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How To Start A Colorful Flower Cutting Garden — With Or Without A Backyard

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
How To Start A Colorful Flower Cutting Garden — With Or Without A Backyard
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Starting your own cut flower garden can give you a near-endless supply of colorful plants to admire and cultivate on the cheap, and it's easier to do than you think (no matter where you live).

We asked florists and gardeners around the world for their favorite flowers, top techniques, and insider tips for planning and maintaining a cutting garden in your home garden, whether it's a large backyard or postage-size patio.

Cutting garden benefits:

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1. They're gorgeous.

Cut flower gardens are bred for beauty, often filled with many plants of different sizes, shapes, and colors. They're basically nature's fireworks displays. Even if you start one with the intention of cultivating it for bouquets, you might find that the plants look so great in the ground that it's almost a shame to snip them.

2. They're sustainable.

When you order bouquets online or buy them in the store, you won't necessarily know where they came from or how they were grown. Growing flowers in your own backyard means that you can control how much (if any) pesticides or herbicides go into them and reduce their transportation distance from a few thousand miles to a few steps.

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3. You can pick them for creative and personalized bouquets.

Fresh cut flowers from the garden make for the most stunning homegrown bouquets. Simply snip, arrange, and display them in your home for a pop of color, or give them away as special seasonal gifts.

Another nice thing about growing your own flowers is that it gives you practice arranging displays of different sizes. Make small accent clusters on days when the picking is light and larger arrangements after heavier harvests.

Pick up some arrangement tips in this florist's guide to homemade bouquets, and flip through these strategies for making cut flowers last longer.

4. You can pick them for dried flowers, flower art, food, and beyond.

Beyond bouquets, there are plenty of other ways to bring cut flowers into your home and life. "You can look at them, you can eat them, you can drink them. [Growing them] is a great way of catching season," Marie Viljoen, the urban gardener, author, and chef behind 66 Square Feet (Plus), tells mbg.

Instead of sticking blooms in water, you can hang them out to dry into an everlasting display or activate your artistic side and turn them into pressed flower art or natural clothing dye. Edible flowers can also be used for kitchen experiments such as chive blossom vinegar and, Viljoen's personal favorite, rose petal soda. With flowers at your fingertips, there's really no limit to what you can create.

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How to start a cutting garden in a yard:

A Beginner's Guide To Growing A Vibrant Garden: 8 Plants To Start With

Image by JOVANA VUKOTIC / Stocksy

Step 1: Prepare your site.

The first step of starting your garden is choosing a spot that gets plenty of sunlight. Most popular flowers for cutting gardens require bright light, at least six hours in direct sunlight per day. Prepare your patch by digging up weeds and covering it with well-draining soil. Beginners will want to start slow, with a small patch that feels manageable.

If you're planting your garden from seed (the most affordable option), it's best to start germinating in late winter or early spring, a few weeks before the last frost hits your area.

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Step 2: Choose your flowers.

First and foremost, think about growing the flowers that you enjoy and want to have around. From there, consider planting things that have different growing schedules so that there's always something to look at, prioritizing flowers that bloom more than once a year and can grow well into fall.

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Plants that are in the same plot should have similar water and sunlight needs. Prolific growers like mint (also a flowering plant!) should be placed away from the group in their own containers so their roots don't overtake the rest of the plot.

Organic gardener Allison Vallin Kostovick of Finch & Folly farm and Niki Irving, the founder of Flourish Flower Farm in Asheville, North Carolina, recommend the following flowers since they are all relatively low-maintenance, quick to germinate and grow, and have long stems that are ideal for bouquets:

  • Calendulas
  • Celosias
  • Cornflowers (aka Bachelor's Buttons)
  • Cosmos
  • Forget-Me-Nots
  • Marigolds
  • Nasturtiums
  • Sunflowers 
  • Zinnias
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Step 3: Plant them by height.

Once germinated, most of the flowers on this list can be planted close together, with 6 to 9 inches between each pair of varieties. "The closer you have them together, the less room there is for weeds to grow," Irving previously told mbg.

For an aesthetically pleasing garden that's easy to snip from, city garden designer and founder of The Balcony Gardener Isabelle Palmer recommends arranging your flowers by height.

"Always put the tall plants at the back, and then go down to medium, and then put things that are low-level or trailing at the front," she says.

Step 4: Prune early and often.

Regular pruning will help your plants be more productive, leaving more flowers for you. Pinching is one pruning technique that encourages most annual plants to become bushier. When your seedling grows to be about 12 inches tall, snip off the top 3 to 4 inches using clean garden shears. This one cut will send the signal that the plant should start growing outward and not just upward, leading to more blooms for the taking.

Later on in your plant's cycle, deadheading, or removing dead or damaged flowers, will also help it grow stronger. Whenever you see faded, dried, or shriveled flowers, snip them off where they meet their main stem. Getting rid of these will help save more of your plant's energy for new growth.

Step 5: Harvest.

Once your plant begins blooming, it's ready to be cultivated. Typically, the more flowers you cut from your plant, the more productive it will be, but you should always leave some flowers and leaves on your plant to continue to grow. Cut the older growth first, allowing newer growth to keep developing.

