Starting a flower cutting garden

Val Bourne / 25 June 2012 ( 23 February 2016 )

Find out how to start a flower cutting garden, including which flowers to sow, how to grow them and how to care for cut flowers.

A flower cutting garden is a really good use of garden space and you can either create a dedicated cutting garden, or mingle your flowers throughout the garden. 

Perennials for a cut flower garden

Always find room for some double or semi-double roses in pastel shades. The most popular three with the grow-your-own florists are the ivory floribunda ‘Margaret Merril’, the salmon-pink cupped and quartered hybrid tea ‘Duchess of Cornwall’ and the apricot-pink hybrid tea ‘Chandos Beauty’. All three are fragrant, healthy, smooth-stemmed, prolific and repeat-flowering. Use mint or sage foliage, or English lavender, or the limey froth of Alchemilla mollis as support acts.

Other foundation plants, ones that will live forever, include ‘lacticflora’ peonies such as the lemon-scented cream-white ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ and the mid-pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. Varieties of Phlox paniculata also cut well. It’s the best time to sow annuals and Grandiflora sweet peas are fragrant and strong-stemmed. essentials. Finally always grow double or semi double dahlias for late flower. The butterscotch-orange ‘David Howard’, the black-red ‘Sam Hopkins’ and the purple ‘Thomas A. Edison’. are superb. The more you cut, the better they’ll be.

Annuals for a cut flower garden

Annuals usually cut well and they are colourful and popular with bees and other pollinators because they’re packed with nectar and pollen. The classic blue cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) is the most popular plant with red-tailed bumble bees, for instance. It lasts well in water and offers a jazzy contrast when used with orange pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) and white lacy cow parsleys such as Ammi visnaga.

Green annulas look good in a vase too and the branching green umbellifer Bupleurum griffithii ‘Decor’ (sold by Suttons as ‘Chatterbox’), the green Bells of Ireland (Molucella laevis) plus the green tasselled Love Lies Bleeding (try Amaranthus ‘Ribbons and Beads’ from Mr Fothergills) are perfect foils for dark larkspur or sweet peas.

Pollen-free sunflowers, such as the pallid-yellow ‘Vanilla Ice’ and ‘Valentine’, look wonderful arranged with dark-as-night Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Cat’.

I also recommend clary sage, Salvia horminum, which produces long lasting bracts in pink, blue and white, but deep-blue is the loveliest of all. Plant cosmos too, for they will flower until November. ‘Double Click’ or ‘Psyche White’ are both excellent. Gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta) peak in August and September and Sutton’s ‘Indian Summer’ is a giant yellow. The golden rule is always deadhead. The optimum month for sowing is April, but leave your annuals to self-seed and they will often germinate in autumn, producing stronger plants.

Designing your cut flower garden

Annuals can be drifted through other perennial plants to great effect, but if you have room a dedicated cutting garden it’s a great addition to any garden. 

Most opt for rows and one garden I visited had a simple paling fence surrounding the flowers, almost like a frame. The black wood had added calligraphy in gold. You could also use wooden posts, or add extra definition with painted wooden obelisks. Use biennial sweet william too, plus some perennials. 

Staples include peonies, roses, outdoor chrysanthemums, delphiniums, pinks, dahlias and eryngiums. Rows of tulips are also an excellent addition.


Annuals are the easiest plants to grow because their seeds are keen to germinate and they aren’t hampered by inhibitors and, generally, they don’t need a period of cold - or striation. Sow them and they quickly come up.

Examine your packets first for special tips and look for the letter HA for hardy annuals so these plants can go out early. If the label says HHA it stands for Half Hardy Annual and frosts must be avoided. HHA seeds generally need more warmth to germinate, so you may have to place these on a warm windowsill if you don’t have a greenhouse.

Read our guide to growing hardy annuals.

Picking your flowers

Picking produces more flower, as does deadheading.

Pick first thing in the morning or last thing at night – the flowers will last longer. Use sharp scissors and drop them straight into a bucket full of water for a long drink. Place your bucket in a cool position out of full sun and stand them for several hours before arranging.

The ideal is to pick at night and leave the stems in water in a cool place overnight and then arrange the flowers the following morning.

Cut your flowers wisely by cutting back to side shoots etc, rather than straight down to the ground. This will allow them to regenerate and produce the next batch of blooms. If the stems are short, use posy vases.

Pick peonies at the marshmallow stage stage when the buds are opening and feel spongy.

Pick roses as the buds are opening.

Looking after cut flowers

Once ready to arrange, work quickly and informally. Use a glass container, or a pretty plain jug because annuals are simple flowers that look best arranged naturally.

Strip off lower leaves and at least half the foliage from each stem, leaving the lower stem bare. This will stop the water from becoming green and smelly. 

Make a fresh diagonal cut and plunge into the vase quickly, this maximises the surface area and allows more water to be absorbed, and also stops the stems from resting on the bottom of the vase and prevent water uptake. Woody stems (like amaranthus) can be seared in hot water for twenty seconds. 

If plants flop, sometimes they can be rejuvenated by dipping the ends into boiling water for up to 30 seconds.

