Any Florida garden can become a cutting garden

Story and Photos by Tom Hewitt

I love having fresh flowers in the house, especially when they come from my own garden. Because of space limitations, my butterfly garden must double as my cutting garden. But in a perfect world, I would have a Martha Stewart-like garden dedicated to growing nothing but my cutting favorites.

‘Belinda’s Dream’ is my favorite rose for cutting.

Martha Stewart’s cutting garden at Cantitoe Corners, New York, is crammed with lupines (Lupinus spp.), poppies (Papaver spp.), Phlox, Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), and a hundred other things that won’t grow in my south Florida garden. But at least I can go outside any time of the year and find plenty of flowers to make a pretty arrangement. 

With a little tweaking, a butterfly garden can double as a cutting garden.

A cutting garden can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. Mine is mainly composed of easy-care perennials and shrubs, but I also grow many cutting annuals from seed. I just sow an entire packet of seed in a 5-gallon pot, nestle it among foliage, and thin things out as they grow. 

When starting flowers from seed, remember to choose varieties that have strong, sturdy stems. Many modern hybrids are wimpy, or too short, or not as hardy as old-fashioned varieties. And don’t try growing them out of season. Stressed plants rarely produce good cut flowers. 

African marigolds (top), celosia (center) and periwinkles are great choices for a cutting garden.

My favorite cutting annuals during the cooler months are common Cosmos; bells-of-Ireland (Moluccella laevis); Dianthus, especially carnations; snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), especially the Rocket series; Gomphrena, especially ‘Strawberry Fields’; purple top verbena (V. bonariensis); pot marigold (Calendula officinalis); Zinnia; spider flowers (Cleome hassleriana); and Celosia.

For summer, I like growing summer cosmos (C. sulphureus), African marigolds (Tagetes erecta), zinnias, gaillardias (G. pulchella), and Madagascar periwinkles (Catharanthus roseus). I used to be so disappointed in the performance of hybrid periwinkles, but new varieties are much hardier and come in a fascinating array of colors. If I’m lucky, these and other summer annuals self-sow in my garden.   

Gaillardias are a great addition to informal arrangements.

Annuals are great, but the real stalwarts in my garden are perennials. Short-lived perennials include Angelonia, pineapple thistle (Centratherum intermedium), Coreopsis, and tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). Long-lived perennials include firecracker flowers (Crossandra infundibuliformis), Florida cat’s whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus), black-eyed-Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), ‘Lady Di’ heliconias (Heliconia psittacorum ‘Lady Di’), and blackberry iris (I. domestica). 

Salvia are some of my favorite cut flowers, especially ‘Mystic Spires Blue’, which is a more compact form of ‘Indigo Spires’. It blooms practically nonstop in my garden, though it doesn’t self-sow. Tropical sage (S. coccinea) does re-seed, however, and I occasionally use it in arrangements, along with the purple blooms of Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha). 

LEFT: ‘Strawberry Fields’ gomphrena is great for fresh and dried arrangements. MIDDLE: Blue plumbago reminds me of phlox in arrangements. RIGHT: There really are no rules when it comes to informal arrangements.

Pentas make great cut flowers, especially the tall heirloom ones. The red variety is readily available, but the hot pink one can be hard to find. It really is my favorite, however, as it lasts longest in my garden, has nice, sturdy stems, and butterflies seem to prefer it to shorter hybrids. 

Good shrubs for a cutting garden include ‘Belinda’s Dream’ rose, Panama rose (Rondeletia leucophylla), lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus), and blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), which always reminds me of phlox. The cheery blooms of thryallis (Galphimia glauca) make nice, long-lasting accents, as do the blooms of basil (Ocimum spp.), especially those of ‘African Blue’ and red holy basil (O. tenuiflorum). The ornamental flower heads of ‘Cardinal’ basil are great for low arrangements. 

Calendulas are easily started from seed each fall.

Red rocket russelia (R. sarmentosa) is another one I find indispensable for flower arrangements since it’s in bloom most of the year. One of my favorite green fillers is leatherleaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis), which usually outlasts the flowers in any arrangement. Sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) also works in a pinch. 

When installing a cutting garden, pick an area that receives at least six hours of full sun. Don’t go crazy with fertilizers, or you may end up with more foliage than flowers. Make sure you deadhead often to keep things blooming. Harvest blooms before their peak, preferably in the morning when stems are fully hydrated. 

The ornamental blooms of cardinal basil are perfect for low arrangements.

Resist the temptation to cram too many flowers in one arrangement, as good air circulation is crucial. Also, make sure you remove any foliage below the water line. There are many additives you can use to keep flowers fresh, but none work as well as simply changing water daily. Cut stems at an angle to increase the area for water uptake. 

I never do follow the rules for arranging flowers to the letter, especially when making informal arrangements. But for formal ones, start by adding one type of flower at a time. Use odd-numbered groups, working with the largest or most prominent variety first. To keep things in proportion, try to make your arrangement one and half times the height of your container.

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