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Ask the Experts: Organic Flower Farms Share Tips on Growing a Cutting Garden

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Ask the Experts: Organic Flower Farms Share Tips on Growing a Cutting Garden

June 30, 2023

One of my flower dreams (and there are many) is to have a large cutting garden, where I can pick beautiful bouquets whenever I want. For now, I’ll start with a small bed of flowers for cutting. To learn more about growing stems for arrangements, I reached out to some of my favorite flower farms for their expert advice: Frogtown Flora, Tiny Hearts Farm, and Fivefork Farms.  

Frogtown Flora will soon be expanding, with an additional half-acre in nearby Eagle Rock. Photograph by Kathleen Ferguson.
Above: Frogtown Flora will soon be expanding, with an additional half-acre in nearby Eagle Rock. Photograph by Kathleen Ferguson.

Started by landscape designer Kathleen Ferguson, Frogtown Flora (Read about one of her garden design projects here) is a “micro-mini” farm based in the Frogtown neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ferguson specializes in climate-appropriate blooms, including many California natives. You can find her organically grown flowers at the Gather Flora stall in the LA Flower Market or by messaging @frogtownflora on Instagram.

A field of dahlias at Tiny Hearts Farm. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.
Above: A field of dahlias at Tiny Hearts Farm. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.

The brainchild of two classically trained musicians, Jenny Elliott and Luke Franco, Tiny Hearts Farm grows a dizzying array of organic flowers—tulips, snapdragons, larkspur, poppies, lisianthus, dahlias—on 38 acres in the bucolic Hudson Valley. They have a charming shop in Hillsdale, NY, where you can pick up beautiful bouquets and browse a chic mix of gardening and floral wares. On Instagram, you can find them @tinyheartsfarm.

Beautiful peonies at Fivefork Farms. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.
Above: Beautiful peonies at Fivefork Farms. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.

It’s a family affair at Fivefork Farms, led by grower extraordinaire Grace Lam. She, her four siblings, and parents all chip in to make this Massachusetts flower farm a hotspot for well-grown flowers, especially voluptuous peonies and a stunning selection of dahlias. Stop by their self-serve farmstand in Upton, MA, (check their site for hours), find their blooms at select shops in the Boston area, and follow them on Instagram @fiveforkfarms.

Here’s what Kathleen, Jenny, and Grace shared to help you get started on your own cutting garden.

Q: What’s your favorite summer flower to grow?

&#8\2\16;Kiiro&#8\2\17; cosmos grows at Tiny Hearts Farm. Photograph courtesy of Tiny Hearts Farm.
Above: ‘Kiiro’ cosmos grows at Tiny Hearts Farm. Photograph courtesy of Tiny Hearts Farm.

Tiny Hearts: I’ve been really having fun with the new varieties of cosmos that have been introduced over the past few years. All of a sudden there are so many new, beautiful colors! There’s a great cosmo that nobody seems to be growing called ‘Kiiro.’ It’s like the now-famous butter yellow ‘Xanthos’ but it’s so tall and amazing for cutting. I’m also trying ‘Apricotta’ this year. I have high hopes for it.

I know I’m not alone in being entirely obsessed with dahlias. We have four acres and over 60 varieties planted this year. They’re hungry, thirsty, and take a ton of labor to dig, divide, and store the tubers over winter. But they’re glorious! I used to be concerned about their relatively short vase life, but nobody seems to care. They just want those flowers! 

Dried flowers have become so popular recently, and I love making big arrangements with them in the fall and winter. Finding new varieties and  enjoying classic ones to dry has become one of my favorite summer growing adventures. I grow tons of strawflower and never tire of the glowing, vibrant colors. I love all the deep-colored Celosia (yellows and greens don’t dry well) and have recently started growing Carthamus ‘Zanzibar’ (safflower) and Centaurea americana ‘Aloha’ series as cuts for dried flowers. They have such great color and texture. 

“I love the dahlia ‘Sierra Glow’ for pure stops-me-in-my-tracks no matter how many years I grow it. They&#8\2\17;re so big and fantastical. They look like lobsters or sea anemones to me,” says Jenny Elliot, who holds a bunch at Tiny Hearts Farm. Photograph courtesy of Tiny Hearts Farm.
Above: “I love the dahlia ‘Sierra Glow’ for pure stops-me-in-my-tracks no matter how many years I grow it. They’re so big and fantastical. They look like lobsters or sea anemones to me,” says Jenny Elliot, who holds a bunch at Tiny Hearts Farm. Photograph courtesy of Tiny Hearts Farm.

