Tips on Cutting Flowers: From Garden to Kitchen

By Paige Patterson
Garden flowers transform grocery-store roses.

I teach two Sunday cut flower classes at Marders, the Bridgehampton plant palace. The first, in spring, is on creating cutting gardens; the second, as summer winds down, is a flower arranging demo my colleague and I do with whatever I’ve got left in the garden at that time. Invariably, a day or so before, I panic, saying I have nothing to cut, bemoaning the weather, the timing of the lecture, or that I didn’t thin my self-sowers and give them the needed space to bulk up. I wander round the shop muttering, worrying that the class is going to be a flop. Then, on the morning of the lecture, I start cutting at 6 a.m. and, equally as inevitably, by the time I have to leave for the nursery my car is stuffed with buckets and branches.

It’s gotten to be a running joke between my colleague and me. Although each year I say to her, “No, seriously, I really have nothing left in bloom. I’m not kidding, none of my cutting flowers are left.” And sometimes it’s true: A lot of the expected plants have already been plucked, the roses might be blown, or the only available dahlias are either tight in bud, or way past their glory. I’ve had to broaden my views on what’s cuttable, escape the boundaries of expectations, and see just what will last when stuck in a vase. It’s how I discovered smokebush flowers last incredibly long and that a single stalk or two of bugbane can elevate the tone of any arrangement. 

Having given this lecture for about six or seven years, I’m still adding new plants to the handout of all the things I’ve experimentally cut, on both those panicky Sunday mornings and throughout the year. And although sometimes things still fail, the success of grabbing things that have interesting colors, tones, and shapes, sticking them in a pail and crossing my fingers, has broadened both my confidence and my cutting flower palette.

One year I needed a warmer silvery gray than the rosemary willow branches I had already grabbed for the possible arrangements I could see in my stuffed buckets, so I chopped a couple of chunks of overgrown Lady Plymouth scented geranium from my planters. Deeply serrated leaves (a variegated dusty green and cream) from a distance looked like a mix of pistachio and vanilla ice cream, wonderful with my aging White Swan panicle hydrangeas and that year’s still tight sedums.

Who knew sedums were such a fab cut flower? Outlasting everything you stick them with, their shape and texture sets them apart from the rest of your display. I had always relied on roses, dahlias, and hydrangeas to fill in big gaps, but after randomly grabbing a handful one year (when the rains had browned out all my hydrangeas), sedums have become a reliable mainstay. Plus, keep refreshing their water and they’ll root, enough so that when your arrangement is wilted and done, you can transplant them straight into the soil.

One year, I didn’t pick my parsnips. I had the best of intentions, but that year had crazy snow, which never melted enough to dig any out. Next thing I knew, it was spring and out of nowhere those overwintered babies sent up six- foot-tall stalks topped with acid yellow umbels. Fantastic. 

Ditto with my artichokes. Somehow, I’d never made the connect that if it’s a flower bud from the thistle family we’re eating, it’s probably super cool if left to open. That bloom was the most exciting clear, electric purple — as if I had squeezed color straight from a tube into some sort of amazing Van Gogh creation. Crazy good. So much so that I now grow them specifically just for the vase.

Mint was another revelation, one discovered early one spring when I wanted interesting foliage texture, and its fresh green fuzziness was just what was called for. Eureka! No more worrying about rampaging mint, scythe it down for vases by the armful. It was Annie from Sag Harbor Florist who gave me the rosemary tip. Just a few sprigs added to a couple of this and a few of that and the whole look coalesces. 

I cut from my Spirea thunbergii from February through leaf drop. Easy to force, this early to bloom shrub’s flowers have a wild lacy, airy look, like baby’s breath exploded down the length of a thread-fine jagged twig. Later, its thin chartreuse leaves punch up whatever colors it’s partnered with. Later still, as it picks up orange fall tones, it rocks out not just with the jewel tones, but all other dahlias as well.

I would never have cut andromeda for a vase, if one year it hadn’t been piled up for use in our holiday wreath-making workshops. Having grabbed a bunch of dusty pink roses at King Kullen I needed more “holiday.” The blooms of cultivar we gathered, although tightly budded for the following spring, had enough pinky, rosy red to match my roses as if they were star-crossed lovers, meant to be together, but kept by their parents super far apart. A combo that got even better, when some purloined heavy ancient crabapple branches, still with fruit, added a bit of a twist.

In fall they worked so well that, the next spring when daffodils and hellebores were doing their thing, I “pruned” a few taller plants to jam the cuttings among an assortment of randomly gathered spring flowers. Even better than when it was cut in the fall, now I had both glossy evergreen foliage and cascading lily of the valley-like blooms. If this plant wasn’t such a slow poke it would be one of my main go-to arrangement choices.

A few other favorites yielded from the kitchen garden. Sage, dill, and fennel, the latter which I cut at every stage of its growth — from shoots through bloom to seed head. I’ve even spray-painted these when dry with bronze spray paint, to mix in among purple beech foliage and sprays of goldenrod. (No, goldenrod is not what makes you sneeze. That is ragwort, which blooms at approximately the same time, but is not as noticeable so gets none of the blame.) 

From the blackberry patch, I now pick berries while still green to dangle low and jump things up texturally. Besides, I have the worst tasting blackberries in the history of drupes, so this way they don’t get ripped up. Besides, these sell at a ridiculous price in flower markets, so I feel smugly ahead of the game.

Some cascaders (clematis and roses) seem obvious, but you’ll never get wisteria from a florist as it’s impossible to ship. If the longest distance it has to go is from your pergola to the kitchen sink, it will work. Especially if, like lilacs, you split the stems six or seven inches to help them drink. I also use catkins from my hazelnut tree for a similar effect in early spring. Although my house heat opens these dangling gems to pollen dust, I think their elegance overcomes the inconvenience of a little golden dust on your dinner plate. Got grapes? Cut them when green and they’ll drape nicely. I keep saying I’m going to cut my tomatoes while green and use them to trail and bring that tomato scent straight from the garden inside, but I keep leaving them to ripen on the vine instead.

I could go on and on, talking about astilbe and thalictrum living long in a vase, and about perilla not only becoming invasive, but how it needs to be conditioned at least overnight, but I’d like you to just stop by one of our classes. I’ll have my handout ready, and I’m sure I will have a few new additions to the list. I do every year. 

You can follow Paige Patterson @wildgardenstyle for more garden, floral, and green insights, thoughts, and ideas.

At left, hazel catkins add interesting texture. This pieris has early and fabulous foliage.
At left, parsnip flowers enliven peonies and bearded iris. Crabapples, northern sea oats, perilla, and bugbane.