How to Start a Cutting Garden

Plant the right flowers and a bouquet will only be a few steps away. (Photo: Amy the Nurse [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

Many homeowners face a dilemma when it comes to having lush beds of blooming flowers and shrubs. They want to have vases of blooms indoors, but they don't want to ruin the look of the garden by creating gaps when they cut the flowers.

If you're facing this choice, there's a way to have the best of both worlds: Start a cutting garden.

Whereas garden beds and borders are designed for aesthetic appeal, you don't have to worry about how a cutting garden looks. Its sole purpose is to produce blooms to beautify the indoors.

To create a cutting garden, just follow these five easy steps.

edible landscaping, herb garden
Just like an herb garden, a cutting garden can be exclusive or not — but you don't have to worry about how it looks. Nature has a way of looking good on its own. thegardenbuzz [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

1. Select a location. The best site will be one that gets plenty of sun, has rich soil and drains well. An ideal site might be one that borders a vegetable or herb garden since the "crop style" planting purpose of the cutting garden and the vegetable/herb beds will complement each other. Other considerations for sites include sunny spots along the back boundary, in a corner that hasn't been planted or behind or beside the garage. Small spaces can hold a lot of plants. As a general rule, a 3 by 6 foot bed will hold about 20 plants.

2. Plan the garden. Once you know the dimensions of the cutting garden and the sun angles of the new bed, you can draw a design based on plant heights and bloom times. Plan for dense plantings with a mixture of color, stem lengths and textures that will bloom in spring, summer and fall. Be sure to draw a plan that avoids gaps. Remember your goal: It's to produce flowers to create great looks indoors, not in the cutting garden itself. Be creative in your design and be sure to include your favorite shrubs, annuals, perennials, herbs and bulbs.

3. Prepare the soil. The cutting garden should have the same rich soil as your other garden beds. Add humus in the form of compost, peat moss or chopped leaves to a depth of 8-10 inches to improve clay or sandy soil.

4. Plant the garden. Plant in rows according to your plan. This will provide for the easiest access and reduce the time and effort needed to weed, feed, thin, fertilize, deadhead and harvest. If you wind up with unintended gaps, fill in with annuals or herbs.

5. Cut the flowers. Finally the best part! This is where planning and preparation pay off. Use the colors, stem lengths, textures of the foliage and floral fragrances to create appealing arrangements to enjoy and to impress your guests.

If you don't have gardening space to add a cutting garden or want to include more plants in a cutting garden than you have room for, don't worry. Just plant your favorite flowers and shrubs throughout the space you do have. Just don't cluster them. By spreading out the flowers you are growing specifically for cutting in your existing beds, you won't create gaps when you remove the blooms.

To help you get started, we've included a region-by-region guide to popular plants for cutting gardens. The lists below are not meant to be inclusive; they are just a sampling of the many varieties you could include in your own garden.

Best plants for a cutting garden in the South

A vase of blue hydrangeas is an incredibly Southern array. Muffet [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Annual: Zinnia. These garden staples come in an artist's palette of colors and are easily grown from seed in average garden soil. For continuous blooms, set out seed multiple times throughout the season. It's important to cut the flowers often because this induces the plants to produce more flowers. When brought indoors and placed in vases, the flowers are long-lasting.

Perennial: Sunflower. Several species — H. salicifolius (native to the Midwest and Western United States) and H. angustifolius (native to the Southeast) — grow quite well in the South. Each species has some well-known cultivars. When brought indoors, all of them will brighten a room with their bold and colorful displays. Cut the stems at 45 degrees under running water and at various lengths. Place the tallest stem in the center and arrange the shorter stems around it. Or, for a dramatic statement, place one large flower in a vase by itself.

Shrub: Hydrangea. Nothing says southern like an arrangement of blue hydrangeas in June and July. To prolong the beauty of the fresh-cut blooms and keep them from wilting, cut the flower heads in the morning. Take a bucket of water with you and immediately plunge the stems into the water. Indoors, boil water and pour it into a container. Cut the hydrangea stems to the desired length, stand them in the water for 30 seconds and immediately put them into a vase of room temperature water and arrange for effect.

And there are plenty of others including cosmos, celosa, anemones, camellias, calendula, salvia (such as S. leucantha), tagetes (such as T. lucida) and liatris. (Suggestions from the Atlanta Botanical Garden)

Best plants for a cutting garden in the Mid-Atlantic states

globe amaranth
The globe amaranth blooms from summer through the end of autumn. yoppy [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Annual: Gomphrena. This punchy little flower is almost too good to be true. Thriving in full sun and heat, this choice annual grows well even in poor soil. Commonly called globe amaranth, gomphrena blooms nonstop from summer into the end of autumn. Cultivars like Strawberry Fields and Fireworks will not disappoint. Best used at the edge of the garden for their low-growing and wiry habit, gomphrena also makes an excellent dried flower.

