down the pot. Photos by Robin Salts Beckett.
It’s September, and your container gardens have been simmering in the heat for weeks. If you planted flowering annuals, it’s likely most have lost their luster and are looking very tired, no doubt making you just as tired of them.
But it can’t be over yet.
Nothing will make your deck or front porch look more depressing than pots filled with faded or dying plants. By rejuvenating some of your existing plants — and adding some fresh new ones — you can revive your pots and extend the growing season for weeks, if not months.
To get started, use a critical eye and decide which plants should stay and which should be pitched.
Sweet Potato Vine thrives in hot weather and should be looking its best now. Snip a few sections off the ends of some long trailers and root them quickly either in water or directly in the soil of a new fall container.
If your inspection reveals pale leaves and decreased blooms on other annuals, cut them back by half and follow with a feeding of water-soluble fertilizer mixed at half-strength. Continue to water well, and look for fresh, lush growth in return. Deadhead your flowers at least twice a week and remove tattered foliage as well.
If some of the plants in your container have grown so large that they look out of proportion to their companions, give them a good pruning to get some balance back. If any plants look unhealthy, weak or simply aren’t working for you, out they go. As you remove old plants, take time to add some compost or fresh potting mix to revitalize the soil.
Now you’re ready to shop.
Iconic autumn bloomers like mums, pansies and asters are everywhere and can shine for several weeks. Consider using ornamental kale, which can endure some frost and adds fullness as it grows. Cindy Mahre, owner of Yakima’s Loo Wit Gardens, selects perennials with remarkable foliage to anchor her containers through autumn and beyond.
Keep in mind that the hardiness of most perennials is increased by about two zones when planted in a pot. This means you can choose varieties that are hardy in zones 4 or 5 to survive Yakima’s zone 6b winters.
Hardiness can also depend on the location and material of the container and the unpredictable weather patterns of a particular winter. If your container is delicate and can crack in the cold, it needs to be emptied. Remove any perennials and plant them in the garden before the soil freezes. Here are some of Cindy’s suggestions:
* Ornamental grasses have become garden staples and are also finding their way into more and more containers, where designers are using them as ‘spikes’ to add vertical interest. Upright varieties complement lower-growing flowering and foliage plants, while fountain-like grasses look best planted in smaller pots where they can cascade with abandon. Lower temperatures bring such astonishing color changes to the foliage and flowers of grasses that many gardeners feel it’s not until the end of the season that grasses truly come into their glory. An icing of frost or snow can only make the vision more breathtaking.
* Heucheras have become a favorite container foliage plant, remaining fairly evergreen through the winter. Available in a dazzling palette of colors, heucheras will grow more vigorously and have the best leaf coloration when they are planted in partial shade in the summer. In the lower light intensity that autumn brings, they should be able to handle full sun placement.
* For a long season of interest and minimal care requirements, plant succulents. Sedums are tough plants that offer form and texture to a planting and are at their best in fall. Colors range from every shade of green to burgundy, gray, gold, pink and chocolate — and that applies to the flowers as much as it does to the foliage. Some cultivars fill the spaces within a pot, others cascade and tumble over the rim, while some stand tall and upright. Most are hardy down to zone 3, and their dried flower heads will continue to add interest to the composition long after the foliage dies back. Sempervivums — or hens and chicks — are hardy, come in just as many colors and hold up like starburst jewels in a mixed pot through the harshest winter.
Chicks and hens fill a corner of the container.