There is an inherent clash between the gardener who lovingly raises flowers and the florist who wants to cut them for the vase. Often, they are the same person.
The cutting garden was invented to get around this problem. If you set aside an area to grow blooms for cutting — essentially a vegetable garden for flowers — you can snip stems in their prime without the angst. Indeed, a decimated cutting garden is a successful cutting garden.
This seems such an obvious and delightful use of one’s real estate that you wonder why everyone doesn’t devote a corner of the yard to a little flower farm. Delve a little deeper, though, and you come to see why cutting gardens are not ubiquitous.
Even if you have the location — ideally a flat, sunny and well-drained spot in an inconspicuous area — the demands of such a garden are high.
One of the challenges is in excluding deer, groundhogs and rabbits. Another is in raising a sequence of blooms from April to October. Anyone can cut tulips in spring; what are you supposed to do in early August or late September?
I once thought of cutting gardens as a fusty anachronism because they are associated with old private estates with large gardening staffs, but I’ve grown to like them a lot, even top-drawer versions that still require a lot of effort, planning and resources. Perhaps that’s the appeal.
One of the smartest can be found at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens in Washington, where horticulturist Drew Asbury and a team of gardeners and volunteers devote much of their time to running this floral machine.
Like most cutting gardens, its palette is heavy on the annuals, but there’s a place for all sorts of plants, including biennials, some shrubs (roses), bulbs, even vines such as clematis. Asbury also grows a fair number of perennials and herbs, mindful that Hillwood’s floral designer, Ami Wilber, favors today’s looser, more natural looks for her arrangements.
To that degree, the garden is molded by her taste. There’s no gladiolus, for example. “I also don’t like super bright colors,” she said. “I like soft, fleshy tones.” Asbury has obliged with such things as the creamy beige dahlia Cafe au Lait and the plum-colored lisianthus Rosanne Brown.
The heart of the garden is approximately 100 feet wide and long and marked by the striped effect of more than 20 linear rows of plantings, about a third of them perennials. Each is four feet wide, about 40 feet long, separated by a path of wood chips and marked by netting, strung horizontally a few inches above the ground.
The flower stems grow through the netting’s six-inch squares, which hold them firm against summer storms. Taller plants such as dahlias require additional support by way of handmade eight-foot bamboo tepees.
One of the charms of such a garden is its dynamic change through the growing season. It is now relatively bare. By late summer, the snapdragons, tulips, alliums and larkspur of spring will be a memory, replaced instead by walls of flower-rich vegetation. Along with the dahlias and sunflowers, these include four varieties of amaranth and the balloon flower, Asclepias physocarpa.
When it served Hillwood’s owner, the cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the garden was utilitarian and out of the way; it didn’t have to look particularly beautiful. Today it has a more prominent role, and Asbury is sensitive to its look. Instead of just planting in blocks, he has intermingled some of the blooms so that their seasonal ebbing and flowing is not as obvious.
Weeds are ever ready to sprout in the bare soil of the garden, but the flower beds are closely monitored by members of the gardening team, who watch for unwanted germination.
Their seedling identification skill is tested because some of the tiny plants are returning annuals — cleomes and celosia, for example — and some of those are left to grow.
Some winters, dahlia tubers will survive in the ground in Washington, but last winter featured a prolonged end-of-year freeze that left much damage in its wake.
My in-ground tubers perished, but Asbury’s seem to have survived, and here’s why: The prominent ginkgo tree on the edge of the garden presents thousands of leaves in November. He used these golden fans to create a two-inch-thick mulch over the dahlia beds, covered them with plastic and laid another leaf layer that was six inches deep. The whole blanket was held in place by bird netting.
Last week, he could see the tiny sprouts of this season’s dahlias poking through the ground. “I don’t know if I’ll get 100 percent, but it’s very exciting,” he said.
The garden stands before an ornate greenhouse, now whitewashed for the hot months. More than a backdrop, the glasshouse provides the perfect environment for starting many of these flowers from seed or growing on plug plants.
Now, young chrysanthemum cuttings are rooting away within, and they will see out the garden in the autumn.
Should you try this at home? Yes; it doesn’t need to be on the scale of Hillwood. Start small and see how it goes. Another option is to sign up for a community plot and grow your flowers there, but check the rules first. Some community gardens want you to grow vegetables and limit the number of blooms.
But if you just want to figure out what is possible to grow through the season, Hillwood beckons.
The latest addition to the cutting garden is a new irrigation system, whose sprays form an ethereal mist that will reduce the burdens of hand watering. “It’s going to save hours and hours of time,” said Asbury. “It’s like a fountain show out there.”
“Like the Bellagio,” said Wilber.
In the vegetable garden, a two-inch layer of straw makes an effective mulch to keep beds moist while discouraging weeds. Straw isn’t so good on surrounding paths — it turns slippery when wet.
Wood chips offer a cheap and enduring paving material.