Make sure vases are clean and use tepid water because cold water has higher oxygen content, which can cause air bubbles to form in the stems of your flowers, blocking their water uptake. The exception is spring bulbs, which prefer cold water.

Some people add a tablespoon of sugar to larger vases, to nourish the flowers. Others also add a small amount of bleach, but cheaper coloured glass can be damaged.

Position your vase away from heat sources, direct sunlight and fruit bowls, because fruit produces ethylene which causes cut flowers to die prematurely.

Tidy up your flowers and remove any fading blooms every day.

Saving your own seeds

If you grow lots of annuals it’s well worth saving your own seeds every year. Stop dead heading in September and allow the seed pods to develop. Collect them on a dry day at midday and place them in a large envelope or paper bag with a well-written label. Clean the seeds on a tray, getting rid of any debris, and place them with the label in an envelope. Put them in a biscuit tin with sachets of silica gel and place them in the garden shed, or somewhere cool, until next spring.

The best flowers for a flower cutting garden

Antirrhinum or Snap Dragon
The best cut flower varieties are the simpler-shaped heritage varieties of snapdragons, because they are hardier and often survive from year to year. ‘Night and Day’, a dep-red and white bicolour, is widely available. The virginal-white ‘The Bride’ ( from Thompson and Morgan) and the widely available dark-red ‘The Prince’ are also excellent when cut. They may be old varieties, but they haven't been superseded.

Sunflowers make great cut flowers and the pollen-free varieties are the best. A new sunflower trial between the RHS and Fleuroselect, held at RHS Wisley has just finished and new AGMs have been announced. Suttons have ‘Goldrush’ AGM a shoulder-high, branching sunflower with chocolate-centred golden-yellow flowers. Mr Fothergills have ‘Buttercream’ AGM, a pollen-free, lemon-yellow of a similar height. Watch out for slugs. The best way to preserve your precious sunflower plants is to grow them on into four inch pots and plant them out in late-May, when they’re larger and less appealing to slugs.

Sunflower 'Key Lime Pie'
A lemon sunflower about four feet in height, excellent with darker flowers. 

Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Ebony and Ivory’
A mixture of almost black and pure-white scabious (from Thompson & Morgan).

Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Oxford Blue’
A strong blue scabious with shorter stems and more substantial flowers - also Thompson & Morgan.

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Cherry Brandy’
Bred by Thompson & Morgan, this shorter rudbeckia has unusual cherry-red flowers of a smaller size. May overwinter in dry soil.

Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll’
Easy and sets copious seeds. This a pale-blue form that’s widely available but I also enjoy the black-centred white ‘African Bride’.

Calendula officinalis ‘Indian Prince’
A neat dished double with a mahogany-red centre which is perfect for picking up dark colours (Mr Fothergill’s).

Californian Poppy ‘Jelly Beans’ (Eschscholzia)
A vibrant mixture of frilly doubles in pretty colours for well-drained soil.

Ammi majus ‘Graceland’
A white cow parsley with tall slightly foppish habit. Elegant and voguish.

Amberboa muricata (Sweet Sultan)
A soft mauve cornflower-like flower that deserves to be wider known.

Ratibida columnifera ‘Red Midget’
The Mexican Hat plant with tall brown cones surrounded by red and orange petals. Creeps up through things.

Gypsophila elegans ‘Covent Garden’
Annual baby’s breath with tiny flowers, makes a pretty edging and good in a vase.

Limonium sinatum ‘Forever Mixed’ (Statice)
Dry as an everlasting flower or use the branching heads fresh.

Daucus carota ‘Black Knight’
A wild carrot which darkens to purple. Grown widely by the cut lower trade in The Netherlands. (Only from Sarah Raven).

Larkspur ‘Dark Blue’
Lots of forms, but a strong blue is the most eye catching in garden and vase.

Orlaya grandiflora
Another white lacy umbellifer, this time with grey leaves. Lasts longer in some shade.

Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus)
Sow these in trays and grow them on. If deadheaded they will flower non stop. The blue is stunning with orange flowers such as calendulas and tall African marigolds. It’s also more bumble bee friendly.

Molucella laevis Bells of Ireland
A spire of green shells, so highly effective in a vase with far more colourful flowers. Prickly though, so handle carefully, and give it a warm site because it’s native to Turkey and Syria. Widely sold. Plant straight into the soil in May.

Bupleurum rotundifolium ‘Griffithii' (Common Hare’s Ear)
This has largish black shiny seeds and once you have it, it does self seed. It’s an umbellifer with a lime-green mound of flower held in jagged grey-green bracts. Plant straight into the soil in May.

Ammi majus and A. visnaga
Two white cow-parsley like white umbellifers that both cut well. Ammi majus is floppier and earlier than the wild-carrot look alike A. visnaga. Neither self seed very well for me. Perfect with dark flowers. Plant straight into the soil in May.

Recommended reading

If you’re new to flower growing Louise Curley’s The Cut Flower Patch: Grow your own cut flowers all year round will help. If you’re more experienced Sarah Raven’s The Cutting Garden: Growing and Arranging Garden Flowers is full of inspiration.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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