A cut flower garden, when planted in succession and harvested frequently, provides a continuous source of joy to hobby gardeners — and great revenue source for commercial growers. To share her advice on how to start and maintain a cut flower garden, returning to the podcast this week is flower farmer Lisa Mason Ziegler.
Lisa’s been farming flowers on the line of USDA hardiness zones 8A and 7B for a quarter of a century. She is the founder of The Gardener’s Workshop in Newport News, Virginia, which offers seeds, supplies and online courses, and is the author of “Vegetables Love Flowers” and “Cool Flowers.” Her third book, set to be released on February 27, 2024, is “The Cut Flower Handbook: Select, Plant, Grow, and Harvest Gorgeous Blooms.”
Having gotten my hands on an advanced copy of Lisa’s latest book, I can tell you that I love this book for both the way Lisa writes and the valuable information it contains. This book is so handy, and Lisa shares the top cool-season and warm-season annuals and how to grow them, from seed to harvest.
Lisa said she wanted this book to be the one resource anyone who wants to start a cut flower garden will need — whether it’s a home gardener or someone who wishes to pursue flower farming.
Lisa’s book is similar in structure to my latest book, “The Vegetable Gardening Book,” and that is no coincidence. She says she modeled her book after mine.
Lisa is a master at simplifying gardening and being able to communicate it in a simplified way too. She credits this to being severely dyslexic. She notes that 35% of the entrepreneurs in the world have dyslexia. “We are risk-takers. We don’t consider consequences. We tend to simply solve things. We’re problem-solvers,” she said.
Lisa married her husband, Steve, in 1996. He was already a gardener then and had a family homestead, which she calls his “amazing gardening dowry.” The homestead had been in Steve’s family for three generations and had been composted for more than 80 years. Around the time they got married, Lisa stumbled upon Lynn Byczynski’s book “The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers.”
“If you polled flower farmers across the world, that’s the book that brought it all to our attention that this was actually potentially a career that you could have,” Lisa says.
Lisa was a business manager of a very busy animal hospital that she loved when she got married, and she used her business knowledge to start a flower enterprise. She started out squeezing flowers into Steve’s vegetable garden so she could bring cut flowers to her grandmother.
“My book is dedicated to the grandmas that shared gardening with all of us because she really was a big part for me,” Lisa says.
Lisa’s Little City Flower Farm
Flower farming came easily to Steve’s family homestead because his grandfather had been applying leaf mold compost to the gardens for decades. “I’ve often said if I just hold up a seed packet those seeds will grow,” Lisa says.
Lisa launched her “little city flower farm in 1998” and was an overnight success. She sold to florists and at farmers’ markets. She started teaching gardening to Master Gardeners who wanted her secrets, and eventually, she began to travel the country to give talks. She now runs TheGardenersWorkshop.com, where her books, podcasts, blogs, garden shop and online courses can be found.
Lisa and Steve’s farm is 2 and ¾ acres. At high production, 15,000 stems are grown every week on 1 and a half acres.
“I have no hoop or greenhouses,” she points out. “Everything is grown outdoors. And I think that’s one of the things that really connects me to gardeners and farmers — is you don’t have to have a greenhouse, a tractor. You can do it out in the garden like grandma used to do.”
Lisa is the real deal, raising cut flowers the way a consumer gardener would. It’s easy for anyone to relate to Lisa and see themselves doing the same.
“You might not want to become a flower farmer, but why would you not want the tips and tricks of flower farming?” Lisa asks.
We all start in the same place and follow the same ground rules, she says, seeking the quickest and most cost-effective way to raise flowers with the greatest end product. She’s all about empowering people at all levels.
Smaller Is Better
One of the opening topics in Lisa’s new book is “Smaller Is Better.”
“The most successful gardeners and flower farmers are those that start small and go slow and learn how to do it before you overwhelm and burn yourself out and crash,” Lisa says.
Garden burnout is often self-induced, according to Lisa, and she sets out in her book to help gardeners avoid it.
