Cut flowers: growing and selection

Many garden plants can be enjoyed as cut flowers and foliage in the home, offering cheaper and diverse alternatives to florist flowers. Borders can be adapted to provide cutting material throughout the year. Alternatively, dedicate a part of the garden to growing cut flowers.

Cut flowers: growing and selection

Quick facts

Group Bulbs, annuals, biennials, perennials, shrubs trees and climbers
Flowering time Throughout the year
Height and spread Various
Aspect Predominantly sunny situation
Hardiness Hardy, half hardy and tender
Difficulty Easy to moderate

Practical considerations

Existing borders

When adapting existing borders, plant larger groups of annuals, perennials and bulbs suited for cutting to allow for picking without affecting the overall appearance of the border. Do not forget to incorporate a few well-chosen shrubs and grasses with interesting foliage. Use bulbs to extend the picking season.

The cutting garden

If space allows, dedicate a part of the garden to growing just cut flowers. The advantage of a cutting garden over picking from borders is that it avoids depleting beds and borders, as well as providing a more productive planned area for the cut flower gardener.

Plant or sow in rows; this makes weeding, staking and picking so much easier. Take the final spread of plants into account and allow access between the rows. Otherwise plants will fall into each other, get tangled and can be damaged making them less suitable for harvesting. As taller plants are often grown for cut flowers, robust supports are usually needed.

Choosing the site

Cut flowers need a fertile, weed-free soil. Annual applications of organic matter (one or two bucketfuls per square metre/yard) especially to sandy and clay soils help retain moisture and improve soil structure. In dry summers watering may be necessary to achieve good stem length.

Moderate applications of general fertilisers are often helpful in getting tall healthy growth and abundant flowers; for example, growmore applied at the rate of 70g per sq metre (2oz per square yard). Mulching with 5-7.5cm (2-3in) weed free composted manure or bark suppresses weeds and retains moisture.

Most cut flowers are sun-lovers, but a few tolerant tolerate shade (e.g. Solomon's seal, Acanthus spinosus and heuchera).

Windy sites are best avoided as robust staking will be essential for the taller flowers. Also, avoid frost pockets if possible.

Choosing plants

When selecting plants for cutting, make sure that they are suitable for the chosen situation. Keep records about performance and source of plants or seeds for future reference.

Annuals: the initial outlay of buying seeds is less than when buying perennials e.g. sunflowers, cosmos, cornflower and larkspur. They have to be sown every year, but this can be an opportunity to try new or different plants. Limited flowering seasons can be extended by sowing in autumn or propagating plants in a greenhouse.

Herbaceous perennials: choose perennials that offer a long season of picking. Include foliage plants. If raised from seed many perennials will not flower in the first year. However, if sown early some such as Achillea millefolium 'Summer Pastels', agastache, echinacaea and delphinium may flower in the same season.

Bulbs: bulbs are great for the cut flower garden as many start flowering in late winter or early spring. Extend the picking season by planting early-, mid- and late-flowering cultivars. Bulbs such tulips and hyacinths may not flower well in following years, so consider discarding the bulbs and planting new stock each year. Bulbs can be forced by an initial period rooting in cool and dark conditions before being brought indoors to flower from mid winter. Bulbs, narcissi for example, lend themselves to naturalising in grass or deciduous shade from where blooms can be taken without reducing flowers in the garden.

Shrubs: evergreens and early-flowering shrubs such as camellia, Japanese quince (Chaenomeles), forsythia and witch hazel (Hamamelis) can provide invaluable cutting material in winter and early spring. However, shrubs can produce abundant ornamental foliage all year round. Allow shrubs to establish and settle into flowering before cutting.

Climbers: a number of climbers are useful as they not only provide flowers but some bear attractive seed heads (clematis) or fruits (roses) as well.

Propagation

Propagate hardy annuals by direct sowing outdoors or raise half-hardy annuals indoors. Sow seed or plant plugs in rows.

Propagate perennials from seed or divide mature clumps in spring or early autumn. Some can be also propagated from basal cuttings (aster, chrysanthemum, delphinium and lupins) or from root cuttings (acanthus, phlox, oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) and verbascum).

Increase shrubs and climbers by softwood, semi-ripe or hardwood cutting or by layering.

