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Great Gardening: You are what you cut

Learning directly from impassioned teachers is still better than all that Google and websites can offer.

At least that is my experience from attending seminars and conferences in the gardening and landscaping world. It was obviously true for the 50-some attendees who came to hear Roxanne McCoy teach "Creating a Cutting Garden" at Lockwood’s Greenhouses last Saturday.

McCoy is an Ohio State horticulture graduate and former Cooperative Extension agent. She left extension work in 1994 to develop her flower farm called Lilies of the Field in West Falls. You can find her selling cut flowers at the East Aurora farmer’s market -- opening May 6 -- as well as West Seneca, Fox Run, Orchard Park and Colden. She is often with her children who help in the business. Growing any crop is tough -- imagine more than 16 hours of physical labor every day for months, no matter the weather. But she still loves it.

Apparently lots of home gardeners want a cutting garden, so if you missed the class here are some of McCoy's plant recommendations, growing tips and advice to keep bouquets lasting longer.

Why, where and what to plant

The first decision if you want some cut flowers is whether you’re willing to cut the flowers in your garden. I can’t do it. I’ve disappointed my mother and provided puny bouquets for summer parties because I like to see every plant bloom right where I planted it. The only way to get bouquets out of people like me is to designate a separate cutting garden. Find a sunny area, the requirement for most of these flowers. Prepare the soil well with lots of compost. Then get planting: A few are cool-season flowers — read the packets or tags — such as snapdragons, stock, and Nigella, so get them planted soon. Plant most perennials when the soil dries out and feels crumbly. Most of the annuals listed must wait until the soil has warmed up and frosty nights have passed.

Red gladiolus


The next decision is when you want flowers for cutting. If you entertain in June, host a garden tour in July, and travel in August, then choose plants accordingly.

The plants listed here are McCoy's cut-flower choices in order of bloom through the growing season — dates not shown because the timing varies widely even within one region.

I am not listing cultivars but strongly recommend you seek those with the longest stems rather than dwarfs.

Earliest flowers

Fall-planted bulbs: Daffodils, Tulips, Alliums and Dutch iris (also can be planted in spring)

Perennials: Baptisia australis (strongly recommended), Lupine, Sweet William (some biennial), Delphinium

Second wave

Annuals: Nigella, Stock, Orlaya (aka Minoan lace or white lace flower, a relative of Ammi Majus), Snapdragon, Ageratum

Perennials: Golden Basketflower (Centaurea macrocephala), Lady’s Mantle, Peony, Astilbe, Yarrow Bulbs  (planted in late spring): Lilies, whether Asiatic, Oriental, LA hybrids, OT hybrids.

Mid- to late summer

Annuals: Amaranthus, Celosia, Gomphrena, Lisianthus, Zinnia, Sunflower, Rudbeckia hirta (a black-eyed Susan that is technically a perennial but best used as an annual in cold regions.)

Perennnials: Asclepias (Butterfly Weed), Echinops ritro (Globe Thistle)

Bulbs: Gladiolus, Dahlia

Finally, when I asked McCoy what should more people be planting, she answered: "Baptisia and Mattilola (Stock) — both fabulous and still under-utilized. And everyone should grow a Hydrangea paniculata, beginning with ‘Limelight,’ the must-have shrub for fabulous cutting flowers."

Special tips for special plants

A cut-flower grower does a few things differently than ornamental flower gardeners, including the way she harvests the plants and prepares them for market. Roxanne harvests tulips and Dutch irises by pulling the whole plants out of the soil, including the bulbs—they just won’t be sufficiently productive next season. Asclepias wilts quickly after picking because the sap clogs the vessels so the McCoys offer a dramatic solution: They plunge the sappy stems into boiling water for forty seconds, and then into cool water: no more wilting. Daffodils aren’t so quick to wilt but have a different flaw: They produce a slimy exudate that produces bacteria in the water in a vase so that other flowers wilt. The solution is either daffodil-only bouquets, or keep them in water overnight before mixing them with other cut flowers.

The time of harvest also affects how long and how well cut flowers last in a vase. Pick daffodils when the buds are at the gooseneck stage. Pick Dutch iris in the "pencil stage" when upright and slightly fattened but unopened. Pick yarrow (and several other plants) very early in the morning. Harvest lupines when just part of the flower is opening, peonies before they open, and astilbes when they are still in bud. (Then plunge astilbes into hot water--not boiling--to re-hydrate.) Stock flowers kept in a vase notoriously stink like something rotten; the solution is to cut the stem and change the water every day or two.

Floral design specialists study the art and science of floral design intensively — not the topic of the McCoy program nor of this article. But class attendees heard some interesting answers to problems that have plagued casual flower gatherers who basically plunk a few in a vase. For one: Did you ever notice that tulips keep growing in water, so they stretch above their companions in the bouquet? (Solution: expect that stretch and tuck them in closer and lower.) Or, did you ever put lupines in a bouquet, at a lovely angle pointing outward, and marvel that they insisted upon angling themselves straight upward? They have the characteristic behavior called "negative geotropism," a term that describes that straight upward habit. (Solution: Use them in straight-up position in the bouquet.)

If you’re wondering how to grow the plants for your cutting garden, stay tuned to articles to come — about spring-planted bulbs, perennials and annuals (and some of the cultivars that Roxanne mentioned).

Or find some classes at a plant society meeting or a garden center near you. Thanks to teachers like Roxanne McCoy it is often the most satisfying way to learn.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant



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