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Tips for Growing a Cut Flower Garden

By: James A. Baggett James A. Baggett
We talked to our friends at PepperHarrow flower farm for tips on how to grow a cut flower garden. Find 10 great plants to start with here!

Jennifer & Adam O’Neal Owners,  PepperHarrow Farm Winterset, IA: Jennifer & Adam O’Neal — Owners of PepperHarrow farm in Winterset, Iowa.

Find joy in a cut flower garden

The simple joy of planting a patch of flowers to cut and fashion into a posy is undeniable. For Jennifer and Adam O’Neal, owners of PepperHarrow flower farm in Iowa, growing cut flowers is a way of life. They grow all of their botanical ingredients themselves, from early blooming anemones to late-season dahlias, on six acres in Winterset, Iowa (including a half-acre of lavender and another half-acre of sunflowers). Their tips can help you convert just a few square feet of neglected garden space into a bouquet factory.

Natural inspiration

“We want to inspire people to use what they have growing around them to create beauty,” says Jennifer, a lifelong gardener who as a girl helped her grandmother create arrangements to compete in the county fair. “We grow hundreds of flower species each season. But you don’t have to have a massive garden to be able to appreciate the beauty of nature up close and personal.”

Adam is originally from Louisiana and grew up playing in his backyard, the swamps of a nature preserve. He is devoted to sustainable flower farming and has a designer’s mindset when it comes to selecting which flowers to grow. Because they never stop growing or planting flowers to have throughout the season, their beds transition during the year. “In the spring,” says Adam, “we’ll start with gorgeous ranunculus and will end up taking them out in late June and planting something else like cosmos for either midseason or fall bloom. Our flower gardens are incredibly dynamic.”

Take a cue from this green-hearted couple and expand your garden to include both annuals and perennials for cutting and beautiful bouquets.

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PepperHarrow Cut Flower Farm flower field, Winterset Iowa: Jennifer and Adam use natural fertilizers like compost tea and fish emulsion to get the most flowers in their plantings.

Grow, harvest & arrange your own cut flowers

For a gardener to grow enough flowers to have beautiful bouquets all season long, Adam and Jennifer suggest starting with a 10×10-foot plot. “In that space you can grow a nice mix of flowers with staggered bloom times,” Adam says.

Growing a cut flower garden

Their larger bed above gets two plantings of zinnias every year. They start the first set of seeds indoors four weeks before the last frost date. “Next,” says Adam, “start another round about two weeks after the last frost date, then plant those out once the first crop of zinnias starts to get powdery mildew.” Same space, but two crops of flowers in the same season. “Focus on easy annuals with pretty pops of color,” Jennifer says. She suggests starting with zinnias, celosia, globe amaranth and lisianthus.

For those short on space, Adam recommends incorporating cut flowers into existing beds and borders. Perennial candidates for cutting include salvia, veronica and coneflowers. If you don’t like to cut flowers from spots you can see from the house, consider those spaces where you could grow a few cutting plants out of sight, like behind the garage or along the sides of the house. Or do as gardeners have done for generations and grow them alongside edibles in the vegetable patch.

Be sure to feed your flowers

Annuals grown for cutting will benefit from additional feeding. Besides the annual addition of well-rotted compost to help replace depleted nutrients, Adam and Jennifer suggest applying a mild fertilizer, such as organic fish emulsion, at planting time as well as feeding with compost tea throughout the season.

Seed Sources for Cut Flower Garden:
- Botanical Interests
- Johnny's Selected Seeds
- Renee's Garden
- Swallowtail Garden Seeds

buckets of harvested cut flowers: Adam and Jennifer place just-harvested flowers directly into buckets of water and allow them to rest for 24 hours in a cool place before they recut and arrange.

Tips for harvesting cut flowers

If you can’t cut flowers early in the morning, do so late in the afternoon or evening. Jennifer typically cuts the stems at least 18 inches long, if possible, and later cuts them to the size of the bouquet.

“We always cut our flowers at a 45-degree angle to allow the flower to take up water easily,” she says. “We also always look to cut at a junction of a branch, which will promote additional growth and blooms on the plant.”

zinnia cut flower tips pepperharrow flower farm: Do a simple wiggle test on zinnia stems to see if they are sturdy enough to be cut for bouquets. Cutting longer stems will allow for being retrimmed as needed for arrangements later.

Cut flower tips

  • To tell if it's time to cut a zinnia, grasp the stem between your fingers and give it a good wiggle. If it flops, it's not ready. If it remains stiff and erect, it's time to cut.
  • Harvest flowers in the morning (after the dew has dried) or evening, not during the heat of the day.
  • Cut low on each stem to obtain long, sturdy stems.
  • Slanted cuts will keep stems from lying flat on the bucket bottom and increase water uptake.
  • Adam and Jennifer place just-harvested flowers directly into buckets of water and allow them to rest for 24 hours in a cool place before they recut and arrange.
  • They like to add a chlorine-based tablet, such as CVBN Tabs (available online and at floral supply stores) to each bucket at the same time to kill bacteria and prolong the life of the flowers.
  • Strip off any leaves that will fall below the water line in the arrangement. If left on, they will decompose, creating an unpleasant odor and fouling the water with bacteria.

