Master florist and gardener offer sage advice
When it comes to growing your own, cut flowers are the latest backyard crop, their popularity fed in large part by flower arrangements on social media feeds. “Every home can be made more beautiful with flowers,” says master floral designer Ariella Chezar, whose most recent book, Seasonal Flower Arranging, will inspire any gardener to pursue this passion. “I’m all about getting people to grow cutting gardens—even a small plot will produce enough flowers for you to clip with abandon.”
The Berkshire native lives in Egremont and runs Zonnefeld Farm, a sustainable flower farm in nearby Columbia County. Her advice for gardeners who want to create their own patch of paradise: “Feed the soil, tend your beds well, weed energetically, and vary your crop to complement the seasons.” Katarina Goldenberg, seasonal gardener at Berkshire Botanical Garden (and a former flower farmer) joins Chezar in offering this advice.
1. Pick the plants “People should grow flowers they love and that will look good in their home,” explains Chezar. Palette comes first. Extend the season by choosing plants that bloom at different times, including bulbs (snowdrops, narcissus, tulips, fritillaria), perennials (hellebores, lilies, peonies, Japanese anemones), and annuals (take your pick), as well as “woodies”—flowering shrubs like philadelphus and hydrangea as well as vines such as sweet pea, clematis, and cobae (or cup and saucer)—whose branches create the structure of Chezar’s arrangements. Consider the pollinators, says Goldenberg. “Many favorite cutting flowers will attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your garden.”
2. Settle on the spot Most flowers prefer at least six hours a day of full sun, though plenty (especially Solomon’s seal) thrive in the shade. Choose a flat, open space within reach of a garden hose; a fence will protect against wildlife. (Bury it at least two feet deep to deter burrowers.) Planting in long rows no wider than four feet allows for easy tending and harvesting. Raised beds are helpful for anyone who has poor soil, but they need frequent watering.
3. Prep the soil Healthy blooms start with nutrient-rich soil. Test by using a kit or sending samples to a local cooperative extension (ag.umass.edu or cce.cornell.edu) to pinpoint deficiencies and to buy the formulas that best remediate them. If you cannot test, just use a lot of organic matter, preferably an all-purpose compost mix, or bulb tone and bone meal for bulbs.
4. Time it right Wait until after the last frost—late May—to plant bulbs and perennials (before the first frost in fall for planting early-blooming spring bulbs). Perennials are hard to grow from seed; buy potted plants or get a division from a friend. Some will bloom the first year, but most (biennials) wait until the second year. Start seeds for annuals in cell trays. If you don’t have a sunny window, you can easily rig growing lights and/or invest in heat mats.
5. Feed, water, and weed Chezar prefers comfrey spray and compost tea, Goldenberg fish emulsion. Water in the morning or evening, when the top inch of the soil feels dry, an inch each week including rainfall. Deeper intermittent watering is best. To prevent weeds, Chezar lines garden pathways with reusable landscape fabric and covers beds with biodegradable corn-based plastic mulch. Goldenberg uses straw or newspaper topped with cocoa mulch or wood chips. Pull up weeds by the root; it’s easier when they’re wet.
6. Prune and pinch Every plant needs to be cut back to encourage new growth. “A flowering plant will keep doing its job of producing blossoms on existing stems,” explains Goldenberg. “Deadheading, or removing spent blooms, tells it to stop and focus its energy otherwise.” Many garden centers offer classes on this. Annuals are easy: “When the stems get to three inches, pinch them back to the stem cross; this will get them growing on new branches,” says Chezar.
7. Harvest Use clean, sharp pruning shears to cut stems on an angle in the early morning or evening; put them in a bucket of water as you go. (Dahlias prefer hot water.) “Avoid rainy day harvesting, as the moisture can lead to rot,” cautions Goldenberg. Chezar lets the flowers “relax” in a cool room for at least an hour—better overnight—before trimming the stems and arranging.
8. Winterize Dormant plants need insulation against frigid temperatures. Layer on the mulch: fallen leaves for Chezar, straw for Goldenberg, who repurposes the straw in the spring as a weed barrier. Tender bulbs (gladiolas and dahlias) should be dug up after the first frost and stored in a cool, dry place to plant again the next spring.