The hardest part of growing a gorgeous flower garden that provides interest in all seasons is getting started. Until you’ve done it, you don’t know where to begin. Lucky for us, my guest this week, gardener, writer and educator Jenny Rose Carey, has a new book, The Ultimate Guide to Flower Growing, that walks readers through the steps to successfully combine various flower shapes, colors and textures to craft enviable gardens.
Jenny, who has degrees in horticulture and biology, ran a university arboretum and was the Senior Director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s garden at Meadowbrook Farm. She lives at her vast Northview Garden in Three Tuns, Pennsylvania, where she continues to experiment and learn, and she shares her wealth of experience in her writings and lectures. Her new book is “The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide,” a followup to her 2017 gardening tome, “Glorious Shade.”
Jenny says she has an innate love of flowers that came from her upbringing and she wants to pass that pleasure on to others. She wants people to know more than just the flowers they can get in the grocery store. She wants them to know intimately the flowers that grow in their climate and in their soil and that enliven our front stoops. “Something right next to your house that you can go out and watch that bee, or sit there with your cup of coffee in the morning — or tea,” she says.
For most of my life, I’ve been a food grower, but I’ve always loved every kind of garden. In fact, I got my gardening start in Miami, Florida, with flowers. I am so excited to get back to it and do much more with flowers — native annuals, native perennials, and all kinds of flowers to help attract pollinators. Jenny’s new book is now my go-to guide to do just that.
Before we get to my discussion with Jenny on flower gardening, let me take a moment to remind you that I have a book of my own coming out in September. The title is “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” and it’s available for pre-order now. It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
Jenny Rose Carey’s Life in Gardening
Jenny is originally from the south of England, where she grew up with the cottage gardens of her parents and grandparents. The gardens were dense — “plant packed” — with tons of flowers and some vegetables and herbs, and full of pollinating insects. And though they didn’t call it organic gardening back then, that’s exactly what they were practicing. They grew from seeds, shared pass-along plants with neighbors, and grew vegetables at allotments, which U.S. gardeners may call community gardens.
Jenny says the south of England is a cool zone 8, and quite like New England weather in the summer, but too cool to grow tomatoes without a greenhouse. Though home gardens are small there, on the weekends her family would visit large gardens like Sissinghurst in Kent.
“I grew up just thinking it was natural to garden, and then 35 years ago, I moved with my Pennsylvanian husband to Pennsylvania, and I’ve been here ever since,” Jenny says.
Though there were other styles of garden around in England, such as dwarf conifer gardens and rose gardens, Jenny was always attracted to the lush, intermingled, self-sowing gardens with volunteer plants — and that hasn’t changed.
“It really is such a joy today,” she says. “I just love it so much. I have four and a half acres now.” And pretty much all of it is gardened with flowers.
She still gardens in that English-inspired cottage garden style, but adapted to Pennsylvania, zone 6. She calls it Northview Garden.
Jenny’s mother was an English teacher and her father was a botany professor who would call out the Latin names of plants as she roamed the countryside as a child. Jenny has long been an educator herself. She started teaching 11-to-18-year-olds in England and then became a high school science teacher in Pennsylvania. She was an adjunct professor for Temple University and the director of the campus arboretum at the university’s Ambler, Pennsylvania, campus and later worked for the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. Now she’s a full-time garden writer and lecturer, and she continues to offer lectures via Zoom.
With more time to spend in her own garden, Jenny’s been tweaking it a bit and growing more from seed. She got a little greenhouse for Christmas to advance those efforts.
Writing ‘The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide’
Jenny, like all of us, struggled during the pandemic. She says that though she was able to connect with people on Zoom, she is outgoing and gets her energy from other people. Not being able to deliver in-person lectures and not being able to welcome tour groups to her garden was challenging. She overcame by playing music, dancing around her house, and working on “The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Guide.”
The finished product, published this month, is 91,000 words, down from 93,000, with more than 600 photos, all but 16 that she took herself.
“We had to grow the flowers, photograph the flowers, choose the pictures,” she recalls. “It was a true pandemic book.”
