Many of us dream of planning a cut flower garden in our own backyards, having fallen in love with the idea of strolling down the garden to harvest a horde of richly colored blooms that we can then proudly display in our homes.
Thankfully, it's really easy to plan a cut flower garden as part of your flower bed ideas. All you need is an empty plot of ground and a packet of seeds.
‘Growing a cut flower garden is a much more sustainable way of growing flowers for arranging in your home and avoids buying ones that have been flown halfway across the world. Intersperse flowers you wish to use for cutting with shrubs and herbaceous perennials,' explains Amelia Bouquet who trained in garden design at the English Gardening School (opens in new tab).
Just remember, everyone’s cutting garden is different, so pick the right flowers for you and your garden – and make sure they keep coming.
Planning a cut flower garden:
Before you get caught up in the blooms that you're going to plant, you must first consider the practical elements of planning a cut flower garden – namely it's size, shape and position. Knowing how to plant a flower bed is also useful in planning a cut flower garden as this will help you design a space in which the flowers can thrive.
How do you map a cut flower garden?
The easiest way to map a cut flower garden is on paper. Pick your position and then draw out a scale replica of your garden including your new addition. This will help you to visualize how your cut flower garden will work in the space and also help you avoid issues once you start building.
One key consideration when planning a cut flower garden is accessibility so factor in lots of garden path ideas and ensure that your compost heap and water supply are nearby, too.
Unlike traditional garden ideas, you need to be able to easily access all the plants and flowers for cutting. Therefore, it is a good idea to opt for a long thin design where possible, rather than a thick bed. Also ensure you can completely walk around the bed to enable you to easily take flowers from all sides.
'One of the main rules would be to account for ample direct sun light, the most flashy flowers are usually those from perennials that receive a lot of sunlight,' recommends landscape designer Jonathan Fargion (opens in new tab). 'Once you have established a sunny location, you might still want to grow something that does well in shade. Here, you can strategize to use the taller plants so that they cast shadow onto the more shady ones. For constant ample light plan rows in direction east to west, if you want to cast shades, plant in rows in direction north to south.'
How much space do you need for a cut flower garden?
There are no rules on the amount of space you need for a cut flower garden, however, if you pick a spot with the potential of expansion, this will avoid any regrets further down the line.
'The amount of space you need depends on the type of plants. Spacing should be calculated from the center of the plant. If you buy them in pots, think of the center of the pot as a point of reference. And always account for its mature size. Perennials can take about 18 inches from center, while a shrub like hydrangea takes more space (things can always be controlled through pruning). As a rule of thumb I'd space the perennials at 12 inches from the center and shrubs 24 inches from center, planted in rows that are 24 inches apart, to have space to attend the plants,' advises Jonathan Fargion.
If you are looking to add a cutting garden to your small garden ideas, then create a perennial cut flower bed within your existing borders. ‘It means you don’t have to section off areas of ground when space is already tight,’ adds Amelia Bouquet (opens in new tab).
The general rule for cut flower gardens is to grow the plants in lines, which requires lots of space. Instead combine cutting flowers in looser groups amongst other planting. Choose flowers that multitask, looking good in both garden borders and indoor arrangements.
How deep should flower beds be?
'If you are limited with space, I'd suggest at least 18 inches of soil depth,' recommends Jonathan Fargion. However, deeper is always better. If you are concerned about the quality and depth of your soil, consider raised garden bed ideas for your cut flower garden. These will also give you total control over the quality of the soil types and soil health, thus increasing the health and productivity of your plants.
If you've not already added raised beds to your garden, learning how to build a raised garden bed will get you started.
How to start a cut flower garden
Once you've finished planning a cut flower garden, it's time to make it a reality. Mark out your beds and lift the turf. If you are using raised beds, these will need to be built.
The next step is to 'get rid of weeds, add in organic matter and rake the soil to a fine tilth. You may like to use a Mypex weed control mat to prepare a sterile weed-free seed bed,' advises H&G garden expert Leigh Clapp.
Then comes the long anticipated planting. 'Plant flowers close together or put in supports ready to stop tall plants flopping over as they grow. Combine plants of similar heights, growing conditions and flowering times, including both focal flowers and fillers. For a year-round successional supply you could have options such as hellebores, spring bulbs, aquilegia, wallflowers, pinks, Sweet William, peonies, alstroemeria, sunflowers, dahlias, asters, chrysanthemums, kniphofias and daphne in winter. Include an abundant medley of self-replenishing, cut-and-come-again varieties, such as cosmos, zinnias, scabious and sweet peas, which will produce more flowers after cutting.
'Always plant more foliage and fillers than you think you will need, as using plenty of greenery in your arrangements will make them look more natural and rustic,' adds Leigh.
What flowers to grow in a cut flower garden
The key to a productive cutting garden is to choose plants with many flowers that bloom for a long period of time.
These are some of the best flowers to grow for a cut flower garden:
- Sweet peas
- Mexican sunflowers
‘My favorites are sweet peas, dahlias, Mexican sunflowers and cosmos,’ says stylist Selina Lake (opens in new tab), whose new book Shed Style is out now. ‘These are great choices as picking the flowers regularly encourages more flowers to bloom, giving you a constant supply for cutting.’
