It’s how organic gardener Lisa Ziegler grows healthy, prolific crops at her cut-flower farm in southeastern Virginia.
For more than a decade, Ziegler has cultivated fields of flowers, harvesting thousands of stems weekly for fresh bouquets she sells at boutiques and farmers’ markets and through subscription programs.
She also lectures on how to grow backyard bouquets, and uses that popular program as a spinoff for a new book, The East Cut-Flower Garden. Chapters in the 90-page, full-color booklet outline how to site and develop the bed, plant seeds, maintain plantings, harvest and condition flowers and make simple bouquets.
In the book, Ziegler outlines how you can get all the fresh flowers you can want or can give away in a manageable 3-by-10-foot space.
To keep it simple and productive into the fall season, she suggests sunflowers, zinnias, celosia, cockscomb and basil, her all-time favorites for long vase life and pleasing scents.
For zinnias, she prefers Benary’s Giants, which are huge, mildew-resistant zinnias that stay fresh looking for days. Her guide suggests some color combinations including a mixed zinnia collection for rainbow colors, a pink collection for breast cancer awareness and a Victorian collection for a romantic vintage feeling.
Pro-cut sunflowers are her favorites because they are quick to bloom, produce no pollen and hold up good in a container.
“To have sunflowers all summer, plant 15-20 seeds every two weeks until two months before your first fall frost date,” she says. “They can even be grown in the fall when the days begin to shorten.”
Cockscomb likes it hot and dry, making it the perfect summer flower. Ziegler grows it in every imaginable color, including lime green, salmon, red, orange, yellow, hot pink, rose and burgundy.
“This flower also dries well, but they are especially vibrant and bright when used fresh,” she says.
For finishing touches in bouquets, she suggests plume celosias with thick feathery and thin plume spikes, and lemon or cinnamon basils that provide fragrant foliage when tucked among zinnias and sunflowers.
To get your cutting garden growing, you need compost, mulch, digging tools, wheelbarrow and dry organic fertilizer.
“We focus all our time, money and energy into caring for our soil by feeding it organic matter such as compost,” says Ziegler. When your soil is healthy, alive and protected with mulch you water half as much, your plants grow bigger and produce more, and produce stronger plants that are more disease resistant.”
An organic gardener through and through, Ziegler uses non-toxic chemicals so beneficial insects feed on pests.
“Maintaining a permanent spot in your garden with perennial plants such as yarrow provides a year-round habitat for beneficial bugs,” she says.
“Adding water to your gardens also encourages birds and beneficial wildlife. We often use an upside-down trash can lid, which also provides water for turtles and other ground dwellers.
“The best part of sustainable, all-natural gardening is that it’s easy and cost-effective. This, coupled with planting the right plant in the right spot makes gardening downright enjoyable and successful.”
About Cut Flowers
• Size it right. A 3-by-10-foot, cut-flower garden produces one to two bouquets a week, so avoid planting a cutting garden that’s too large.
• Site it right. Locate your cutting garden where you can’t see it from your kitchen window or reading chair, or you are less likely to cut flowers for enjoyment indoors. Also, place it where it gets 6-8 hours of sunlight daily, and where you can easily water it as needed.
• Plant it right. Grow cut-flower varieties that are known to have long stems and good vase life.
• Cut it right. You have to cut flowers to keep fresh ones coming; the first week you skip cutting is the beginning of the end to your cutting garden.
• Share it right. Take bouquets from your cutting garden to friends and neighbors, giving the gift of homegrown flowers.
To make a simple mixed bouquet:
• Remove most foliage. Start with flowers that are stripped of all foliage—except leaves on the top few inches of stem; this makes them last longer and keeps the water cleaner.
• Use your hands. Make the bouquet in your hand, starting with the focal flower which is usually the flower in the center of the bouquet, such as a sunflower.
• Add and turn. Add three of the same types of flowers as you turn the bouquet in your hand, then three to five pieces of foliage. Add three to five of another flower, then maybe some spiky flowers, then finishing with three to five more flowers around the edges.
• Finish and tweak. Hold the bouquet next to the vase and cut 1 inch shorter than the vase. Drop into a clean vase with water and floral preservative. Cut-flower food makes a difference especially in garden flowers; they will last longer. Tweak as needed.
(c) 2011, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).