The Curated Cutting Garden

My Favourite Native Cut Flowers (Right Now)

Truth: my favourite things to grow for cuts are native perennial wild flowers and grasses.

After a windstorm destroyed our property in 2010, I’ve watched a prairie of Big Bluestem, Canada Wild Rye, and soooo many other interesting grasses and flowers spring up from the latent seed bank to replace the once-dense forest that fell down. Each year I'm more drawn to their untamed aesthetic, and a glance through the Instagram florist community shows a young new love affair with "foraged" flowers across the trendiest galleries.

On any one year, about half the seed I sow (or maybe even more) are perennial wild flowers and grasses, and are inserted into their existing plant communities somewhere on my property, which is nearly seven acres and includes dry sandy hills, trembling Aspen woods, sunny southern slopes and wet squishy swales.

There are a surprising number of wild flowers that do well as cut flowers, and I’m still learning them all myself, but I’ve done up a blurb below on my current favourites this moment. With the exception of some of the Monarda I mention below, all of the following are hardy to at least zone three.

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A sampler bouquet I made featuring native perennial prairie species, including Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’), Canada Milkvetch (Astralagus canadensis), White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida), Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Philadelphia Fleabane, and Fringed Brome grass.

Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)

Ok, so this isn’t going to look nice in a bouquet, but if you’re running a market table or into dried stuff, you should know that this grass has an otherworldly sweet scent that permeates your space as incense when burned. Native American tribes used Sweetgrass for a number of their most personal and spiritual rituals, including hair washing and ceremonial smudging. It establishes dominance via rhizomatous roots, so is one you can battle invasive weeds with in a wet prairie or squishy-soil setting. If you weave baskets this is a wondrous material to use and you’ll see why its aggressive growth is a boon, not a burden.

Prairie Sage, White Sage, etc. (Artemisia ludoviciana)

This is another native plant with spiritual and medicinal uses, being dried in bunches and burned, but is also a gorgeous filler plant for arrangements, lending a leafy silver look that plays off everything from pink to yellow to purple and blue. Planted in one spot in a nice light soil, it will pop up a long way away within the same season. And while it may grow willy-nilly rather quickly, it is not what I consider a bully, and in the end it’s actually a blessing for someone with a habit of snipping things for bouquets.

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For the flower girls, I made these bouquets featuring native Prairie Sage.

Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, etc. (Monarda sp.)

Depending on where you are in North America, you`ll have a slightly different native Monarda that`s apt to thrive in your soil. This mint-family member carries a strong disposition, needs room to expand, and is prone to unsightly mildew outbreaks should it get cramped. Nonetheless, it makes a bright and cheery tea, gives stunning and unusual cut flowers that last ages in a vase, and feeds hummingbirds too.

Its natural habitat is on the edge of woods and clearings, where conditions call for a bit of column A and column B, that is, airy and bright, a bit of dappled shade at high noon, with well draining soil holding a bit of moisture, but never soggy either.

Note that some Monarda are annuals if you’re in a colder zone, but will probably reseed if they’re happy.

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Though it's an annual for me, Monarda species member Spotted Horse-Mint (Monarda punctata) has a lovely neutral pink colour. Check out the whole species for ideas.

Anise Hyssop, Giant Blue Hyssop, etc. (Agastache foeneculum)

This is a friend to Monarda, growing with the square stem all mint family members bear. Anise Hyssop has quite a few cultivars on the market already, including some handy pink and white blooms too, although it`s hard to improve on their natural indigo-violet hue. This perennial functions as a medicinal herb, making the best tea I`ve ever tasted from a plant I found outside. It flowers the first year from seed, and offers fragrant, bottlebrush-looking blooms with rich emerald foliage from July into October, when it`s one of the only things offering pollen for shivering bees. It lasts a super long time cut. Check out cultivars like ‘Aurea’ or ‘Golden Jubilee’, which have chartreuse-coloured foliage as an added novelty.

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Native Agastache foeneculum in my garden, it's a lovely cut fresh or dried flower with theeeeee most delicious tea leaves.

June Grass (Koeleria macrantha)

If you’re a short season gardener, you can appreciate anything blooming in June. This no-fuss beauty yields a shiny bleached-blond seed head that matures into a shimmering pink inflorescence, and you don’t need much to fill out all kinds of arrangements. Another one to grow in very light soil, it is a clump forming (read: well-behaved) grass that grows from seed super easy.

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I worked way too hard to get this shot capturing the pink shimmer of June Grass in June.

Heartleaf and Golden Alexander (Zizia aptera and aurea)

Both of these offer early June cuts, with Heartleaf Alexander growing in dry to medium moisture soils and Golden Alexander preferring wetter sites. These yellow umbel-shaped blooms on stiff stems are bright at the start of the season when little else has that shape, and have neat seed heads that give bouquets a very cool texture.