Plant selection

A = annual
Bu = bulb, corm or tuber
Bi = biennial
C = climber
P = perennial
S = shrub
E = evergreen
D = deciduous

Spring

Amelanchier S/D: white blossom
Convallaria majalis (lily-of-the-valley) P: white scented flowers
Clematis montana C/D: pink/white flowers
Euphorbia such as E. characias and E. amygdaloides P/E: predominantly green foliage and flowers
Hyacinthus (hyacinth) Bu: wide range of colours
Magnolia T/D: white, cream, pink to purple flowers
Muscari (grape hyacinth) Bu: shades of blue
Narcissus (daffodil) Bu: shades of yellow and white
Smyrnium perfoliatum Bi: yellowish-green foliage and flowers
Tulipa (tulip) Bu: wide range of colours
Viburnum × burwoodii S/D: scented white flowers

Late spring/early summer

Allium Bu: white, pink or purple flowers
Ammi majus A: white flower heads
Aquilegia vulgaris (granny's bonnets) P: wide range of colours
Cerinthe major var. purpurascens A: blue-green foliage, deep purple flowers and bracts
Delphinium P: blue, pink and white flower spikes
Dicentra spectabilis P: bi-coloured deep pink/white flowers
Digitalis purpurea Excelsior Group (foxglove) Bi: white, yellow, pink or purple flowers
Gypsophila paniculata P: white flowers
Lunaria annua (honesty) A/Bi: purple flowers, attractive seed pods; (L. annua var. albiflora gas white flowers)
Nigella damascena (love-in-a-mist) A: white, pink or blue flowers, attractive seed heads
Paeonia (peony) P: range of colours
Papaver orientale (oriental poppy) P: range of colours
P. somniferum (opium poppy) A: blue-green foliage, range of flower colours
Syringa vulgaris (lilac) S/D: white, pink or purple flowers, fragrant
Thalictrum aquilegiifolium P: purple-pink flowers

Summer

Agapanthus P: white, purple or blue flowers
Alstroemeria P: range of colours
Astrantia major P: range of colours
Calendula (English marigold) A: flowers in shades of orange and yellow
Centaurea cyanus (cornflower) A: blue, white or maroon flowers
Cosmos A: range of flower colours
Dianthus (pink, sweet William, carnation) A/Bi/P: range of colours, fragrant
Helianthus annus (sunflower) A: yellow to brown
Echinops (globe thistle) P: blue flowers
Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea) A: wide range of flower colours, very fragrant
Nicotiana alata (tobacco plant) A: white, green or pink flowers, scented
Lilium (lily) Bu: wide range of flower colours
Phlox paniculata P: range of flower colours
Rosa (rose) S/C: wide range of flower colours, many fragrant

Late summer/Autumn

Chrysanthemum P: wide range of flower colours and forms
Aster P: mostly shades of pink, white and purple
Cleome (spider flower) A: white to pink
Crocosmia (montbretia) Bu: yellow, red or orange flowers
Dahlia Bu: wide range of colours and forms
Helenium P: flowers in shades of yellow, orange and rusty brown
Nicotiana sylvestris (tobacco plant) A: white flowers, scented
Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) S: grey foliage, blue flowers
Sedum spectabile P: flowers white to deep pink
Thalictrum delavayi P: purple flowers
Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican sunflower) A: flowers in shades of orange

Winter

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ S/D: lasting bright purple berries
Cornus alba (dogwood) S/D: for colourful stems coppice regularly
Gaultheria mucronata S/E: white, pink or purple berries on female plants
Hedera helix (ivy) C/E: berries and foliage
Helleborus P: green, yellow, white, pink or purple flowers
Hippeastrum (amaryllis) Bu: indoors, range of colours
Galanthus (snowdrop) Bu: white flowers
Narcissus ‘February Gold’ (daffodil) Bu: yellow flowers, some fragrant
Hamamelis (witch hazel) S/D: yellow to orange flowers
Corylus avellana (hazel) S/D:  catkins
Sarcococca (Christmas box) S/E: white fragrant flowers
Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’ S/E/: pink flowers, scented
V. tinus S/E: white flowers
Salix (willow) S/D: colourful stems, catkins on female plants

Foliage

Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’ (lords and ladies) P: white marbled leaves
Cotinus ‘Grace’ S/D: oval purple leaves
Choisya ternata SUNDANCE ‘Lich’ S/E: golden-yellow leaves, also white fragrant flowers in spring
Cynara cardunculus (cardoon) P: silver foliage
Elaeagnus angustifolia S/D: silvery leaves
Eucalyptus gunnii T/E: silvery-grey foliage, best regularly coppiced
Fatsia japonica S/E: large leathery leaves
Gaultheria shallon (salal) S/E: red shoot tips, stout stems good for hand-tied bouquets
Hedera (ivy) C/E: green or variegated forms, berries in winter
Hosta P: heart-shaped leaves, many variegated cultivars
Ilex (holly) T/S/E: plain green or variegated foliage, also berries on female pants in winter
Miscanthus sinensis P: grass
Phormium P/E: sword-like foliage in green, purple or variegated
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ S/E: bronze leaves
Rosmarinus (rosemary) S/E: aromatic needle-like silvery green foliage
Zantedeschia aethiopica (arum lily) P: arrow-shaped glossy leaves, also white flowers in summer

Further reading

The Cutting Garden (growing and arranging flowers) by Sarah Raven (Frances Lincoln Ltd. 1996, ISBN 0-7112-1047-0)

The New Flower Arranger (contemporary approaches to floral design) by Fiona Barnett (Lorenz Books 1995, ISBN 1859670806)

These books are available through the RHS Lindley Library.  

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