“Gardening and farming is complicated enough because we make it that way,” Lisa says. We want to grow 20,000 different things and we dive in when we should simplify as much as we can and as often as we can.
“It sounds redundant, and it sounds too easy, but that is the secret to my farm and success: is just simplifying constantly and cutting out unnecessary steps,” she says.
Warm-season flower gardening is cut and dry: Plant flowers after the last frost date has passed and the soil has had some time to warm up, and expect them to die when the first frost comes in fall or winter.
Cool-season flower gardening is less intuitive, but very rewarding, with some of the most coveted flowers, such as bells of Ireland and sweet peas.
The Lifeline of a Cutting Garden
The lifeline of a cutting garden, Lisa says, is harvesting it, which is something many gardeners are resistant to doing.
Figuring out the right time to plant and cut are the two most important things to Lisa. “If you can get these two things right, you can grow anything in the world,” she says.
One of the most remarkable things to Lisa, still after 26 years of flower farming, is the volume of flowers that come out of her small farm.
“Smaller is better,” she says. “And why that is, is because cutting and harvesting annuals tells the plant to produce more stems so they can make blooms so they can make seed, which is their whole mission in life. And the more you cut it, the more they come.”
But gardeners often find it hard to cut.
“We should really have a support group,” Lisa says. “… Just close your eyes and cut.”
On Lisa’s farm, the cutting gardens are cut hard twice a week. The first cut is on Monday. By the afternoon it’s easy to wonder what they’re going to cut on Thursday for the other customers, but sure enough by Thursday there are plenty of stems ready to cut.
“We come back on Thursday, and guess what? That darn garden looks exactly the same,” Lisa says.
When cutting, gardeners are focused on the bloom and the canopy. What’s missing is the understory. “It’s the backup cast,” Lisa says. “They’re the ones that when you cut that stem that’s ready, that sends the message to the plant to push out some more. And they just push it. They give all that energy to it.”
The Right Size for a Home Cutting Garden
For the home gardener’s cutting garden, Lisa recommends 3 feet by 10 feet. Any larger will produce too many blooms for a gardener with no outlet to sell them too.
There will be cut flowers on the kitchen table, in the bedrooms, in the bathroom, and they will last a long time if following Lisa’s advice. When gardeners have their fill of flowers and stop cutting the cutting garden, the garden will decline.
A cutting garden that’s a little smaller than you think you need is actually what you need, according to Lisa.
Succession planting keeps a small garden space in production continuously, which makes better use of the space and never leaves a cut flower gardener without something to cut.
Succession planting allows harvest times to be staggered. Rather than planting everything at the same time and having a short window to harvest and use or sell all the cuttings, flowers that were sown at different times mature at different times.
Succession planting also means getting more use out of seed starting equipment like heat mats. If you sow all seeds at once, you’ll need countless heat mats. But if you stagger when you sow trays with seeds, you can use far fewer heat mats while growing just as many flowers, if not more.
When she starts seeds indoors rather than direct sowing, she uses soil blocks 95% of the time. (For sunflowers, she uses plug trays.)
“I found with soil blocking in my environment that I can grow incredibly healthy transplants incredibly quick in my small space,” she says. “Quick is important because I need to move them through fast because I don’t have a lot of space.”
Soil blocks dry out faster than seed trays, but they reduce a grower’s use of disposable plastic. “All I add every year is seeds and soil,” Lisa says.
She uses the Swift Blocker to form her ¾-inch soil blocks and follows Eliot Coleman’s soil recipe to create blocks that stay together well. She says she leans toward using peat moss rather than coir (coco fiber) because coir dries out more readily.
Lisa says she shaves a third of the growing time off what the seed packet states just by using soil blocks. “They grow so much quicker because the roots are being exposed to so much oxygen,” she says. “Oxygen is as important as water is to transplants, to the roots.”
