July 8, 2013
The old-fashioned cutting garden
Encourage bringing outdoor beauty inside

Find a good location for a cutting bed, and then choose flowers for colour, shape and abundance, to overcome that natural reluctance to bring blooms indoors.

Flowers are irresistible. If you have any doubts, just watch my four-year old granddaughter in the garden. Her first instinct is to pick a flower or two. She is still at the age when all flowers seem to be waiting to be collected, but most gardeners are reluctant to spoil a display by cutting flowers in their prime. An old- fashioned cutting garden offers a supply of seasonal flowers that are meant to be collected and brought indoors.

A classic cutting garden is best described as a vegetable plot for flowers. It is a place where flowers and foliage can be harvested without worry about sacrificing the beauty of the garden. In days gone by, estate properties had special gardens set aside for the production of both cut flowers and vegetables. The beds were designed to produce a sequence of continuous bloom: tulips, daffodils, iris, pinks, peonies, lilies, dahlias, zinnias and chrysanthemums.

Humble cottage gardens were also cutting gardens by nature. Their abundant mix of fruit trees, flowers, herbs and vegetables ensured there was always a selection of plants to cut and bring indoors to decorate the table, flavour a dish or deodorize the rooms, as required.

An idea for today
With today's smaller properties and busy schedules, it would seem there is little space or time for a garden whose sole purpose is cut flowers. However, many clients have fallow areas where vegetable gardens once flourished or sunny spots along the side of the house or garage that would suit such a project. By selecting old-fashioned, easy-to-maintain annuals, biennials, herbs and perennials, the work will be kept to a minimum once the bed is established and mulched for the season.

The best site is one that is out of the way, but not too remote to be convenient. As a rule, cutting gardens need plenty of sunshine. This means they want six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Position the bed and prepare the soil as if you were planting a crop of vegetables. Incorporate generous amounts of organic material and till the soil, a raised bed is ideal where the land is poorly drained. Good bed preparation and a sunny location will reward the gardener with vigorous plant growth and flower production.

A bouquet of choices
Include a diverse selection of plants in your design. When the flowers are grown as a crop rather than as a display, you are free to include a wide selection of colours, forms and textures. Do not worry about matching colours in the bed. Choose colours to echo indoor colour schemes to complement the rooms they will decorate. Consider a variety of flower forms. Tall, spiky snapdragons and larkspur, rounded dahlias and zinnias, and good fillers such as lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Achillea 'The Pearl', red switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and baby's breath should be included. Do not forget to select plants with interesting foliage such as coleus and asparagus fern.

Many common, easy-to-grow plants are suitable for a cutting garden. Annuals willingly produce loads of flowers, particularly if they are not allowed to go to seed. Suggestions include lace flower (Ammi majus), Calendula, China aster (Callistephus chinensis), Celosia spp., bachelors' button (Centaurea), spider flower (Cleome), cosmos, strawflowers (Helichrysum), nicotiana, love-in-a-mist (Nigella damscena), phlox, Salvia farincea, dill, fennel, globe amaranth (Gomphrena), snapdragon, sunflower, Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis) and zinnia. Many annuals will self-seed so they may not have to be planted in subsequent years.

Include long-blooming perennials along with perennials that help to mark the changing of the seasons despite their shorter bloom period. Suggestions include bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) for spring; peony and iris for early summer; Echinacea, Achillea and bee-balm (Monarda) for mid-summer; and Japanese anemone and asters for fall.

Hardy bulbs such as tulips, narcissi and lilies work well in such a plan. Consider adding flowers such as lavender that hold their colour and shape when dried. Flowers with long stems and a long 'vase life' offer the most versatility in arrangements.

For the past few years, I have planted two large cutting gardens for a maintenance client, a senior's apartment complex. Cosmos, 'Sweet Cream' marigolds, vibrant coleus, strawflowers, Salvia farinacea 'Victoria', snapdragons and 'African Blue' basil are featured in large beds edged with 'Orange Profusion' zinnias.

While they do provide a colourful display for the residents, the beds have enjoyed limited success as a true cutting garden. The rabbits that live around the property have been very destructive. They treat new plantings as a buffet, set out for their dining pleasure. Along the way, I have learned to avoid some of their favourites (pansies, asters and believe it or not, marigolds) and double up on the plants they seem to dislike, such as coleus and basil. As an aside, their dislike of these plants was used to advantage last year, the zinnias planted among the basil and coleus were nibbled down to the stem in early June, but once the basil and coleus filled in, the zinnias had a chance to resurrect and were untouched by the rabbits.

Despite our instinct to pick a flower and take it home with us, we have been taught to leave them alone. Most of the time, this is a good thing, otherwise public gardens would be stripped bare in short order. Residents seem reluctant to cut flowers and herbs to enjoy on their tables. They adhere to an unwritten code that deems they should not cut anything in bloom. In fact, cutting would encourage the plants to continue flowering, and in the case of many branching plants such as coleus and basil, it would result in a bushier plant. But, it's hard to change that mindset.

Theresa Forte is a garden consultant, columnist and photographer based in Niagara Falls, Ont.