There’s nothing that can’t be made better with a fresh bouquet of flowers. Skip the line at the store and look into your very own backyard flower field with our guide to planning and growing a cutting garden.
From zinnias to peonies to wildflowers galore, we’ve got you covered with the best tips for getting your flower garden up and running.
- 1. Assess your landscape
- 2. Choose your plants
- 3. Design your flower bed
- 4. Amend your soil
- 5. Sow seeds
- 6. Protect from pests
- 7. Pinching, deadheading, and pruning
- Call a pro
1. Assess your landscape
The first step to altering your landscape is assessing what you’re starting with. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to garden design, and getting to know your yard will set you up for the most successful cut flower garden possible.
Use our 5 S’s checklist when you’re ready to start planning. This information will help you design a smart layout and choose plants that will thrive.
For large properties, you obviously have more leeway with choosing a prime spot for your cutting garden. In addition to the categories below, consider where would be most convenient for you to make maintenance easy.
If you have a smaller space, you’ll need to be extra thoughtful about your plant choices and layout to ensure maximum blooms while allowing for healthy air circulation. For example, you might want to skip the shrubs and replace them with herbaceous perennials.
Consider going vertical, too. Flowering vines can wrap around trellises or beautify fencing. A gutter garden (shelving made out of gutters and attached to a wall) can hold plants with shallow root systems.
Sunlight is a nonnegotiable for a cutting garden. Most of the plants you’ll choose need full sun (meaning 6-8 hours of direct sunlight). Mark any shade structures you have in your yard like pergolas, playsets, covered patios, or large trees, and determine what cardinal direction your yard faces.
South-facing yards receive the most sun exposure. Western-facing yards get direct sun in the afternoon, whereas light from the east is strongest in the morning. Northern-facing areas receive the least amount of sun and should be avoided for cutting gardens if possible.
Sunlight isn’t the only nutrition source to think about. Any happy organism needs a comfortable home, and plants can be picky about their living spaces.
It’s essential to know the state of your current soil so you know what kind of amendments and fertilization it might need.
Qualities to test for in your soil:
- Soil pH
- Nutrient levels
- Material makeup (sand, clay, or loam)
It’s best to get a soil test done by a local extension service. You can collect the sample yourself and mail it in, and you’ll get a full report on your soil quality. We’ll cover amending your soil a few steps down.
When’s the last time you considered the grading of your property? Even mild slopes present special erosion needs and potential irrigation problems.
Knowing where water tends to pool in your landscape will help you decide where to put certain plants. Most of the flowers for cutting gardens don’t like sitting in mucky soil, so planting them on a higher area of your landscape is better.
Take a tour of your property a few hours after it rains to see if there are any puddles. If there’s a serious low spot, you may need to address it with a rain garden or a hardscaping drainage solution (like a French drain or a dry well).
Last but not least, what kind of climate do you live in? Checking which USDA Hardiness Zone you live in will give you a lot of information. Consider questions like:
- How much annual rainfall do you receive on average? This influences irrigation and soil amendment needs (more rain means a greater need for well-draining soil).
- How humid is it? This will influence what kind of diseases to watch for.
- When are the average first and last frost dates? This determines when you’ll sow seeds.
2. Choose your plants
This is the part where you get to imagine all the vibrant cut flower arrangements of your dreams. Do you want something sunny for your kitchen? Delicate for your bedroom? A showstopper to give a friend?
To ensure diversity, make sure your cutting garden includes:
- Scented flowers
- Filler plants like yarrow or baby’s breath
- Foliage plants with attractive leaves and stems
- Plants with long stems
We put together a list of the best flowers for cutting gardens to get you started. When you’re going through your options, think about the following.
You’ll get more bang for your buck with a plant that blooms for a few months. Paying attention to when your plants bloom also lets you pick cultivars that flower at different times so you always have something beautiful to pick from.
Plants with long blooming seasons:
- Sage (Salvia) — late spring to fall
- Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) — mid-summer to fall
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) — summer
- Tickseed (Coreopsis) — summer to fall
If you’re a pro, feel free to take on more finicky plants like gardenias and delphiniums. If you’re new to gardening, consider native wildflowers. They still produce beautiful flowers, but they’re naturally adapted to the climate and are generally more pest and disease resistant. Plus, they attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds.
