Adding a cutting garden to your landscape will mean fresh-cut flowers for you to enjoy and also an abundance of pollinators and other beneficial insects in your vegetable garden. To explain why vegetables love flowers and how to start a cutting garden, my guest this week is flower farmer and author Lisa Mason Ziegler. With Lisa’s tips, you’ll be ready to grow flowers confidently in no time.
Lisa is the founder of The Gardener’s Workshop in Newport News, Virginia, and the author of “Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty” and “Cool Flowers: How to Grow and Enjoy Long-Blooming Hardy Annual Flowers Using Cool Weather Techniques.” To Lisa, the greatest joy of growing cut flowers is sharing them. Sharing flowers that you grew in your garden touches people unlike anything else does, she says.
Before going any further, I want to let you know about our new free resource, thanks to information provided by Lisa. It’s called “6 Steps to Creating a Three-Season Cut Flower Garden.” You can download this quick guide and keep it handy for your reference anytime.
From Novice Gardener to Flower Farmer
Lisa is truly a boots-on-the-ground farmer, gardener and educator, but that wasn’t always the case. It was only after moving to her husband Steve’s farmstead that she dove into growing. She was just a beginner gardener back then but she had the benefit of planting in two huge gardens that had been amended with compost for more than 80 years. “It was so easy for me to succeed, and that’s what I did,” she recalls. She took over the family gardens and produced an abundance of big vegetables to can and freeze.
Gardening information was not as readily available then as it is now, so Lisa relied on magazines. What she learned was very different than what Steve’s family had practiced. They were conventional farmers with peach orchards, she said, but they were also very willing to let her have her way with the gardens. “It was an exploration of excitement, a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointments and a lot of hard lessons learned for sure,” she says.
After her grandmother, a flower gardener, had a stroke, Lisa visited her and took care of her every week. She felt inspired to plant a 10-foot row of zinnias. She says it was unbelievable how much that little row produced as she cut stems week after week. During that time, she discovered the book “The Flower Farmer” by Lynn Byczynski. “I knew I had found my dream and my career,” Lisa says.
It helped that Steve’s farmstead came with an 8-horsepower tiller, dump trucks and other necessary equipment for a flower farm. Plus, the property was spotted with hydrangeas, heirloom daffodils, and lily of the valley. “The door opened for me to grow flowers, and after reading Lynn’s book, I just followed what she said and hit a home run right out of the gate,” Lisa says.
When she read “The Flower Farmer,” summer was already winding down, but she discovered a number of cool-season hardy annuals that she could still grow. The following spring, she still made an effort to grow large amounts of vegetables but started growing flowers in August. She approached a local forest and really opened their eyes, she says.
“Everybody was very supportive,” Lisa says. “They still wanted to see some string beans, corn and tomatoes, but everybody was on board because this was turning into a full-fledged business.”
At its peak, her flower farm produced between 10,000 and 15,000 flower stems a week, in-season. At any given time, a half-acre was harvested from, while a half-acre was being planted and the last half-acre was in the middle of growing.
The Benefits Flowers Bring to Vegetables
When Lisa began growing flowers, she was not thinking about the advantages the flowers would bring to her vegetable crops. However, it did not take long before the benefits became clear.
Lisa realized that flowers bring birds and beneficial insects to the garden, but it is not enough to have flowers in bloom sometimes. “You have to have flowers all the time to keep them there once they come,” she says. That requires early-blooming annuals and spring and late-blooming perennials in fall.
Thrips are an insect pest for both vegetable growers and flower growers. They carry tomato viruses that also affect ornamentals, so thrips can be devastating to a flower farm. Lisa ran into thrips early on and practiced integrated pest management but continued to have trouble. But then she decided to refrain from using any pesticides, organic or otherwise, and to let all the insects in her garden duke it out. Over the next two years she watched her garden come alive. By withholding pesticides that can kill beneficial insects as well as pests, she gave the beneficials an opportunity to proliferate and bring balance to the flower farm.
Lisa phased out pesticides completely over the last 20 year. The last biological control she was applying was Bt, which is used in organic gardening to control caterpillars. Today, she relies on wasps. “We have an army of wasps that just eat every caterpillar in sight on this farm,” she says. “Nature kind of started doing the heavy lifting around here, and it was life-changing for us.”
Product-less Organic Growing
“Organic growing is not just about using organic products,” Lisa says. It’s also about what gardeners refrain from doing and planting.
Many organic pest control methods require no products at all. For instance, removing plants that are pest magnets will help the whole garden. And not a drop of pesticide is required.
What plants attract what pests varies from region to region, but for Lisa, it’s Gladiolus and Shasta daisies that harbor thrips. When she stopped planting them, it relieved pest pressure on her other flowers.