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10 Great plants for a cut flower garden

Create a cutting garden with these colorful varieties to keep your vases full all season long. Most of these (with the exception of the dahlia) can be grown from seed, which allows you to grow the varieties that are difficult to find at local nurseries. You can also find most of these types of flowers at the garden centers in the growing season.

‘Chief Rose’ celosia (Celosia argentea cristata)

‘Chief Rose’ celosia (Celosia argentea cristata)

Type Annual
Blooms Large, crested candy-pink flowerheads on especially strong stems from summer through fall; use fresh or dried
Light Full sun
Size 36 to 40 in. tall, 8 to 10 in. wide

Benary’s Giant Mix zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Benary’s Giant Mix zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Type Annual
Blooms Up to 6-in. double dahlialike blossoms in many colors on straight, sturdy stems from summer through fall
Light Full sun
Size 30 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide

Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentas)

Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentas)

Type Annual
Blooms Red, green, creamor chartreuse petal-less flowers in tassel-like panicles from summer through fall; use fresh or dried
Light Full sun
Size 24 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide

Coralie dahlia (Dahlia)

Coralie dahlia (Dahlia)

Type Tender tuber
Blooms 5-in. creamy flowers with peach stripes and white splotches on tips from late summer through fall; longer vase life than other dahlias
Light Full sun
Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide

‘Dondo Blue’ floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)

‘Dondo Blue’ floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annaul)
Blooms Fuzzy purple-blue flower clusters atop long stems from late summer through fall
Light Full sun to part shade
Size 10 to 24 in. tall, 6 to 18 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 10

‘Fireball’ strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum)

‘Fireball’ strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual)
Blooms Papery red flowers with yellow centers atop sturdy stems from late spring through fall; use fresh or dried
Light Full sun
Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 36 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 12

ABC™3 Rose lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum)

ABC3 Rose lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annaul)
Blooms Soft pink double flowers in early summer atop sturdy stems with a long vase life (up to 2 weeks)
Light Full sun
Size 30 to 45 in. tall; 10 to 15 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

QIS™ Purple globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

QIS Purple globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

Type Annual
Blooms Purple, ball-shaped, cloverlike flowers with yellow tips from late spring through fall
Light Full sun
Size 22 to 26 in. tall, 8 to 10 in. wide

‘Cinnamon’ cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum)

‘Cinnamon’ cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual)
Blooms Smaller than sweet basil with small white flowers and long-lasting purple bracts in summer above striking dark cinnamon-colored stems
Light Full sun
Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 15 to 18 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual)
Blooms Dark purple-brown bottlebrushlike flowers with feathery bristles from late summer through fall on upright stems
Light Full sun
Size 48 to 60 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

‘Chief Rose’ celosia (Celosia argentea cristata)

‘Chief Rose’ celosia (Celosia argentea cristata)

Type Annual
Blooms Large, crested candy-pink flowerheads on especially strong stems from summer through fall; use fresh or dried
Light Full sun
Size 36 to 40 in. tall, 8 to 10 in. wide

‘Fireball’ strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum)

‘Fireball’ strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual)
Blooms Papery red flowers with yellow centers atop sturdy stems from late spring through fall; use fresh or dried
Light Full sun
Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 36 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 12

Benary’s Giant Mix zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Benary’s Giant Mix zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Type Annual
Blooms Up to 6-in. double dahlialike blossoms in many colors on straight, sturdy stems from summer through fall
Light Full sun
Size 30 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide

ABC™3 Rose lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum)

ABC3 Rose lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annaul)
Blooms Soft pink double flowers in early summer atop sturdy stems with a long vase life (up to 2 weeks)
Light Full sun
Size 30 to 45 in. tall; 10 to 15 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentas)

Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentas)

Type Annual
Blooms Red, green, creamor chartreuse petal-less flowers in tassel-like panicles from summer through fall; use fresh or dried
Light Full sun
Size 24 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide

QIS™ Purple globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

QIS Purple globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

Type Annual
Blooms Purple, ball-shaped, cloverlike flowers with yellow tips from late spring through fall
Light Full sun
Size 22 to 26 in. tall, 8 to 10 in. wide

Coralie dahlia (Dahlia)

Coralie dahlia (Dahlia)

Type Tender tuber
Blooms 5-in. creamy flowers with peach stripes and white splotches on tips from late summer through fall; longer vase life than other dahlias
Light Full sun
Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide

‘Cinnamon’ cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum)

‘Cinnamon’ cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual)
Blooms Smaller than sweet basil with small white flowers and long-lasting purple bracts in summer above striking dark cinnamon-colored stems
Light Full sun
Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 15 to 18 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

‘Dondo Blue’ floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)

‘Dondo Blue’ floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annaul)
Blooms Fuzzy purple-blue flower clusters atop long stems from late summer through fall
Light Full sun to part shade
Size 10 to 24 in. tall, 6 to 18 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 10

‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum)

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual)
Blooms Dark purple-brown bottlebrushlike flowers with feathery bristles from late summer through fall on upright stems
Light Full sun
Size 48 to 60 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide
Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Published: Jan. 11, 2023
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