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Caring for a Cutting Garden

The summer cutting garden is filled with big, burly annuals, many old-fashioned or heirloom.

"For you who are just beginning your garden enthusiasm... you are plunging into dangerous waters. It is absorbing, it will draw you into many difficulties. You will neglect some of your work and the less enthusiastic of your family will criticize your personal appearance. They will hint that you never rest. They will think you are trying to be superior when you repeat botanical names. Fear not, for you can depend on their accepting the flowers you have grown them."

Varieties developed for long-cut flowers often require staking later in the season. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

These words of Alfred C. Hottes penned in 1922 are found in his Little Book of Annuals, a treasured antique gift from an old mentor. In those pages my zest for annuals germinated, and many who have looked down their nose at my dirt-stained fingers have accepted blooms from my cutting garden with gusto.

"Ribbon garden" is an old-fashioned name for a row-like arrangement that allows access to flowers for cutting. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

You see, annuals for cutting are not always great looking plants. Therefore, old-time gardeners sequester them away from high profile beds and borders. Mine were grown as row crops in my rather large seasonal kitchen garden.

Florist's poppy blooms in cool spring, but they are grown for the large seed pods that aren't cut until they are fully mature. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

Cutting flowers need long stems, which means these gangly plants that don't stand up very well, particularly when loaded down with sprinkler water or rain. They need staking. Sometimes many stout bamboo rods are required to hold a heavy producer together. This usually involves twine and green plant tape in rather creative snarls of ties that are functional, but not particularly attractive.

Cutting gardens used to be called "ribbon gardens" because you grow plants in rows just like veggies. Each ribbon would feature a certain color or type of flower. This practical arrangement allows you full access to each plant to cut fresh flowers as you would pick beans. It's also easier to support them using a single long trellis rather than staking individual plants. These plants are cut often so there must be adequate space in between "ribbons" for access all season.

The summer cutting garden is filled with big, burly annuals, many old-fashioned or heirloom. African marigolds always are present in large numbers for summer flowers. Their orange pompons are essential to El Dia De Los Muertos celebrations at Halloween.

Old-fashioned zinnias in cactus petal or the huge, double-flowered disks share the bright hues in style again. You must grow them from seed sold in catalogs or in stores to get the big cutting types that aren't commercially cultivated as bedding plants.

Vibrant florist sunflowers, not the mammoth seed type, are fabulous for cutting and really produce when grown as a ribbon crop. Nip back the plants when they are young to encourage early branching, which yields an incredible crop of recurrent blooms all summer.

If you're daring and love the exotic, be sure to include some amaranth, preferably love-lies-bleeding, for unusual texture. Some really striking large plants of grain amaranth are definitely worth growing, but they are only found in heirloom seed catalogs.

Other cutting garden traditionals, many of them well suited to cooler regions and seasons are the tall standard varieties of cutting asters, bachelor's button, Centaurea; pot marigold, Calendula, cosmos, stock, snapdragon and larkspur.

Just as you water your kitchen garden and provide it with rich soil, so should you provide equally for the cutting garden. These plants work very hard, so frequent applications of liquid fertilizer will keep them going strong for months, often well into fall. And don't spare the clippers because cutting off flowers often will discourage seed production keeping new buds coming all the time.

Above all, give away the flowers to everyone who looks look cross-eyed at your chipped fingernails, scratched legs and suntanned face. You can always depend on them to gleefully accept.

Cutting garden seed sources:

  • Thompson & Morgan:
  • Seeds of Change:

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo(at) For more information, visit or Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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