I remember exactly the time and place when I had my first glimpse of a real cutting-flower garden. I was 19, driving by myself in unfamiliar territory on the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y. My new husband and I were visiting his sister in Westhampton for a long summer weekend, and I, curious to see the beautiful seaside towns, drove to the village of East Hampton.
I found myself meandering down a wide, London plane tree-lined avenue called Lily Pond Lane. Toward the end of the lane was a sight the likes of which I had never seen. Behind a short, pristinely pruned privet hedge was an immaculate flower garden -- straight rows of asters, delphinium, dahlias, phlox, zinnias, gladioli, stock, lilies, marigolds, daisies, snapdragons, cosmos, Queen Anne's lace and even hydrangeas. They were all upright, blooming, and ready to be cut and arranged for the large rooms in the tile-roofed mansion across the street.
I stopped the car and took mental notes of everything. I saw that there was a substantial greenhouse tucked in behind a much taller privet, where the annuals were propagated before being set out in the garden, an immense serpentine perennial border backed by a yew hedge, as well as a modest split-rail fence covered in pink climbing roses. I vowed to have a cutting-flower garden someday so that I, too, could have fresh flowers growing all season long.
I did honor my vow and planted a cutting garden at Turkey Hill, my home in Westport, Conn., filling it with bulbs for spring and summer bloom, and experimenting every year with different annuals for cutting and flower arranging.
My favorite cutting flowers are not really surprising. Many are old standbys that I saw so many years ago on Lily Pond Lane or were inspired by Mrs. Vincent Astor's garden in Northeast Harbor, Maine: China asters (Callistephus chinensis), tall, plump snapdragons (Antirrhinum), astilbe, columbine (Aquilegia "McKana" hybrids), Canterbury bells (Campanula "Cup and Saucer"), calendula, coleus, cosmos, towering delphinium ("Pacific Giants"), carnations (Dianthus), foxglove (Digitalis "Excelsior Hybrids"), larkspur, nasturtiums, lavender "Hidcote," big-flowered African marigolds, scabiosa, rudbeckia, stock, sweet peas, lupines, amaranthus "Love Lies Bleeding" and, of course, zinnias.
I have added quite a few things to my garden on Mount Desert Island, Maine, which is essentially a cutting garden. There, I love the green bells of Ireland, the Ammi majus flowers with giant heads like Queen Anne's lace, dinner plate dahlias, Echinops, Eryngium and extra-tall ageratum. I am really not as fussy about the color or variety of plant as I am about its growing habit, strength of bloom and usefulness in arrangements. I used to be a bit more inflexible -- at Turkey Hill, I banned red flowers and preferred that nothing yellow except daffodils be grown. Now, I love to experiment with color and have had a lot of fun with odd tones such as chartreuse, black and deep oranges and magentas, as well as blues and grays and silvers. And red has been permitted, in different tulips, poppies, zinnias and crocosmias.
There is an art to growing flowers. Learning that certain annuals -- such as sweet peas, cosmos and China asters -- need support in gusts of wind and pelting rainstorms will help encourage perfect blooms and upright stems. I have found that inserting pea-brush stakes -- twiggy stems from trees such as black birch -- a bit shorter than the final expected heights of the flowers ensures an upright growing habit and keeps flowers that are in bloom from getting dirty, breaking and becoming entangled with other plants. (Cut the pea brush in early spring before the twigs start to bud.) If you don't have access to these sorts of branches, you can fashion spiderwebs of twine tied to bamboo stakes.
If you have limited garden space, plan to plant a few extra flowers devoted to cutting. I know how guilty I used to feel denuding the garden just to enhance the indoors. Even a row of extras will save the "viewing" garden from devastation by cutters. Be sure to deadhead annuals frequently, or better yet, keep cutting to prompt a continuing supply of blooms.
Bulbs should be ordered in the summer for fall planting and spring picking. Look for different varieties each year, and plant a few between your rows of annuals.
Remember, not all cutting flowers have to be flowers. This year I am including lots of plants for their leaves. Colocasia, ferns, begonias, geraniums and coleus come in many different colors. They will look gorgeous as cut "flowers" all year long.