Because her neighbors spray for mosquitoes and other insects, Lisa makes sure her entire property has what pollinators, predatory insects, and birds need to survive and stick around: food, water, vegetation, etc.
Another practice Lisa uses is succession planting. By strategically timing when plants are put into the ground, she staggers the harvest times. So when Lisa’s Zinnias have powdery mildew, she doesn’t worry about treating them. She just mows them down and enjoys another crop instead.
By planting a variety of crops for the purpose of succession planting, Lisa is also enjoying the benefits of biodiversity. If she was growing just one type of crop, a single pest or disease could wipe out everything. But by practicing polyculture, there is always a crop to fall back on.
Lisa Mason Ziegler’s Ground Rules for a Cutting Garden
Anyone interested in starting a flower farm or cutting garden can benefit from Lisa’s experience. She has five ground rules to follow to grow flowers for cutting.
- Start Super Small – Beginning with a small bed, around 3 feet by 5 feet, makes a cutting garden more manageable for novices. It’s a good size that makes it easy to cut all the flowers every week and keep the garden producing. It also helps if the bed is freestanding,
- Plant Densely – Zinnias in a landscape may be planted every 12 inches, but in a cutting garden they can be planted every 6 inches because the flowers will be pruned constantly.
- Pick the Right Varieties – A common problem when setting up a cutting garden is choosing the wrong varieties. For example, bedding Zinnias that grow just 12 or 18 inches tall are not suitable for cuttings. But Benary’s Giant Zinnias, for example, are prolific, mildew-resistant and super tall.
- Provide Support – Because the best flowers for cuttings grow tall, they need support. It’s not the wind that’s the problem, but the rain. When a torrential downpour comes, it can lay all the flowers flat. To prevent this, Lisa uses flower support netting, which is suspended above the flower bed so flowers can grow through it. Just be sure to take it down when no flowers are growing so deer and birds do not become stuck in the netting.
- Know When to Harvest – For each variety of flower in your cutting garden, know when the right time to cut it is. For instance, cock’s comb and Zinnias should be fully open when harvested because they will not develop any further one cut. However, sunflowers can be cut when the first petal lifts off the face. The sunflower blooms will continue to open after they are cut and brought indoors. Cutting them early also protects them from beetles and crickets.
Common Pitfalls When Harvesting Stems
When harvesting a flower stem, it’s important to know the proper place to make the cut. The next shoot will grow from where the plant was cut, so cutting too high or too low can cause an issue. Generally, Lisa says, make cuts 10 or 12 inches above ground level. This will result in more and more stems coming.
Another pitfall is failing to strip enough foliage from a cut stem. Flower arrangers like leaves on the stems to contribute to the bouquets, but every leaf takes water away from the flower. Strip more and your flowers will last longer.
Harvesting at the wrong time of day can also lead to disappointment. Flowers cut in the heat of midday will become wilted in just a few hours. The preferred time for most flowers is early in the morning after the dew has dried and before the heat has exhausted the plants. The second-best opportunity is right before sundown. Then put the flowers in water indoors overnight to give them the chance to rehydrate.
When harvesting a few flowers, use a bucket that is the appropriate size for the task. If just a few flowers are put in a large bucket, flowers can easily become bent and smashed. Also be conscious of the bucket’s depth. Don’t use a deep bucket for flowers with short stems.
Metals containers such as French flower cans tend to leak, and the metal does not respond well to flower food or flower conditioner added to the water. Lisa finds that plastic containers are best and the easiest to clean.
The Benefits of Cut Flower Food
Cut flower food is more useful than most people think, Lisa says. She attributes this to retail flowers, which are sometimes two weeks old when sold. Retail flowers come with a packet of flower food but have clogged stems, so the food appears to do nothing. Meanwhile, home-grown flowers have never been out of water and will drink a tremendous amount and readily take up the food.
Flower food includes nutrition, biocide and a pH balancer. These work together to keep the water cleaner, the foliage greener and the buds opening. There are homemade options, but they are not stable and must be made every day, so Lisa invests in commercial products.
Start Flowers Indoors for the Best Results
If a flower can be started indoors, Lisa will do just that. She has more success that way and loses very few transplants. She uses a soil block maker and can start and support up to 13,000 seedlings in a 10-by-10 room.
Transplants, because of their size at planting time, outcompete weeds much better than flowers that were direct sown, so there is less labor involved. The transplanted flowers are better established, bloom earlier and withstand diseases and pests better.
I hope my conversation with Lisa Mason Ziegler has inspired you to grow more flowers. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Do you grow flowers for cuttings? 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 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.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
GGW Episode 704: The 50-Mile Bouquet: Why Local Matters with Flowers, Too
“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 were 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: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. 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.