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Unripe seedheads of native Heartleaf Alexander act like upturned umbrellas in this backyard-grown bouquet. You can see native Monarda fistulosa here too, with 'Virgin' Echinacea, Gaura, Emmer Wheat, native Achillea, silver willow leaves, native White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida) and native Helianthus maximillani at the back.

Obedient Plant (Physotegia virginiana)

Obedient Plant is a well-known cut but not so well-known native that prefers the wet ditch you thought you couldn’t do anything with. It’s also one of those tough wildflowers with rhizomatous root action happening, so back up and give her room. In return you’ll get a lush crop of tubular spike blooms in pink or white with a good vase life.

Helenium (Helenium autumnale)

Here’s another native perennial that’ll flower first year. You’ll get blooms with cute button-nose faces in August. This one likes the damp and flooded corners of the garden too, and has a wide array of specially-bred options on the market ranging from saucy bicolour blends of orange and yellow to more stoic looking shades of burgundy.

On Sourcing Wild Flowers

I encourage and heartily challenge people who like foraging for wild flowers and arranging with them to make the responsible leap from cutting from the roadsides (which is a valuable pollinator corridor) to growing what you want on your own property. It’s not hard to source and grow native wild flower seed, which on the prairies can be easily winter sown in trays and left outside to germinate whenever in spring.  

If ordering native perennial seed or plants, remember that growing from the strain raised in the ecosystem closest or most similar to yours will grow the best. So in this vein, my seed and plug orders come from Prairie Originals out of Selkirk, Manitoba, but I also love the selection of species at Wildflower Farm in Ontario, Canada, and Prairie Moon Nursery in the US.

For a few of the native species I named above, there’s a butterfly larvae who likes to live on and eat these flowers. Keep an eye out for the little guys and don’t cry over spilt milk if you lose an entire section of garden to growing beautiful butterflies instead of cuts.

Best Plants for Dried Arrangements

I'm completely biased by my northern latitude when I say, yes, yes, we all need more dried flowers!

I'm also being a bit of a hipster when I say it too, because I believe that dried flowers are coming back in style. (To be fair, as an eighties child, dried florals have never left me).

Speaking of the eighties, let's just all take a collective second here and shake the dusty image of a bleached bouquet turned spider castle in Aunt so-and-so's bathroom right out of our heads. Fresh dried flowers are wonderful, fragrant, pleasing things, but ironic in that they don’t quite “thrive on neglect.” I've actually noticed that dry, poor soil conditions are called for by a lot of the best dried cut flowers. If you've got sharp soil conditions, extended droughts, and especially when you have both, you definitely should consider cultivating more room for dried flowers in your heart and garden.

For the wreath pictured below, I wove ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth, wheat, native white sagebrush, rose hips, and a number of other native grasses into a dogwood frame.

Dried flower wreath

Hi, Helichrysum and Friends!

The classic of dried cut flowers is Helichrysum bracteatum, commonly called strawflower, which is one seed you should start indoors this time of year (mid-March) in my Zone 3 town. You can find the traditional heirloom strawflower cultivar 'Tall Double Mix' quite easily, and it includes some attractive nude tones (so much so, I wish there was a 'Beige Mix' strawflower option). For crafts, you’ll want to keep the winter holidays in mind, so consider growing white or pastel strawflowers, which would be useful in December and after, when you may not be in the mood for magenta and yellow. Swallowtail Garden Seeds has the largest strawflower selection I've come across so far, so be sure to check theirs out.

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A white strawflower craft in winter evokes imagery of snowflakes and stars, here's 'Double Choice White' (Photo by Swallowtail Seeds).

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Floret Farm's Erin Benzakein holds the strawflower cultivar ‘Apricot and Peach Mix,’ which I'm sure will look timely and gorgeous every single month of the next year (Photo: Floret Seeds). 

With strawflowers and, indeed, many other dried harvests, remember that you want to cut before the bloom is fully open to dry the flowers at their best. They continue to open while hanging and seeds will continue to ripen too, so you're trying to harvest before they get to the later stages of life to preserve them at their peak of color, form, and texture.

The geometrically beauteous orb of paper moon (Scabiosa stellata), is a cousin to pincushion flower and offers a rather plain, white bloom before going to seed in a very MC Escher kind of way. Poppy heads are handy dried, but 'Hens and Chickens' poppies are a rarer heirloom offering a bit more interest. Money plant (Lunaria annua), is another dried heirloom currently experiencing a design renaissance and it yields luminous, disc-shaped seedheads.

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Paper moon (Scabiosa stellata) grows one of the neatest dried flower heads out there, (Left, photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds); and pictured at right is the unusual 'Hens and Chickens' Papaver (Photo by the Center of the Webb Rare and Exotic Seeds).

I also like big, earth-toned bouquets of singular native grass species from my yard en masse. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolous heterolepis) dries in either a shimmering purple or a red wine-hued haze, depending on when you harvest it, and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) has a very fine look, too.