Perennial: Allium. Tough as nails and undeniably reliable, everyone should try at least one of the flowering onions. Globular flowers appear from late spring into summer, and almost all are suitable for cutting. Globemaster, Mount Everest and the classic Purple Sensation are excellent cultivars. The straight species Allium christophii is also a showstopper. Not to be forgotten are groundcover types such as the low-growing but long-blooming Allium Summer Beauty.

Shrub: Hydrangea. Absolutely the best shrub for cut flowers. The best of the best is a herbaceous cultivar like Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle or a cultivar good for coppicing such as Hydrangea paniculata Tarvida or Limelight. (Coppicing is a type of pruning in which trees or shrubs are cut back to a stump to promote new growth.) Prune to the ground or to the coppiced trunk in early spring when buds begin to swell. You will be rewarded in the summer with long stems, each with a beautiful bloom.

And there are plenty of others including Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire, Viburnum macrocephala, Ilex Winter Gold and Winter Red, Asiatic lilies, tulips, Convallaria majalis, panicum, narcissus, Heuchera villosa Autumn Bride, hellebores, aquilegias, echinacea, rudbeckia (many different types), hostas, perennial sunflowers, Eryngium giganteum, Eupatorium maculatum Gateway, Coreopsis tripteris, brunnera, Alchemilla mollis, Dicentra spectabilis, Scabiosa Ace of Spades, Verbena bonariensis, Emilia coccinea Scarlet Magic, zinnias, dahlias, Lagurus ovatus, cosmos, Salvia involucrata Mulberry Jam. (Suggestions from Chanticleer)

Best plants for a cutting garden in the Northeast

Lilacs have an unforgettable fragrance. Susanne Nilsson [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Annual: Lupines. When three-quarters of the florets are open, cut the flowers in the morning before they have been pollinated. Flowers cut before the heat of the day and before they have been pollinated last longer than flowers cut after the temperatures have started rising and pollinators become active. Take a bucket of lukewarm water to the garden, set it out of the sun and place the cut stems in the water immediately after cutting. The stems are hollow and stiff and keep the flower spikes erect in arrangements, especially if any leaves below the water line are removed (leaves in water tend to speed up decay).

Perennial: Red hot poker. The tall, strong stems of Kniphofia and the brilliantly colored eight-inch flower spikes in uniform warm shades of yellow, orange and red make this showy garden plant an excellent choice for cut flower growers who are looking for something different, especially something with a tropical look.

Shrub: Lilac. It's hard to beat lilacs for early season cut flower arrangements because of their wonderfully sweet fragrance. Fill a vase with water and put a flower frog or other heavy object in the bottom of the vase to keep the heavy stems and flowers from toppling the vase over. Smash the bottom of the stems with a hammer to help them draw up water and immediately place them in the vase. The flowers are not long lasting when cut, maybe just four or five days, but you'll remember the fragrance for much longer.

And there are plenty of others including coleus, Verbena bonariensis, tropical grasses such as purple sugar cane, foxgloves, delphiniums, Asiatic lilies, coneflowers, sunflowers, Erigeron, shrub roses (Rosa Therese Bugnet), Hydrangea arborescens, staghorn sumac (because of its fuzzy branches). Spruces and pines that dominate the Maine forests hold up particularly well in arrangements and add a homey natural feel to arrangements. For an unusual twist, mix contorted white birch branches in the bouquets to give arrangements a subtle pop. (Suggestions from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens)

Best plants for a cutting garden in the Midwest

blue ageratum flowers blooming in the garden
In the Midwest and many other regions, ageratum is a reliable plant that will produce mounds of fluffy blue flowers. 777Anna777/Shutterstock

Annual: Ageratum. The cultivar ‘Blue Horizon' is an excellent choice for the Midwest. The 14-inch stems are loose and airy and long lasting in a vase. In addition, the purple color pairs well with other many other flowers in a display.

Perennial: Stokesia. These pink and lavender daisy-like flowers are on the shorter side, which makes them excellent accent plants when used as fillers around the longer stems of more showy flowers.

Shrub: Knockout roses. The foliage is disease-resistant so the leaves can be left on the stems when places in an arrangement, unlike many rose varieties. The flowers, which are available in a range of vibrant pinks and reds, regenerate quickly to provide a continuous flow of flowers during the growing season.

