As summer reaches its zenith, so do our flower gardens. Through August and September, beds and borders are brimming with blooms of all shapes and sizes, from the fuzzy purple lollipops of liatris to the anvil-shaped heads of achillea. While the sun shines, dahlias dazzle and cosmos come of age, blessing us with their cool, feathery freshness. Grasses start to ripen, becoming golden and hazy, while sculptural seedheads begin to form. There will not be long to wait for the next generation of flowers. For now there are rich pickings to be had. In this short guide, I share my top tips for cutting and caring for flowers, highlighting the essential tools you’ll need to gather a bounty of blooms.
Summer is heaven for anyone who likes to decorate their home with flowers. Yet, if you’re anything like me, garden owners often have a deep-seated reluctance to harvest flowers so as not to spoil the ‘display’. For years I resisted picking flowers, preferring to enjoy them in situ. I’d even buy flowers from the florist rather than cull my own. Then along came our allotment. We started by growing a few dahlias, gladioli, helichrysums and cosmos. In year two, verbena, zinnias and antirrhinums were added. Now, around half our allotment is planted with flowers keeping us in cut blooms from March until November.
If you prefer not to pick flowers from your showpiece plantings, the secret is to set aside an area devoted solely to producing cut flowers. It can be as small as a 2ft x 4ft raised bed or grow bag, so long as it’s in a sunny, sheltered spot. And if you’ve ever experienced that guilty ‘should I?’ feeling as you approach a plump stem with your secateurs, it’s best that your cut flower area out of sight. That way you are not altering the scene when you pluck a few flowers. Treat your cutting garden as if it were a vegetable garden and let aesthetics become secondary to productivity - you’ll find it liberating, I promise! If you have a favourite flower in your garden, propagate it and grow the offspring in your cutting garden so that you can take flowers from the stunt doubles and leave the star of the show untouched.
How to cut flowers
- Harvest flowers during cool times of the day when they are plump and perky - early morning and late evening are best. If it’s warm, sunny or excessively windy, postpone picking to allow the flowers to rehydrate.
- Always use clean, sharp tools. Cleanliness is key to preventing diseases and viruses spreading between plants. Sharp tools give a neat, clean cut which is healthier for the plant and better for the vase life of your blooms.
- Cut as deep into the plant as your nerves allow, snipping just above a leaf joint. New flowering shoots will develop best from the lower portions of a plant. Cutting low will also give you longer stems to arrange. For bulbous plants such as gladioli and lilies my advice is different - try to leave a decent amount of foliage behind so that the corm/bulb is able to build up its strength for the following year. These plants will not flower again in the same year whatever you do.
- Plunge the stems into a bucket of cold water immediately, ensuring the cut ends are well below the waterline. Good hydration makes a difference to the freshness of your flowers. If you can’t do this, recut the stems as soon as you get inside and get them in water as quickly as possible.
- Harvest flowers when they are between one-third and half open: this is not an exact science and varies depending on the flower. What you are trying to do is to catch the bloom after opening has started but before the flower is so mature that it will not last for long. Some flowers like dahlias don’t open well from the bud stage, others like lilies do.
Tools of the trade
Good quality, well-designed tools will make the experience of picking flowers a pleasure. Here are my three cut flower essentials:
- Secateurs are your best friend in the cutting garden. Secateurs are especially useful for cutting the woody stems of lilac and roses or slicing through the thick, fibrous stems of dahlias and sunflowers. My go-to secateurs for cutting flowers are my yellow-handled Mainichi secateurs (above). Simply designed and delightfully sharp, they’ll last a lifetime.
- Snips are brilliant for fine, delicate flowers and when you need to reach into a mass of foliage to cut just one or two stems. I am never without my forged snips which fit easily in my apron pocket.
- I find scissors a useful tool when preparing my flowers after picking. I keep my yellow Sakagen scissors (below) in the cupboard next to the kitchen sink, always ready for action. Large handles give the stout, short blades maximum propulsion, producing a clean cut.
When plants are lush and vigorous, sap will quickly gunge up blades and joints: this makes them harder to use and may give a rougher cut. To keep secateurs, snips and scissors in good condition, clean with a sap eraser after each use. Oil the blades with camellia oil and sharpen regularly.
If you’re cutting a lot of flowers, dip the blades of your tools in a bucket of dilute bleach every so often to kill any bacteria or viruses that may spread between plants.
How to care for flowers after picking
Once you’ve got your flowers indoors, here’s how to prepare them for arranging:
- Strip any leaves and side shoots that might end up beneath the water. If left, they will decay, turning the water sour. A build-up of bacteria prevents flower stems from taking up water and can smell bad too. A drop or two of bleach in a vase of water is helpful when working with kale, ornamental cabbages, chrysanthemums, zinnias, and achilleas which tend to be a bit whiffy.
- Once trimmed, allow your flowers to rest. Ideally, they should be submerged up to their necks in cold water in a cool room for a few hours or, better still, overnight. This process is called ‘conditioning’ and can extend a flower’s vase life by 2-3 days.
- Keep your flowers well away from the fruit bowl. Fruit emits ethylene gas which is brilliant for ripening other fruit (try popping green tomatoes in a drawer with a ripe tomato!) but a disaster for flowers as it causes them to age prematurely.
- Ensure your vases are clean enough to drink from by washing thoroughly in hot, soapy water after every use. I keep a range of brushes by my sink to reach into funny little nooks and crannies. If there’s limescale or staining you can’t get to, fill your vase with warm water, then add one tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda (large vases may need more) and mix in some white vinegar. The solution will fizz and the ingredients will get to work, leaving you with a sparkling, clean vase.
- As you prepare to arrange your flowers, cut the stems once more. Some people prefer to make the cut under water so that no air bubbles get trapped within the stems. For most of us, that’s going one step too far, but you might want to experiment with it.
Cutting flowers from your garden is a pleasure money can’t buy; choosing which blooms to collect and putting them together offers much more reward and variety than buying flowers from a supermarket or florist. I hope this guide has given you the confidence to shake off any inhibitions and get snipping!