Color your world with cut flowers

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We all love flowers, both outside in our gardens, and inside in floral arrangements. Carefree and colorful flower arrangements brighten our houses and spirits and bring the outdoors in. Flower arrangements are also wonderful gifts for neighbors and friends.

Many people are dedicating entire beds in their gardens to annual and perennial plants for cut flowers, and some are growing flowers for their own weddings.

Flower arrangements can be formal or exuberant, single color or pastels. Individual blooms range in size and configuration from some of the huge dinner plate-sized dahlias to statuesque, in the case of delphiniums, to delicate and surrounded by ferny foliage like the romantically named love-in-a-mist (nigella). The variations seem limitless.

Over the last few years, small flower farms have been popping up in Sonoma County (check out nbflowercollective.com and sonomaflowermart.com).

Yet, for all of the cut flowers, there are a number of things to keep in mind to grow them successfully.

Many annuals and perennials produce blooms that make for good cut flowers. But they often demand different growing conditions. To grow robust, healthy annuals for cutting, they must be grown in fertile, friable soils, often with compost dug in or used as a mulch. Fertilizer may also be needed. Many perennials need a smaller amount of nutrients than annuals. If your soil is loam, just mulching with an inch or two of compost early in spring is probably all that is needed. Regular irrigation is very important. Annual seedlings and some perennials’ new foliage may need protection from slugs and snails. The correct annuals must be grown in the appropriate season. Cool season or hardy annuals can be planted in the fall or early in the spring to bloom from March through June or later depending on the variety and location. They grow quickly, bloom fast and go to seed in warm, dry weather. Summer annuals are not frost tolerant and should be planted around May 1.

Plants grown for cutting are often planted closely to get a lot of cutting material in a small area, or to force plants to grow upright for long stems. Tall, narrow plants like larkspur or the taller clarkias can be planted at about a 6-inch space between plants. Larger plants like Shirley poppies or white lace flower (orlaya) can be spaced about 10 inches apart. Each species is different, so it’s worth doing some research. Helpful recommendations can be found in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds Catalog johnnyseeds.com. The idea is to fully utilize your bed space for maximum production. Long stems and plenty of them are the goal. Even small plants like violas and pansies are good cut. Growing plants close together causes them to grow more upright rather than low and bushy.

There are so many flower varieties to choose from. How does one make a choice? Seed catalogs offer an incredible array of choices for many flower species and are an easy way to peruse the possibilities. Annual flowers are usually very inexpensive and easy to grow from seed rather than buying plants. If you direct sow seed, you will most likely need to thin the seedlings when they are a couple inches tall. Too crowded plants produce small flowers.

When you think about what to grow, consider the colors you like to use. Some people like a romantic array of pastels or antique-type colors. Others like bright yellows, pinks and purples. Form, size and shape of flowers are important, too. Intersperse larger flowers like giant zinnias with smaller, more elongated flowers for contrast like celosia “Ruby Parfait” and stems of dark leaved basil. Flowers with tall, vertical forms like larkspur, Clarkia unguiculata and snapdragons are wonderful to contrast with daisy type flowers like sunflowers, zinnias and black-eyed Susan. White lace flower (orlaya) is the perfect filler. The soft blue of ageratum flowers look great with white flowers or yellow. Depending on the flower, just one type in a glass vase or bud vase may be all you need. Six or eight poppies in a clear glass vase or a single opulent dahlia in a bud vase is an art form in itself. A whole vase of delicate flowers like agrostemma, nigella, gomphrena or other more delicate flowers is lovely as well. Even the trailing stems of nasturtium are wonderful in an arrangement and last a long time. Whatever the variety, avoid dwarfed plants. They are less robust and stems are very short.

Some plants are tall and tend to flop — like the pincushion flower (scabiosa) and agrostemma. Commercial cut flower growers stretch a couple of layers of plastic netting horizontally over beds to hold flower upright. Lightweight and inexpensive netting used for holding up insulation under houses is easy and cheap to set up in your garden and is a great resource. It can be used over raised boxes or beds in the ground. Some specific plant varieties have especially long stems. A number of dahlia tuber companies have categorized those varieties best for cutting.

Flowers can last a long time in water and others only a few days. To get the longest possible performance, cut flowers early in the morning before the sun is on them. Put stems in water right away and keep in a cool, indoor place. It is important to cut flowers just as they are opening, not when they are fully open. Flowers like Peruvian lilies last at least a week in water; others like poppies last just a few days. To prolong stem life cut flower growers recommend dipping the stem ends of poppies in boiling water for 7-10 seconds to seal the stem.

Some bulbs like gladiolas only bloom for a couple weeks. For a succession of bloom, plant every two weeks in spring. In some frost-free areas they can be planted in fall, too. Note how long each annual plant variety blooms. This will let you know how often you need to plant them for continuous bloom. Most annual plants like sweet peas and cosmos are “cut and come again.” Continually cutting flowers stimulates plants to grow more and will prolong bloom time. Perennial delphinium and yarrow stems need cutting to about 1 inch from the ground. This stimulates the plants to produce more flower shoots.

There are number of local cut flower farms that allow visitors, and offer workshops. Some are open all the time, others by appointment. Farmers markets are a great place to meet growers and see what they are growing.

Dragonfly Floral, Healdsburg, 707-433-3739

Bloomfield Cutting Garden, Petaluma, 707-326-2589

B-Side Farm, Sebastopol, 617-407-9272

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Some possible choices:

Annuals cool season/hardy: bells of Ireland, calendula, cerinthe, Clarkia amoena, Clarkia unguiculata, cynoglossum, larkspur, nigella, poppies, pansy, scabiosa, calendula, sweet Williams, orlaya, viola, sweet peas

Annuals summer season: China aster, ageratum, agrostemma, basil, bupleurum, basil, celosia “Ruby Parfait” and others, cosmos, gomphrena, marigold, phlox, Rudbeckia hirta, Rudeckia triloba, salvia, statice, straw flowers, nasturtiums, saponaria, poor man’s orchid (schizanthus), snapdragon, sunflower, zinnia

Perennials: aster, alstromeria, caspedia, carnation, columbine, dahlia, delphinium, dianthus, eryngium, feverfew, gaillardia, hellebores, monarda, salvia, snapdragons, sweet Williams, monarda, phlox, scabiosa, rudbeckia, gaillardia, yarrow, and more.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at katebfrey@gmail.com or freygardens.com. On Twitter @katebfrey.

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