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A cutting garden, where the flowers are relegated to use in fresh bouquets, often relies on long-blooming annuals and repeat-blooming perennials in order to prolong the harvest season. With the right plants and a layout that maximizes the space (e.g., planting in grids or rows), this garden can provide fresh-cut flowers from spring into fall.
Because many kinds of bulbs bloom just once, the category is often overlooked in cutting-garden plans. Yet bulb flowers offer gorgeous seasonality to arrangements for the home or for giving, and they require little room or care. These space-saving plants can be incorporated into an existing cutting-garden plan. Alternatively, bulbs can be used to try out the cutting-garden concept, or they can be devoted to a short-term cutting-garden in a space that will serve another purpose in the same growing season. For example, early-blooming tulips might be planted in rows that will ultimately host warm-season vegetables; the tulips will be cut and their bulbs pulled up before the vegetables are ready to move in.
Growing Bulbs for Cut Flowers
Traditional cutting-garden flowers typically need full sun or close to it in order to provide the greatest harvest. Bulbs employed for cut flowers usually need full sun too, but they may diverge from most cutting-garden annuals and perennials in their watering requirements. Some bulbs, including tulips, do best with a dry summer dormancy. This needn’t exclude tulips from inclusion, however. The gardener can treat the tulips as annuals, pulling and composting the bulbs after they bloom, a common practice at public gardens and with tulips types that tend to decline after their first year. Tulip bulbs can also be lifted after the foliage dies and stored dry for the summer, then replanted in fall. Summer-blooming bulbs, on the other hand, generally grow and bloom best with regular water throughout the season.
Tips on Harvesting the Flowers
To harvest the flowers of bulbs, follow the same protocols as for the rest of the cutting garden: snip them with a sharp, clean tool (I like this set of floral snips from Centurion) during a cooler part of the day (evening is good; morning is best) and immediately set the stem ends into water a couple of inches deep. (Any deeper only adds weight to the bucket.) Trim the stems again, cutting on the bias to promote water intake, when transferring the flowers into a vase.
To prolong the vase life, let the flowers rest in a cool, dark space for at least several hours before moving the arrangement to its intended spot. Change the water on alternating days to prolong the life of the arrangement. If a spring cutting garden isn’t yet offering floral companions for the bulb flowers, try adding material from other areas to the vase, such as twigs from shrubs and the unfurling or colorful foliage of perennials like hostas, ferns and heucheras.
Choosing What to Grow
As a category, bulbs for a cutting garden span spring and summer. Spring bloomers must be planted in fall, while summer bloomers are planted in spring, sometimes with the head start of indoor potting for later transplant. The best cutting-garden flowers have long, strong stems; among bulbs, this detail recommends tulips, daffodils and alliums among spring bloomers and calla lilies, dahlias (which often bloom continually) and gladiolus for the summer.
5 Favorite Summer-Blooming Bulbs for Cutting Gardens
(Plant in spring)
1. Dahlias—These can be cut partially or fully open, but be sure that the rearmost petals are still firm. Deadhead flowers that you’ve missed cutting, to spur more.
2. Calla lily—(Zantedeschia). These are a good option for cutting gardens that receive more shade. Cut calla lilies when they have opened fully; those that have not yet started to release pollen will have the longest vase life. Let the stem ends soak in water for several hours before trimming and arranging them.
3. Gladiolus—When the bottommost flower on the stalk opens, it is time to cut a gladiolus. The rest should open in the vase. As the lowest flowers fade, remove them and recut the stem to shorten it.
4. Lilies—(Lilium). To keep the lilies perennial, cut just halfway down the stem. Then be sure to remove any leaves that would be underwater in the vase. Removing the anthers is a matter of taste, but it can lengthen the flower’s life.
5. Crocosmia—These flowers grow as a collection of florets lining a stem tip. Cut them when a few of the florets have opened and keep the vase water fresh to encourage the remaining buds to unfold.
5 Favorite Spring-Blooming Bulbs for Cutting Gardens
(Plant in fall)
1. Tulips—Tulip stems continue to grow after they’ve been cut, so err on the shorter side to avoid later flopping. They will turn to face the light, so keep that in mind with elaborate arrangements. For the best performance, tulips should be cut when the buds are still mostly green.
2. Daffodils—Don’t cut daffodils until the buds have started to open, or they may not open at all. Rinse the sap out of the stems by soaking them in water until it is no longer oozing from the cut end (20 to 30 minutes). Arrange them in fresh water.
3. Alliums—For the longest vase life, cut alliums when about a third of the individual flowers that make up the head have opened. Change the water frequently and take care when trimming the stems, because they release a sap that can stain.
4. Camassia—These bulbs will tolerate more dampness than many others. Cut the ramrod-straight stems of camassia when the lowest flowers open and stand them in cold water over night.
5. Hyacinth—Like many kinds of tulips, these can be best treated as an annual. Committing to this allows you to dig up the entire bulb, wash the soil off, remove the leaves but leave the bulb attached even in the vase. This will make for a long flower life. Dig when the florets are all showing color, and the flower will continue to grow larger in the vase.
To learn all about planning, planting, tending and using a cutting garden, read Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden by flower farmer Erin Benzakein with Julie Chai.
Learn all about growing flowers straight from seeds or bulbs in Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening, in which expert gardener Matt Mattus shares all that he's learned while personally growing a myriad of flowering plants at his home.