She’s grown every single flower that appears in the book, representing 175 genera. That means she writes from experience.
After her first book all about shade gardening, she was often asked if she could give the same treatment to gardening in the sun. She took on the challenge, though she narrowed the scope to herbaceous plants to keep the book manageable and focused.
“I took flowers as a subject from the joy of growing them,” Jenny says. “Really when it boils down to it, why do we grow anything? Why do we grow vegetables? It’s the joy of, you know, biting into that fresh tomato or a strawberry that you’ve just picked. It’s that really knowing you’re doing something good for the world, knowing something you’re doing some good for your body and your mind and your spirit. And during the pandemic, we realized that that connection to nature is so important. And without it, we feel disconnected from the world that we live in.”
Jenny advises starting with a flower wishlist and then narrowing it down upon learning what can realistically grow where you live. A big help is seeing what your neighbors are already growing successfully. Your neighbors may be able to share seeds, divisions or cuttings.
Her book is based on the premise that anyone can design their own garden. In it, she helps gardeners identify what they want to grow and how to grow it. Rather than including plans in the book for three echinacea there and 10 lavender there, she wants to help gardeners find the plants that are suitable to their climate and will bring them joy. And those plants can be packed in a bed, full of pollinator activity, but based on the principles of design: What makes flower beds the most interesting is having some verticals, some horizontals, some globes, some filler. And personalization comes in with the choice of color.
“Use the principles of design, look at the shape of the flower and the shape of the plant and the presence of the plant,” she says.
One more element to add is some “bold beauties,” as Jenny describes them. This could be a peony, big zinnia or large marigold — something that catches the eye.
When you see something that you like, take some photos and notes so you can recreate it in your own style.
How Vegetable Garden Principles Apply to Growing Flowers
Whether growing flowers or vegetables, you need to prepare the soil for the plants you wish to grow. If a plant needs well-drained soil, you know you need a raised bed, Jenny says. If the plant tag says “moist but well drained,” you only need to elevate the planting bed slightly, while making sure the flower crowns are above ground level. And you will add compost, leaf mold and other amendments to improve fast-draining soil’s ability to hold moisture.
Siting sun-loving flowering plants in full sun is just as important as putting sun-loving vegetables in full sun if you want the plants to perform their best.
Monitor, Observe but Don’t Mollycoddle
“If you get out there and interact with your flowers on a daily basis, you will see whether they need deadheading, whether that one is a bit dry, but I don’t mollycoddle my flowers,” Jenny says.
Jenny grows some flowers that she hasn’t watered since 2004 — that’s how well adapted they are to her garden’s conditions. She clusters the plants that need more water and knows to site the plants that need the least water farthest from the hose.
She hardly fertilizes her gardens either, though she applies compost regularly. She points out that feeding flowers may be necessary for a cutting garden, where flowers are a crop, but otherwise they don’t need the soil to be that rich. In fact, too much fertilizer will make plants tall and lanky.
Jenny will use Milorganite organic fertilizer to feed plants when needed and to repel rabbits.
When to Deadhead
Not all flowers respond to deadheading, but annuals like marigolds and zinnias do. Cutting the central leader down to the next node of leaves when the flower starts to fade will encourage side shoots and new buds to grow.
“Many perennial plants respond to that as well,” she adds. “Not ones with a single stem usually, but things like a cat mint, like a Salvia.”
Sowing Flower Seeds
The bigger the seed, the more likely Jenny is to direct sow it. Sunflowers, zinnia, marigold and nasturtiums are all good candidates for direct sowing.
Many small-seeded plants are good self-sowers. Columbines, for example, make brown, ratty seed heads that can be collected in brown paper grocery bags to be dried out. Jenny shares seeds with friends and saves some to sprinkle around her garden wherever she thinks columbines should grow.
Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and lace flower (Orlaya) are a few flowers that can be planted in fall, allowing them to get a jump start. The fall-seeded flowers and self-sowers grow twice as large as the same seeds sown in spring, in Jenny’s experience.