She starts Zinnias two weeks before she intends to plant them out and basil four weeks before. If she were to leave them in soil blocks for the recommended six to eight weeks, she says, they would look gangly, stretched out and diseased.
Lisa says the secret to her success is the state of the soil. Her husband’s grandfather, Will, didn’t have a lot of animals to provide manure but he collected leaves from neighbors, composted them and applied leaf mold compost to the soil.
“If I had stopped feeding the soil in that way, I’d have dead dirt like the rest of the world if I didn’t provide more nutrients,” she says.
Lisa uses organic dry fertilizer, but not as much as people think, she says. The biggest thing she does for the fertility of her garden beds is to add compost at every flip — meaning each time a crop changes from season to season or year to year. The compost is either worked into the soil or left on top of the soil.
Lisa uses low-flow irrigation lines called T-tape. It’s super easy to install but is occasionally chewed on by animals or hit by mowers, Lisa says. She relies on the manufacturer’s tutorials to maintain it.
“It uses so much less water than what you use otherwise,” she says.
Lisa also does hand-watering at planting time. Giving every plant a good drink gets them off to a great start, she says.
She recommends making beds with a depression toward the middle, rather than arched in a way that the water runs off. This is important in the kind of raised beds she uses: mounded with no frames. The depression helps to use water more efficiently while hand-watering.
For weed suppression in transplanted beds, Lisa uses Bio360 biodegradable film mulch. She likes it because it is effective and thin. The depth of organic mulch that would be required to prevent weed seeds on the surface of the bed from germinating would put the transplants at risk.
However, in direct sown beds prepared in fall for cool hardy annuals, she starts with nothing, and once the plants grow to 3 to 5 inches tall, she adds organic mulch such as wood chips or shredded leaves.
She cultivates with a stand-up garden hoe, which she can’t imagine living without.
Flowers like cockscomb and Zinnias fully open in the garden before cutting, and their canopies get very heavy. “It doesn’t take much to take them down,” Lisa says.
To keep flowers from falling over, Lisa uses flower support netting.
“Stems typically will actually start growing in the right direction, but it only takes one torrential downpour to lay them down, and they’ll never be back,” she says. “And some flowers will bend and follow the sun.”
When a flower turns to face the sun, that is a plant behavior known as heliotropism.
When planting cool-season annuals, Lisa advises not installing the flower support netting then but rather waiting until very early spring. For warm-season annuals, her goal is to add netting ASAP after planting.
Lisa uses metal T-post stakes (which are more expensive but last forever) and oak stakes to stake the flower support netting in place. The T-posts go at the head and foot of the nets, and the oak stakes run up and down the sides.
Pest and Disease Management
“I’m just such a big believer in a healthy environment as the real kick starter,” Lisa says.
Lisa cites Jennie Love, the creator of the “No-Till Flowers Podcast.” She says Jennie’s evidence affirms her theory that a super healthy environment means super healthy transplants.
“Those first two weeks of life are really, really important,” Lisa says. “If you have a puny transplant, they’re going to be the ones that fall victim. … They’re not as resilient as others are.”
It starts with planting healthy plants into incredibly well-draining healthy, nutritious soil, she says. “Then the rest of the story is, if you’re buggy in my environment, you’re outta here.”
For example, she doesn’t grow amaranths because they are flea beetle magnets.
“If there is something that’s a problem, you need to get rid of it, at least until you restore the natural order of your garden,” she says.
She encourages the good bugs, and she handpicks Japanese beetles and stink bugs. If a crop is suffering from an out-of-control aphid infestation, for instance, she mows it down and eliminates the problem. She doesn’t use pesticides, organic or otherwise, and doesn’t find pesticides to be necessary.
If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Lisa Mason Ziegler about cut flower gardening, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you have a cut flower garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“The Cut Flower Handbook: Select, Plant, Grow, and Harvest Gorgeous Blooms” by Lisa Mason Ziegler
“Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty” by Lisa Mason Ziegler
“The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers” by Lynn Byczynski
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.