"The best time to cut them is in the morning," says Palmer. "Failing that, cut them in late evening—never in the height of the heat of the day."

Cut your flowers with clean and sterile shears, leaving a good chunk of stem on if you're planning to use them in a bouquet. Place them in water right away so they don't dry out before you have the chance to arrange them.

How to start a cutting garden in containers:

Florist Holding a Bouquet of Flowers In Front Of Her Face

Image by Thais Ramos Varela / Stocksy

Step 1: Monitor your lighting.

City dwellers or those lacking green space can start their cut flower gardens in containers. Before you decide which florals to place on your balcony, roof, or patio, consider how much light your space gets and what direction that light comes from.

Palmer recommends using your compass (or, more realistically, the compass app on your phone) to measure what direction your outdoor area faces. North-facing spaces will likely get the least summer sun and will only be suitable for low-light varieties, while south-, west-, and east-facing ones are typically more conducive to light-loving plants.

If you live in a city, you'll want to take the extra step of monitoring how much of your space sits in shadow throughout the day and place your containers in the brightest spot possible.

Step 2: Choose your flowers.

In addition to choosing plants that are appropriate to your lighting, urban growers also might want to go with varieties that do double-duty in a small space. Edible plants and herbs that flower would be great options for the container gardener.

Again, choose flowers that bloom more than once a year at different times to ensure that there's always something to see.

Here are a few container-friendly varieties that Viljoen and Palmer recommend for different light levels.

Full sun:

  • Basil (edible)
  • Cosmos
  • Chrysanthemum (edible)
  • Fennel (edible)
  • Nasturtiums (edible)
  • Nemesias
  • Snapdragons
  • Verbena (edible)

Partial shade:

  • Anemones
  • Aquilegia
  • Foxgloves
  • Hellebores
  • Hydrangeas

Step 3: Place them in large containers with drainage holes.

Once you have your germinated seeds or small plants, it's time to place them in containers with well-draining soil and at least one drainage hole so water can escape. "You have to make sure your plant is never, ever standing in water," Viljoen stresses, as soaked roots can develop root rot and die.

For this reason, delicate decorative planters that don't have drainage holes aren't the best pick for an outdoor garden. Instead, go with strong and sturdy but portable materials like terra-cotta, fiberglass, or aluminum for easy maneuvering.

Palmer recommends using as large of a container as you can comfortably put in your space: It will fit more soil (and therefore need to be watered less frequently) and leave more room for different varieties of plants to grow side by side. "I tend to mix lots of different varieties so that I'm not going to be left with a patch," she says.

She suggests placing four or five plants in a 25- to 30-centimeter planter (approximately 9 to 11 inches), six or seven plants in a 30- to 40-centimeter planter (approximately 11 to 15 inches), and eight or nine plants in a 40- to 50-centimeter planter (approximately 15 to 19 inches).

Again, place plants with similar water and light needs in the same pot, and put taller plants in the back, shorter ones up front.

Step 4: Work in threes.

Though she loves the visual contrast of putting multiple plants in the same container, Palmer does think it's possible to go overboard. To keep your containers from looking unruly, limit the number of colors in them to three, placing complementary tones together.

She loves a blue, purple, and white display or a container filled with different shades of pink. Consider leaf color here, too, as some greens can clash with each other.

Step 5: Harvest.

With container gardens, the same pruning and harvesting rules apply: Snip dead flowers back to keep things tidy, collect flowers in the morning or at night using clean shears, and every time you pick, leave some new growth to continue to develop.

Top tips and tricks.

Keep these maintenance tips in mind to ensure a healthy garden filled with vibrant plants for the taking:

  • Water your plants frequently—especially those in containers: Ensure that your garden's soil doesn't dry out by watering at least once a week during the growing season, potentially more if you live in a dry area. Container gardeners will likely have to water their plants even more, and the smaller the container, the more frequently it will need water (though placing pebbles on top of your soil can help reduce evaporation and might buy you some more time between waterings). Refer to this guide to nailing down your plant's ideal watering schedule.
  • Use fertilizer often, but be sure to dilute it: A lot of nutrients go into making all those flowers, and you'll need to replace them with a well-balanced fertilizer to keep your plant growing. Again, container plants will be a bit needier here, and Palmer recommends fertilizing them once a week during the growing season. She'll dilute fertilizer with water until it's about half of the concentration listed on the label, so as not to overwhelm the plant with nutrients in such a small space. Here's a primer on how to feed your plants with just the right amount of fertilizer.
  • Consider companion planting: Many flowers have their own companion plants; other varieties give them something they need—be it protection from pests or more soil nutrients. Filling blank spaces in your garden with companion plants can make them naturally healthier and stronger, without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Interspersing your garden with native plants and herbs will also make it more visually interesting and appealing to beneficial local wildlife.

The bottom line.

Growing your own cutting garden can give you on-demand flowers to use in bouquets, dry for decorations, or incorporate into kitchen creations. The best part? You don't need a massive backyard to start one, and balcony gardeners can get in on the floral fun too.

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