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
- Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
- Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta)
Type of plant
Depending on your space, you’ll have different needs. Flowering vines are great for wilder-looking bouquets and foliage filler, and many of them prefer shadier spots. You may want to decorate a trellis or pergola with a flowering vine like:
- Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea)
- Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)
- Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)
- Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Or you might need something that can act as a hedge. There are a lot of flowering shrub options, including:
- Rhododendron (Rhododendron)
- Forsythia (Forsythia)
- Shrub rose (Rosa)
- Camellia (Camellia)
3. Design your flower bed
Designing your cutting garden is like designing a vase of flowers. Get creative by putting contrasting colors next to each other to make them pop and staggering heights for further visual interest.
Placement is more than aesthetics, though. Keeping these things in mind before you put seeds in the ground will make your gardening life much easier down the road.
- Hydrozone: Hydrozoning is grouping plants by water needs. This reduces water waste and keeps your plants happy.
- Spacing: Be sure to check what your plant’s mature size will be. Using that, space your plants with 6-18 inches between them to ensure good air circulation. This prevents fungal conditions like powdery mildew.
- Soil needs: A Mediterranean herb that likes sandy soil and a tropical flower that prefers fertile ground don’t make good neighbors. Plants with very specific soil pH or drainage requirements will be better off in a container.
The final step is deciding on the type of garden. There are three main options: raised garden beds, in-ground beds, and container gardens.
Raised garden bed
A raised bed is a structure often built from wood that sits on top of the ground and acts like a big container for your plants.
Advantages of raised garden beds:
- Total control over the soil pH, quality, and depth
- Fewer weed problems
- Discourages pests like slugs, gophers, and rabbits
- Easier to reach for cutting
An in-ground garden simply means planting your flowers right into the ground.
Advantages of in-ground garden beds:
- Fewer up-front costs
- Doesn’t need repairs
- Can change your layout
- Lends itself to softer curves or shapes other than squares and rectangles
A container garden means growing your flowers in containers like terra cotta pots or window boxes.
Advantages of container gardens:
- Can use recycled items as containers
- Easy to rearrange
- Control over the soil
- Less expensive than installing a raised bed
- Good for small spaces
4. Amend your soil
Getting your soil ready is like cleaning your home before a guest arrives. You want the linens to be fresh, the house to smell inviting, and the temperature just right. You can take similar steps to ensure your soil is as welcoming as possible for transplants.
Like we mentioned before, getting a professional soil test is the first step. Depending on your results, you might need to make some changes. The best time to do this is in the late fall or early winter. That way, anything you add will have time to work its way into the ground and affect the soil.
The three most common soil textures are: clay, sand, and loam. Loam is the ideal type; if your soil falls into this category, you can leave it alone.
A simple test can give you a rough idea of what soil you’re working with:
- Grab a handful of damp soil.
- Squeeze it in your palm, then prod it.
- If it falls apart easily, your soil has high sand content. If it stays clumped together, your soil has high clay content. If it’s somewhere in between, it’s considered loam.
If your soil is mostly clay, you need to lighten and aerate it so there’s space for nutrients and water to move through the ground. Compost, straw, peat moss, and perlite are popular options for amending clay soil.
If your soil is mostly sand, you need to improve the holding capacity of the soil so it can retain water and nutrients long enough for the roots to absorb them. Compost and peat moss also work for sandy soil, as well as vermiculite.
Although all plants have different soil pH preferences, most plants thrive in the 6.0-7.0 range. If your soil falls outside of that, you may need to amend it.
If your soil is above 7.0, that means it’s alkaline. To lower your soil pH, you can use:
- Elemental sulfur
- Aluminum sulfate
- Sphagnum peat
If your soil is below 6.0, it’s significantly acidic. The most common method for raising your soil pH is with granular or pelletized limestone.
Follow the instructions on the product you buy and perform another soil test a few weeks later. If you’re just testing pH, you can get a home kit from your local garden center.
Your fertilization needs will depend on your plant. Native flowers, for example, don’t need a lot of fertilizer and some (like coreopsis) can actually suffer if the soil is too rich.
