Designing a Cutting Garden

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Having a cutting garden is good for the soul. It’s a good place to clear your head, observe nature and give the kids a few chores to “build character.”

As the owner of Irvington Spring Farm, I enjoy sharing our fresh flowers with locals—but I also enjoy sharing my expertise with those who want to make their own garden at home. Here, I walk you through some of the top factors to consider:

Take Inventory
To get started, take a walk around your yard, and see what you already have. Many common shrubs and trees can be used as cut greenery for flower arranging. Camelia, abelia, boxwood varieties, crabapple and evergreens are all options. Do you have clematis, ivy, honeysuckle, or sweet pea? Those vines can all be used for cutting. If you currently have any kind of landscape plantings, test them, and see if they work as cuts.

When plants are just emerging in the spring and have tender new leaves, they are not nearly as hardy. If you try something in May and it fails, try it again in June. It just might work then.

wildflowersLocation Selection
To bloom well, most flowers need full sun. Watch the way the sun moves around your yard and find an area that receives close to six hours of daily sun. Your spot should also have good drainage, good air circulation, relatively level ground, fencing and loose rich soil.

Humidity can cause a lot of fungus and mildew issues. Choosing resistant varieties and providing both good light and air flow is your best defense. To achieve good air flow, don’t crowd your garden next to your house, garage, or densely planted shrubs. Plants, like people, want to be able to feel the breeze blow through!

To check soil drainage, test the site you are considering.

Dig a planting hole 12 inches deep by 12 inches wide and fill it with water. Does the water stand in the hole?

Does it drain?

Does it drain slowly? You should be able to see water in the hole for about 10 minutes.

Water
You must have water easily available to keep your plants receiving the equivalent of an inch of rain a week. Drip irrigation systems and lay flat hoses are more efficient than both hose and overhead watering systems. Don’t water in the heat of the day as this increases plant stress and can cause disease issues. Watering early in the morning is best.

If you want to be a conscientious water user, consider drought-tolerant native plants such as mountain mints, monardas, rudbeckias, coreopsis species or herbs.

Soil Prep
Now, you are ready to prepare your beds for seeds or tender young plants. Loose, well-draining loamy soil is ideal. Garden writers are encouraging us not to till soil like our predecessors did. If you construct raised beds, you can create the perfect soil and have very few residual weeds as well. The term raised bed simply means an above-ground garden. It can be soil layered on top of the ground, a lasagna-style layered garden (for more information on this, I recommend visiting: growmyownfood.com

lasagna-gardening-101/), or a formal-built garden frame filled with purchased garden soil. However you choose to design your bed, three to four feet wide is usually good.

A soil with good loam will form a ball when you squeeze it together in your fist but easily crumbles apart when you poke it. These home tests obviously can be subjective. To request a soil test, call the Lynchburg office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension at (434) 455-3740.

Planting
Creating a garden is like painting a picture. There are so many colors and forms to choose from that you will be constantly curating your collection. It is extremely important when choosing plants that you know how tall they will get. Read the label on your plant or seeds and know what its growing habits are.

Include perennial plants where you can because they will save you money over time. They can be divided every three years or so, thus increasing your available plants, or trade them with friends for new varieties you don’t currently have. Think about having perennial plants that go through the whole season—from early spring favorites such as primrose, Lenten rose or columbine to fall-blooming asters and sedums. Garden Phlox is a nice medium-size perennial flower to have for cutting. Peonies are always a favorite, and they bloom for 50 years or more.

Annuals must be planted every year and they give gardens color quickly. To keep them blooming they must be deadheaded, which is when you cut old blooms off the plant. If you allow your flowers to make seeds, they will stop blooming. Zinnias and cosmos are prolific bloomers. Sunflowers, not so much. They must be replanted every two weeks to have successive blooms available.

Bulbs and tubers are another category in the cutting garden. Tulip bulbs allow you to grow an amazing array of color and form, if you can keep animals away from them. Orienpet lilies, also bulbs, have an amazing fragrance and are long-lasting. Dahlias, grown from tubers, are the fall queens. There is surely one that will become a favorite in your garden.

If you have multiple beds, don’t forget to use cover crops on rows that are done for the season. Cover crops help keep your soil well-fed so it in turn can keep producing well for you. (You can study more about cover crops at Johnny’s Selected Seed: www.johnnyseeds.com.)

Leave your garden debris along your path somewhere, perhaps at the end of the bed. This provides habitat for native bees and other creatures, such as toads and turtles, that will share your garden.

Maintenance
To keep your cutting garden looking its best, you need be attentive to it. A daily walk in the morning or evening to deadhead and watch for insect or other plant health issues will keep problems in check. You should harvest your flowers in the morning before it is too hot or once the temperatures drop in the evening. Always place your stems in water as soon as you can. Recut your flower stems after three days and fill your vase with clean water.

When you do diligent planning work, choose the right plants for your space, pay attention to the amount of water they are receiving and do your best to keep your plants deadheaded, your cutting garden will reward you with both bounty and beauty.

Irvington Spring Farm
Irvington Spring Farm offers cut flower seed trays, individual plants they think are worth adding to your garden, as well as dahlia tubers. Gardening classes on different topics are offered throughout the season. Learn more by following them on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok or visit their website, Irvingtonspringfarm.com.

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