Choose plants in color combinations you find appealing. ‘I like to mix vibrant pink cosmos and dahlias, and dusky pink zinnias with pops of orange from Mexican sunflowers and crocosmia for colorful late summer arrangements.’ You can try collecting seeds from some flowers you have grown to increase the stock for your cutting garden for free – just ensure they are not hybrids as these may not come true from seed.
Your plot needs to be in full sun and as your plants grow you may need to add stakes and supports to keep the blooms upright. Growing a cut flower garden is also a great project to do when gardening with children.
Every cutting garden needs roses. ‘I find that ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ and ‘Constance Spry’, with their highly scented pink rosettes, work well with a few stems of nigella, whose lime-green feathery leaves top the purply-blue flower like the ring-setting for a glamorous jewel,’ says Jane Cumberbatch, author of Pure Style in the Garden (opens in new tab).
‘The pink/ blue/lime-green combination is a favorite. I don’t usually go for elaborate vases and containers. A simple, utilitarian look tends to be my choice: glass jam jars, rounded pudding basins, enamelled jugs.’
Keep flowers coming with successional planting
‘Think in terms of successional flowering too,’ says Carien van Boxtel, who designed a cut flower garden for 2021's RHS Hampton Court Flower Show. ‘Use space as economically as possible, with one bed for multiple crops. Once spring bulbs have finished flowering, replace them with plants grown from seed, like cosmos and sweet peas.’ If you're unsure where to start, these succession planting tips will help to get you started.
For a regular supply of blooms, ensure you deadhead throughout the season. Pinch off the finished flower, just below where the base of the flower joins the stem.
Growing foliage for flower arrangements
Foliage works the same way in the garden as in arrangements. When planning a cut flower garden, use it as a filler and to add interesting architectural shapes. The idea is to make your design as three-dimensional as possible.
‘The more leafy stuff you use, the more your arrangement will look nicely home-made rather than florist-bought,’ says plant expert Sarah Raven (opens in new tab).
‘For primary foliage, I often use euphorbia oblongata. It's brilliant acid-green color adds brightness and contrast, and it’s one of the best foliage plants because it has a robust, upstanding structure. It also has thin stems but a generous horizontal top, so you don’t need huge quantities to create the right effect.’
You can also achieve this with interesting grasses or seed pods, or vertical leaf spikes such as Bells of Ireland.
Cutting garden flowers for a sunny garden
Try tall and airy verbena bonariensis for graceful structure. Long flowering coreopsis adds a punchy pop of sunshine color, while phlox paniculata has clusters of gorgeous fragrant flowers. Floaty silk-petalled cosmos add an ethereal touch and the tall spires of erysimum bring masses of mauve flowers to the mix. Combine these to create a naturalistic arrangement.
‘Fill out your vase with stems of pittosporum, perfect for providing limitless foliage to use as a backdrop for brighter colors, plus a great filler shrub for sunny borders,’ says garden designer Amelia Bouquet.
Sweet peas are the perfect choice for a container. They are an abundant source of cut flowers and come in an array of pretty colors.
Cutting garden flowers for a shady garden
During the summer months, astilbe is the star of the cutting garden with its elegant plumes of feathery flowers and attractive ferny foliage, while starry shaped astrantia blooms are perfect for creating lacy drifts.
‘Both are striking plants that love a shady dappled spot and look equally good in the vase,’ says Amelia Bouquet.
Alchemilla mollis is one of the prettiest foliage plants around. The velvety soft fan-shaped leaves add a pretty effect and can be used to introduce detail to a delicate arrangement too. For containers, try orange calendula (marigolds) for a stunning display. They will tolerate shady conditions, and make excellent cut flowers for arrangements too.
Harvesting cutting garden flowers – the right way
Cut your flowers when they’re about to show some color. For best results, collect cut flowers early in the morning when their stems are fully turgid (filled with water) and avoid picking them if it’s hot or sunny. Put the stems straight into a bucket of water before arranging.
Many annuals, such as sweet peas, as well as some perennials will bloom over a longer period if picked regularly. Follow the stem you want to pick until you reach the main stem and cut at this intersection. Do not leave parts of the stem behind.
Multiply your stock by collecting seed. Wait until a dry day towards the end of summer, pick the dry seeds of a healthy plant. Shake the stem to let the seeds fall in a container or put a paper bag around the seed head and cut the stem. Hang it upside down to dry. Don’t forget to label when dry.
How to care for a cut flower garden
'A cutting garden is for harvesting; so don’t expect it to look pristine at all times. Deadhead and cut flowers regularly and keep up the weeding and watering. When watering, don’t shower plants from overhead, but water carefully with a steady
jet flow at the base of the plant. The best time to water is in the evening as it allows the plants to soak up what they need overnight. Mulching is valuable to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Many recommend a no-dig gardening, as the less
you dig over the soil, the less weeds are disturbed. Cutting actually encourages more flowers to grow, especially annuals that have a survival imperative to set seed. Let some of your flowers set seed and collect them to sow the following year, replenishing your own stock for free,' explains Leigh.
Lifestyle journalist Sarah Wilson has been writing about gardens since 2015. She's written for Gardeningetc.com, Livingetc, Homes & Gardens, Easy Gardens and Modern Gardens magazines. Her first job on glossy magazines was at Elle, during which time a visit to the legendary La Colombe d'Or in St-Paul-de-Vence led to an interest in all things gardening. Later as lifestyle editor at Country Homes & Interiors magazine the real pull was the run of captivating country gardens that were featured.
- Holly ReaneyContent Editor and Sub-editor