Best Flowers for Cutting
Q. Ann writes: "I've recently fallen in love with having cut flowers in the house. I've also recently moved to southeast Wisconsin and am learning how to garden in a new climate. I was wondering if Mike could give me some suggestions for good flowers to plant this spring that will produce nice, colorful bouquets for the house in summer. I was hoping for suggestions that will keep producing flowers without replanting, though I'd love any types you think might be best. I'm a completely enthusiastic but average gardener."
A. So: when we say "Southeast Wisconsin", we're talking Milwaukee in the Bull's Eye, with Racine and Kenosha down at the bottom, and Chicago not too far South, all on the lovely shores of Lake Michigan, where the winds are felt to be legendary. Having tried to walk forward through many gales, I'll call Chicago 'the lesser windy city' compared to Oklahoma City, where I once did a credible Dorothy imitation but without the cyclone.
Yes, this is a digression, but it is also a warning to gardeners in these areas that winter wind off the lake will try and kill you personally; while in the other seasons it will simply try and make your plants fall down, go boom. So think about windbreaks. A lot.
Back to this week's exciting feature. I cut a lot of Spring bulbs, like daffodils and tulips, to bring indoors early in the season, but learned years ago that you can't mix and match them in the vase. Daffodils must be vased alone or they will shorten the life of the other cuttings involved. And while Spring bulbs do only bloom once a season, daffodils are reliable rebloomers. Tulips not so much, but the basic big red ones are your best bet; I have a clump of red tulips that has rebloomed reliably for over 40 years.
The other flowers I personally cut for indoor use are my roses. They all promise at least one big flush for cutting, and many roses will rebloom reliably throughout the season, even ones designated as one-timers. Just be sure to cut new flowers promptly and deadhead faded ones.
Seed supplier and long-time flower lover Renee Shepherd, of 'Renee's Garden', agrees with me about those early flowers. "Of course, you start the season with bulbs like daffodils and tulips," she notes. "For annual flowers from seed, go with Zinnias and Cosmos in different forms and colors as well as in mixes. Also: Coreopsis, Snapdragons, Clarkia, and Tithonia. One good perennial that she could grow easily would be echinacea."
Then I realized that a cut flower growing pro lives about four miles from my house: Melanie DeVault who, together with husband George and son Don (the King of Kombucha), run Pheasant Hill Farm in Vera Cruz, PA. Melanie has been selling cut flowers at Farmer's Markets for more years than I am allowed to reveal and also crafts seasonal bouquets and wedding flowers.
"Sunflowers" was her first choice, and I could not agree more; I'm always drawn to them when they're displayed at florists and supermarkets. "They're easy to grow", she notes, adding that for indoor display, you want to stick with the pollen-free varieties. "There's even a branded collection of sunflowers called the 'Procut Series' whose varieties are chosen for maximum cut flower impact. They're ready to cut from planted seed in just 50 or 60 days and you can plant them closely (as tight as four inches apart) to keep them at a nice 'bouquet size'. Plant a new run every three weeks and you'll never run out." And sunflowers come in a dizzying array of different heights, colors and combination of colors.
Melanie adds that "there's also a series of Zinnia varieties that are perfect for cutting, collectively called 'Bearny's Giant'; and they're repeat bloomers if cut regularly and/or deadheaded. Direct seed them in Spring and they'll persist until Fall. Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower) is also a great choice; keep them cut and they'll rebloom like mad. And Liatris is tall, dramatic and long-lasting in the vase."
Speaking of the vase, Melanie says it should be "as clean as a teacup", the flower stems should be stripped bare of anything other than the flowers and cleaned under running water to keep dirt out of the picture. Change the water daily (or as often as you can) and recut the stem every time the plants go into new water. Do not expose cut flowers to direct sun. In fact, the cooler the room the longer the cut flowers will last.
You want to pick your bouquets-to-be just as the flowers are beginning to hit their peak, but Melanie adds that they should also pass 'the wiggle test'. "The stem has to be firm and upright", she stresses. "If it wiggles, wait."
Also: "pick early in the morning or in the evening; never in the heat of the day or the flowers won't last. Put them in water right away when you pick them, bring them into your workspace, strip off everything below the flower, rinse the stem well, cut another inch off the bottom and drop them immediately into that clean vase filled with clean water; no city tap water!"