Fivefork Farms: We love dahlias on our farm, but they are water hogs and hate the heat. If you live in a warm climate, I would wait and plant them a bit later so that the dahlias start blooming in the fall (their preferred growing season!) when the heat of the summer has passed. That being said, if you are able to water your dahlias (a lot!) and can give them shade in the hottest parts of the day, there is no better flower than the million different varieties of dahlias! 

Other flowers that reliably flower week after week even in the hottest of climates include zinnias, cosmos, and basils (for foliage). There have been so many new varieties of zinnias and cosmos that have come to the market in the last years, the possibilities are endless. 

Zinnias at Frogtown Flora. Photograph by Kathleen Ferguson.
Above: Zinnias at Frogtown Flora. Photograph by Kathleen Ferguson.

Frogtown Flora: My current favorite is the beloved cottage garden flower: zinnia. These easy-to-grow, drought tolerant, cheery flowers come in pretty much every shade and many unique varieties, such as the Queeny series, which offers stunning muted color combinations with hints of contrasting lime for that added pop. The flowers are so versatile and an easy addition to almost any palette. Another reason to plant zinnias is their excellent ability to attract native pollinators, bees, and butterflies to the landscape. 

Q: How do you plan so there’s always something blooming? 

Ranunculus and sweet peas grow undercover at Fivefork Farms. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.
Above: Ranunculus and sweet peas grow undercover at Fivefork Farms. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.

Fivefork Farms: Succession/staggered planting is one way to make sure there is always something blooming. If you plant all your plants at once in the late spring, most likely they will all bloom at once and you’ll be left with some weeks with nothing to cut. By staggering your planting times, you’ll be able to spread the bloom time over a few weeks so that by the time your first planting is done flowering, your second planting is starting. If you’re limited by space, look for varieties that have different maturity times as a way of staggering the bloom time. 

For the cutting garden, I also like to have some anchor perennial plants that flower reliably year after year—think Echinacea (coneflower), Achillea (yarrow), Baptisia, Digitalis (foxglove), shrubs like Physocarpus (ninebark), Continus (smoke bush), and Spirea that will give plenty to cut from throughout the season. 

Tiny Hearts: I have a pretty complicated crop plan! But a general rule of thumb I use for succession planting transplanted flowers (those I start in trays and plant out into the field) is this: the week that I plant out one round of a crop, I also start the seeds for the next round. This works well for zinnias, cosmos, celosia, and many other common cut flowers. If I’m seeding these flowers directly into the garden, I might plant them once a month from May through early July to ensure a constant supply of flowers. The only crop we seed weekly are sunflowers, from early May through July. Understanding when your once-a-year flowers bloom can also help with the planning. For example, if you know you’re going to harvest lisianthus in August and dahlias in September, you can ease up on some of your other summer successions.

Q: What are some “underappreciated” flowers or foliage plants that deserve more love? 

Tiny Hearts: We put in a big bed of red kale for late fall foliage. It still looks good for Thanksgiving and November weddings, which is a real boon. We also grow tons of bronze fennel for the foliage and, once they bolt, the moody mauve flower stems with pale yellow blooms. Florists go bonkers for it. 

Fivefork Farm: Lilies and gladiolous, for one! In the last years, new double flowering lilies have been developed out of Holland. Roselilies, which are pollen-free oriental lilies, are so showy and have a light pleasing fragrance. They are a great focal flower in the summer that can bridge the gap between late spring peonies and dahlias. There also have been new trumpet/Asiatic lily crosses, Lilium longiflorum (Easter lily) x oriental hybrids, even new Asiatic x oriental x Asiatic hybrids out there. Most people associate lilies with the overpowering scent of Stargazer lilies, but many don’t know that there are lilies with no scent and even pollenless types! 

Another under-loved cut garden flower is the humble gladiolus. Like dahlias, there are SO many varieties of gladiolus in all different colors. We like to use mini-glads in bouquets because of their miniature size. That being said, you won’t find flowers that make more of a statement than a tall vase full of glads (not to mention, they last a while!). 

Q: How do you find varieties that make great cut flowers?

