Tips for making cut flowers last. Plus, a painter's palette of blossoms worthy of a wedding bouquet
Grow a Great Cutting Garden
John Granen
White Paeonia lactiflora 'Festiva Maxima'.

The profusion of blooms that fills the Cutting Garden flower farm and gardens on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is so thick and colorful that it practically glows in the bright summer sun. Foxtail lilies stand tall over peonies and poppies; callas and columbines spill out into broad gravel paths; roses and clematis ramble over arbors and climb trees.

In the middle of it all stands the owner, cut-flower maven Catherine Mix, pruning knife in one hand and nosegay in the other. Behind her, fresh flowers suck up water in tall buckets on the shaded porch that wraps around her big yellow farmhouse. A garden wedding is coming up ― one of 35 here this summer ― and Catherine is making the bouquets.

All this was unimaginable a dozen years ago, when Catherine and her husband, Tom, still lived in Issaquah, Washington, and worked at Boeing. “I just grew the basics then,” Catherine says ― a few dahlias, peonies, and rhododendrons. “I’d always loved flowers, and sold dahlias at my flower stand. But I had no idea what lay in the future.”

When the couple built the farmhouse, located on 24 windswept acres of former horse pasture in Sequim, they decided to grow their flower business as well. Catherine knew she wanted low-maintenance plants that would create a succession of blooms from May through October, and that the design would need to accommodate the dahlias, rhododendrons, and peonies she’d rescued from her previous garden. But which new flowers to grow? And how to combine them with her old favorites?

Designing By Color Zones

To avoid the “confetti” look that comes from mixing together too many flower colors, garden designer Sharon Nyenhuis came up with a design scheme that combined plants with similar bloom colors ― yellows, blues, and whites near the house, hot-colored flowers farther away, and a lawn and an all-white garden serving as a visual buffer between the two areas.

 In her hot-colored garden, Catherine uses dahlias to mark the transition between the different-hued plantings. For example, where orange and yellow sections meet, she backs the orange section with orange dahlias that have yellow highlights, and the yellow section with yellow dahlias that have orange highlights.

Flower Garden Care

A system of drip tubing, soaker hoses, and low-volume overhead sprinklers keeps plants well irrigated during Sequim’s dry summer. At season’s end, healthy plant debris goes into giant compost piles, and diseased plants are discarded separately.

Every winter, the couple spreads a 3-inch-thick mulch of composted dairy manure over all the beds to fertilize the soil and smother weed seeds. Then the Mixes get a few weeks to relax, recharge, and plan for even more profusion the following year.

How to Help Cut Flowers Last

Keeping cut flowers fresh for weddings is especially demanding; they have to look good through a couple of hours of photography, as well as the wedding and reception. The key is proper hydration, says Catherine Mix.

Here’s her system for making cut flowers go the distance:

  • Harvest flowers two days before the event, and choose blooms that are about three-quarters open. Do it early in the day while the air is still cool; plunge the stems immediately into a bucket of cool water.
  • Recut stem ends under water, then keep stems immersed in a bucket of water for 24 hours in a cool, shaded place. Use water alone or add a drop of bleach to keep it clean longer. If you’re working with hollow-stemmed flowers such as dahlias or mignonette, invert them one at a time, fill the stem with water, stop up the end with your finger, then plunge the stem upright back into the bucket.
  • Arrange flowers in a water-filled vase for maximum life. Or arrange them in floral foam, which provides more design control but sacrifices some vase life. 

Favorite Cut Flowers

Several of Catherine Mix’s preferred long-lasting blooms are listed below.

Early-summer bloomers
Asiatic lilies, callas, columbine, foxtail lilies, peonies.

Catmint, clematis, delphiniums, peach-leafed bluebell, Siberian iris.

Dame’s rocket, Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Silver Lining’ (in bud), Nicotiana x sanderae ‘Fragrant Cloud’, roses, white valerian.

Bronze fennel, columbine, Phlomis russeliana.

Fragrant flowers
Anise hyssop ( Agastache foeniculum), mignonette ( Reseda odorata), nicotiana, old-fashioned roses, Oriental lilies, sweet peas.

Chamomile (before bloom), fennel (flowers), lady’s-mantle, Euphorbia characias wulfenii and E. polychroma (in the garden only; euphorbia’s milky white sap is irritating on contact).

Baby blue eyes, columbine, mullein, poppies, valerian, Verbena bonariensis.

Info: The Cutting Garden (303 Dahlia Llama Lane, Sequim, WA; 360/681-3099). The display gardens are open 10-4 Mon-Fri, May-Sep. The self-serve U-pick cutting garden is open from dawn to dusk daily, Jun-Sep. Garden design: Sharon Nyenhuis, Bentley Gardens, Sequim (360/683-4468).