Jenny also recommends growing more biennials such as foxglove (Digitalis), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) and honesty (Lunaria annua), which are sown now to flower next spring.
Jenny saves seed from ripe seed heads now and puts some in a seed tray with compost and places it near a hose so she remembers to water it when it needs it. She sprinkles more seeds around her garden and starts even more seeds in September.
If you live in an area that has consistent snowfall over the winter, that’s a real plus when growing biennials. The snow cover protects the plants. For Jenny, her garden goes through a freeze-thaw cycle over the winter but without that snow cover. That cycle encourages foxgloves and similar seeds to germinate. She recommends growing the seeds with gravel mulch or putting a stone next to seedlings to remember where they are, keep the roots anchored and keep the soil moist. Winter sowing is another viable option.
The common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) tends to be done for after it dies back to the ground — though cutting its stem after blooming can result in side shoots growing. There are other foxgloves that are reliable perennials: Digitalis lutea, Digitalis ferruginea and Digitalis grandiflora are a few examples.
Fence & Border Gardens
When reading Jenny’s book, I immediately gravitated toward a photo of a long garden that follows the path of a split-rail fence. In front of the fence is a beautiful border, nicely layered, with alliums and tall spiky flowers in the back. It is fairly narrow, and it struck me that we all have spaces where we could replicate such a garden.
Jenny explains that the garden used to be nothing but a row of peonies. But then Jenny and her head gardener, Hannah, decided they could make the bed much more exciting and bring it to life in multiple seasons if they practiced the techniques Jenny was writing about. They enlarged it to 2.5 feet wide, careful not to make it too deep that weeding becomes a challenge. Another option is to put an access path in the back.
She calls the short flowers in the front her ”tiny treasures,” and she puts rocks in front of those to protect them from weedwhackers. These flowers can include Johnny Jump ups (Viola tricolor), Crocus and small daffodils (Narcissus).
Behind the short flowers are the midfront and then the midback, though she doesn’t divide the sections by perfect lines. The different flowers are threaded together while paying attention to the height information on the plant tags. And every year, she changes it up because she’s not trapped in one design.
Dividing the Year
So growers anywhere can use her book to plan their flower gardens, Jenny has divided the year not into months but into a breakdown of the seasons.
Starting with early and mid-spring, she shares suggestions of plants to add to the garden that will bloom at that time. Then she covers late spring and early summer, the season for peonies, poppies, Geum, yarrows, foxgloves, columbines and more. High summer is when the warm-season annuals kick in: marigolds, Zinnia, Petunia, Celosia, Gladiolus, Cleome, etc. And Jenny adds in hardy perennials that bloom then: coneflowers (Echinacea), lilies (Lilium), beebalm (Monarda) and blanket flowers (Gaillardia).
Late summer and fall are prime time for Japanese anemones, Chrysanthemum, Aster, goldenrods (Solidago) and Joe Pye weed.
A Recipe Book for a Flower Garden
Jenny did a bit of a flip-flop of how her book is arranged at the last minute, and she believes the book is better for it. She says she wants to think of it like a recipe book: The finished dish is a seasonal flower garden, and readers need to know what the ingredients are, what the amounts are and how to cook them. Cooking, in this metaphor, is covered by the installation and maintenance chapters.
Flowers & Pollinators
Planting more flowers, particularly native flowers, is one of the most productive things we can do to support pollinating insects and other beneficial insects. Interplanting flowers in your vegetable garden — a form of companion planting — can make the garden more productive and more resilient to pests, as flowers can attract predatory insects that control pest populations.
The most popular pollinators, butterflies and bees, are classified as “charismatic microfauna” because they are so beloved. Growing more flowers means getting to see more of these delightful creatures that inspire a greater appreciation of the natural world.
Jenny recalls her 2-year-old grandson spotting a swallowtail butterfly on native Stokesia in her garden — and the joy on his face.
“The pollinators, they just enliven the garden,” Jenny says.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jenny Rose Carey. If you haven’t listened yet, you can hear this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
How do you go about planning your 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 membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
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 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.
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, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally 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.