Frogtown Flora: Both Floret Flowers and The Gardener’s Workshop have a well curated collection of seeds available and are incredibly generous with sharing propagation/growing tips & techniques, workshops, classes, and other flower related resources. For CA native seeds I’ve experienced really great germination with Larner Seeds, and, of course, there’s the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants—a remarkable resource for native seed, plants, and classes.

Q: What are some favorite native blooms to grow and use in arrangements?

Kathleen Ferguson at Frogtown Flora. Photograph by Mari Ferguson.
Above: Kathleen Ferguson at Frogtown Flora. Photograph by Mari Ferguson.

Frogtown Flora: There are so many wonderful CA native flowers, but I do have my favorites for floral arrangements. For a statement flower, it’s California’s largest native flower: Matilija poppy, commonly referred to as Fried Egg Plant for its extra-large, striking crepe-like petals and ping pong ball size cluster of golden stamens. Yarrow (Achillea ssp.) makes an excellent long-lasting addition to a fresh or dried flower arrangement as they have a good vase life and preserve well. The umbel-shaped lacy flowers sit atop stiff stems and are available in bright white and shades of pinks, yellows, oranges, and reds. For aroma and fragrance, I love any of the native sages. There are so many of them, all with their own distinctive scent. 

Tiny Hearts: I have a patch of Grey Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) in our hedgerows that is the gift that keeps on giving. I take care of it, and it takes care of me! It is one of the few foliage plants that lasts in a vase even very early in the spring. As it gets older, it will hold up beautifully out of water which makes it fantastic for decorating arbors or using in flower crowns and boutonnieres. 

Fivefork Farms: Asclepias (milkweed) and Eupatorium (Joe-pye weed) come to mind. For foliage, you can’t beat Pycnanthemum muticum, aka mountain mint! When growing or using natives make sure you leave plenty for the beneficial insects like hummingbirds, bees, butterflies. 

Q: Any special tricks for supporting stems while growing? 

Fivefork Farms: Use natural elements like bamboo canes or fallen branches stuck upright in the ground to create supports for your flowering/toppling stems. That way they will blend and hide in your landscape. Sometimes toppling can be a sign that your perennials need to be divided or shrubs pruned. When perennials have gotten too big and there’s too much competition, they will send up lots of thin and spindly stems versus fewer stems that are more robust. In the same manner, shrubs can become too top heavy if they are not pruned hard enough/or at all in late winter (hydrangeas come to mind). If you have a specific raised bed for cut flowers, growers can use Hortonova netting to support their plants as they grow. 

Tiny Hearts: We use horizontal trellis netting, like Hortonova, zip-tied to wood posts to support stems, but only if we absolutely have to. It really slows down the harvest, so we only use it on crops we would otherwise lose, like super tall or heavy greenhouse flowers (chrysanthemums, for example). Instead, we have cultivated an appreciation for bent stems and try to accentuate the uniqueness of those flowers in our arrangements! 

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Frequently asked questions

What is an organic flower farm?

An organic flower farm is a farm that practices organic farming methods to grow flowers without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms. They focus on promoting biodiversity, soil health, and sustainability.

Why should I choose organic flowers?

Choosing organic flowers ensures that no harmful chemicals were used during the growing process, making them better for your health and the environment. Additionally, organic flower farms often prioritize fair labor practices and support local economies.

How do I start my own organic cutting garden?

To start your own organic cutting garden, select a sunny location with well-drained soil. Prepare the soil by removing weeds and adding compost. Choose a variety of flowers that are well-suited for cutting, and plant them according to their individual needs. Regularly water, mulch, and fertilize your plants using organic methods.

What are some common organic pest control methods for flower farms?

Common organic pest control methods for flower farms include introducing beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and lacewings, that feed on pests. Additionally, companion planting, using natural repellents like neem oil or garlic spray, and practicing good garden hygiene by removing diseased plants can help control pests organically.

How can I extend the vase life of cut flowers from my garden?

To extend the vase life of cut flowers, make sure to harvest them early in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures are cooler. Place the cut stems immediately in a bucket of water and recut them at a 45-degree angle before arranging them in a vase filled with clean water and flower food. Keep them away from direct sunlight and change the water every few days.

Are there any organic flower farms I can visit?

Yes, there are many organic flower farms that offer tours and visits. Check with local organic farms in your area or search online for nearby flower farms that promote organic practices. It's a great way to support local businesses and learn more about sustainable flower cultivation.

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