As a general rule of thumb, you can incorporate a dose of a slow-acting, organic, granular fertilizer in the spring. That’s usually enough to keep plants happy throughout the growing season, but you can always add a dose of liquid fertilizer if there’s a drop in blooms.
5. Sow seeds
You have your plan. Your soil’s ready. The seeds are waiting. So when do you start actually growing flowers? Spring is a great time to sow seeds for most flowers. Some need a few weeks of colder temperatures to germinate (like tulips), so check the package for exact instructions.
What you’ll need:
- Containers (you can use trays, boxes, plastic cups, or egg crates)
- Potting soil made for starting seeds
- Spray mister
How to sow seeds:
- First, make sure there are drainage holes in your chosen container.
- Fill the container with seed starting potting mix.
- Use your spray bottle to moisten the surface.
- Now it’s time to sprinkle the seeds over the compost. If you have very large seeds (like sunflower seeds), you can press them into the soil as much as one-quarter inch. Leave small seeds on the surface.
- Cover the tray with cardboard or wood to keep the moisture in. Check the packet for germination requirements — some seeds need a little light to germinate.
- Depending on your climate, you can leave the tray outside or bring it in. Seeds prefer a temperature above 64 degrees Fahrenheit to sprout, so taking them inside is a good bet if you live somewhere with a chilly spring.
- Check after a couple of days for sprouts. The moment you see them, uncover the seedlings to expose them to light.
- Keep the compost moist with your mister and turn the tray daily to make sure every side gets even light.
Perennials can be transplanted on or after the last frost. Annuals usually need a week or more after the last frost date until they’re ready to be transplanted. If you have cuttings or young plants, plant them directly into the ground at the appropriate time (depending on if they’re a perennial or an annual).
Pro Tip: Always make sure to clear away weeds before planting. You don’t want your new plants to have to compete for nutrients and space. Add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch about 2 inches away from the base of plants to prevent new weeds from popping up.
6. Protect from pests
A broad-spectrum insecticide will keep insects at bay, but they’ll also scare off pollinators. A better option is a horticultural oil like neem oil. Neem oil interrupts the life cycle of many common garden pests like whiteflies and aphids. It can hurt bees when misused — spray it at dawn or dusk and away from hives.
The best offense is defense. Checking in on your plants regularly will let you catch the early stages of a pest where things like soap spray or picking them off by hand will still be effective.
For pests with four legs and a tail like deer and rabbits, pest control is a little more difficult. Fencing is always a good idea, but isn’t suitable for all yards. Adding blood meal and bone meal to soil deters rabbits. Planting strong-smelling herbs like chives, lavender, and sage around the border of your garden will further deter most unwelcome visitors.
7. Pinching, deadheading, and pruning
You’ll see advice about “pinching” and “deadheading” when it comes to caring for flowers, but what do they actually mean? They all refer to intentionally cutting back a plant to encourage healthy growth and a desired shape. We’ll explain the distinctions between each.
Pinching refers to removing the growing tips on an herbaceous plant up to a couple inches from the end. Via a complex cascade of chemical signals, this discourages legginess and causes the plant to grow in a bushier shape.
No, this has nothing to do with a certain rock band from the ‘60s. Deadheading is a type of pruning where you remove spent blossoms. The purpose of this is twofold:
First, it removes dead tissue that might become a home for fungus or bacteria.
Second, it prevents flowers from setting seed. Seedheads and fruit production takes energy away from flower production. Deadheading is an essential part of cutting garden upkeep to encourage plants to produce maximum flower yield.
Pruning encompasses pinching and deadheading as well as more invasive measures like removing entire branches or older stems. For invasive plants, pruning sucker shoots is important in managing aggressive growth.
Some plants, especially shrubs, benefit from a hard winter pruning. This can mean cutting the plant back by two-thirds or to a single main shoot. Pruning, when done right, revitalizes older plants and lengthens plant life. Always check your specific species’ needs.
Call a pro
Designing your own cutting garden can be fun, but it also can be overwhelming, especially for people new to gardening. If arranging the flowers once they’ve bloomed is more your thing, hire a Lawn Love professional to design, install, and maintain your cutting garden. A team will take the guesswork out of it and work with you to get the floral paradise of your dreams.
Main Photo Credit: Gary Barnes | Pexels