And plenty of others, including Eucalytpus ‘Silver Drop' (grows quickly from seed as an annual in the Midwest, maintains well in water, only gets about 20 inches tall and the foliage adds a wonderful silver color and unusual texture to arrangements), snapdragons, especially the Liberty series, which is an old series; sunflowers, particularly the types with several lateral branches because they offer so many options with making an arrangement; Asclepias silky mix; Ammi majus ‘Green Mist', a non-invasive cousin to Queen Anne's lace that holds up great in a vase. (Suggestions from the Missouri Botanical Garden)

Best plants for a cutting garden in the Mountain states

Bees sitting on Echinops bannaticus blue globe thistle
Echinops bannaticus, or blue globe thistle, will add a surprising new element to your garden. Alexandra Glen/Shutterstock

Annual: Zinnia. The variety of colors, ease of culture and long life in a vase make zinnias a universal choice for a great cut flower. The Benary series is an excellent choice because of its long stems and large flowers.

Perennial: Echinops bannaticus ‘Taplow Blue.' The unique texture of the prickly, grey-green leaves and powder-blue pompon flowers of this variety of globe thistle make it a show-stopping architectural choice for the back of a summer border. It also works well planted in drifts in a wild garden. In addition to cutting it for summer arrangements, the flowers can be dried for winter decoration if cut while immature.

Shrub: Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo'. The ninebark variety ‘Diablo' has dark maroon-colored foliage and unique shreddy bark on the stems that add bold color to indoor arrangements. If cut when the plant is in bloom from May into June, the white flowers that fade to reddish-pink seedheads stand out dramatically against the foliage and add a new dimension to ‘Diablo's' bold accent in a vase of cut flowers.

And there are plenty of others including Paeonia ‘TopHat,' Kniphofia ‘Pineapple Popsicle' and a wide variety of dahlias. Also consider this small tree: Salix ‘Erythroflexuosa' or contorted willow. The unique twisting branches have a variety of uses in flower arrangements or when grouped together in a vase. (Suggestions from the Denver Botanical Garden)

Best plants for a cutting garden in Southern California

African daisies are bright and cheery. Jonathan Isabelle/Shutterstock

Annual: Osteospermum (African daisy). These daisy-like flowers have a wide range of colors and varieties, including some with wonderfully unique petal habits such as the lovely pinwheel varieties. Recommended cultivars include 'Margarita Supreme,' ‘Sundora,' ‘3D' and ‘Flower Power.'

Perennial: Agapanthus (Lily of the Nile). This sturdy bulb thrives in the southern half of the state. Flower colors range from white ('Albus', 'Getty White') to deep purple or violet ('Elaine', 'Storm Cloud'). The flowers are versatile for placement in arrangements because they come in sizes ranging from dwarf to fairly large (four-foot tall inflorescence).

Shrub: Buddleia (Buddleja). Butterfly bush is another versatile flower for arrangements because of the range in size of the plant groups (dwarf, 'Lo & Behold' and 'Buzz,' to large shrubs six feet and up) and the variety of flower colors (a clear, fragrant white, B. asiatica, a winter flowering variety, 'White Ball' and 'Ice Chip') to the deepest, nearly black purple ('Potter's Purple' and 'Black Night'). Newer varieties being offered now include variegated flowers. The bottle brush-like blooms add a dramatic dimension to arrangements.

And there are plenty of others including Gerbera daisies, warm climate lilacs, Viburnum macrocephala (Chinese Snowball Viburnum), grevilleas, cosmos, reed-stem orchids (Epidendrum) do very well in outdoor pots, salvias, roses, camellias, Justicia carnea, hibiscus, Alstroemeria (Peruvian lily), Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise), and amaryllis. (Suggestions from The Huntington)

Best plants for a cutting garden in the Pacific Northwest

lathyrus odoratus sweetpea
The sweetpea has a scent like no other. helga_sm/Shutterstock

Annuals: Lathyrus. Who doesn't love sweet peas? Everything about them makes you smile. ‘Spencer' varieties are a great choice because of their long vase life, wonderfully long stems and great scent. If spring in your area tends to be wet, wait until June to plant. Do not condition the water for the cut stems. Place them in cool water only.

Perennials: Paeonia. Peonies scream for attention and they get it with their huge fluffy blossoms. The blooms are gorgeous when displayed alone in a large vase or mixed with other flowers. Use marbles or rocks in the vase to offset the heavy blooms and keep the stems anchored. Cut as soon as buds get good color and are starting to open. Never cut them all the flowers from one plant at the same time and leave at least three leaves on each stem to keep the plant alive and nourished for next year.

Shrub: Skimmia japonica. This Northwest shade-loving shrub is a favorite when it comes to using greens in arrangements. It has it all: shiny finger-shaped leaves, red berries, white flowers and a nice scent. Branches are segmented and easy to use and also look great in the garden year-round. Female flowers hold up better than the male flowers.

And there are plenty of others including lilies, dahlia, goose-neck loosestrife, delphinium, snapdragons, sedum and sarcococca. (Suggestions from The Bloedel Reserve)