Wheat is a painfully easy crop to raise for dried stock and it should be sown in a tight grid of 1 x 1 inches. It’s very space efficient with the added bonus of fall or early spring sowing before last frost. Check out the selection of rare and heirloom wheat Jim Ternier keeps at Prairie Garden Seeds in Humboldt, Saskatchewan - which includes the really neat 'Blue Utrecht' and 'Black Einkhorn.'

A new old plant I'll try this year is Carthamus tinctorius, also known as safflower, a dye and oil plant with a history reaching the 12th Dynasty in ancient Egypt.

Another attractive species for drying is Celosia, with the awkwardly-named cockscomb. These are mostly going to give you some really bright dried colors in the citrus cocktail range, which feels a bit too festive this late in winter, but hey, if you can picture them being toned down by an airy assortment of dried grasses, chamomile, or pearly everlastings, then you could give them a try.

I'm growing black broom corn (Sorghum bicolour) this year, which in addition to being a most handsome fall market friend, can be bound to make brooms, so you can also get your witch on in October. Grow it in a similar culture to cob corn. Center of the Webb Rare and Exotic Seeds has 'Black Amber' in the states that looks nice, and William Dam sells some in Canada. 

Try drying any flower with an umbel bloom (like dill) at various stages of growth (but avoid picking unidentified umbel-shaped white flowers from ditches, because it could be poisonous hemlock). For dried umbel-shaped flower heads, try growing fennel, Queen Anne's Lace, valerian, 'Dara' ammi which provides violet shades, lace flower, which has a sky blue bloom, and any alliums.

Really, I could tell you to dry your yarrow and statice and about twenty other cuts (larkspur! prairie clovers! Heliopsis is known to dry perfectly right on the plant!), just realize it's hard to get on the dried flower train wrong. Preserved flowers have an inexplicable beauty even at their worst, which is why they sit around so long.

Don't forget that pole beans or even dark-podded peas can be beautiful when dried with seeds inside. I did this for an arrangement for a veggie garden friend, and it's like a gift of heirloom seeds, too. (Just make sure you harvest after the seeds are ripe enough to germinate later.)

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A dried October birthday bouquet I did featuring ‘Glass Gem’ and ‘Dakota Black’ popcorn with ‘Hopi Black Dye’ sunflower seedheads, wild rose hips, and flagg pole beans still encapsulated. Miscanthus grass is the ghostly-veined seed head unraveling there.

On Preserving Preserves

I haven't talked about preserving after drying, ie, spray adhesive or gluing things to wreaths, and there's a humble reason: I don't really use glue on flowers. With dried wreaths, I weave into woven frames or use cotton or hemp string, sometimes wire.

Personally I find a lot of things hold up well if not harvested too late and if kept in a proper location at a proper humidity and temperature.

Admittedly, I also like people being able to seed dried arrangements in gardens, smell the residual fragrance of the flowers (not the acetone), make tea from any medicinal leaves, and compost their arrangements in soil. If you spray everything or hot glue your wreath together, you can't do any of that. But hey, glue is the also the goo of the crafting gods, so no judgment from me. You do you!  

Nonetheless, I think it's good practice for a number of good reasons to approach dried flowers au naturel first, and use adhesives as a last resort.

Air Drying Basics

First things first, get yourself a proper space to air dry in. Whoever has an old drafty dry barn on their property, raise your hands. You've got a good start. For the rest of us peasants, seek out a dry, airy, more-cool-than-hot, dark place that offers a quick drying time. People use closets, basements, attics, and sheds. I have a handy set-up outdoors with rafters, two open ends, and boards with wide slats. A sheltered spot near the ceiling of a screened-in porch is a good spot too.

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A great space for drying: I call it my "dry barn," but it's more like a tiny wind tunnel.

Some things dry wonderfully standing straight up in a good spot. Native anise hyssop (Agastache foeneculum) is one that does well this way. A lot of grasses will dry standing up.

Winter is the time of year when we notice seedheads more – especially beautiful grasses - but it’s also the time of year they’re programmed to let loose, so ideally you’re harvesting before they do, otherwise expect literally everything you harvest from the cold to immediately explode with relief in your spring-like temperature house.

Harvesting too late means seedheads, especially cereal grains like wheat, will shatter when you go to use them later. It's a good idea to stagger harvests a bit if you're just learning or growing something for the first time so you know the peak point.

Seeds Disclaimer: Be aware seedheads in dried arrangements are things that may spread and grow. Some awful scary species sure look pretty in bouquets, see tansy, smooth brome, baby's breath, foxtail, oxeye daisy, horsetail, etc. Bottom line is, know your local nasties, respect your local rarities. Seeds are either precious or dangerous. (I'm sure this is obvious for most of you, but I felt I should say just to be safe!)

Silica Gel is Fun

For fleshy species, like Zinnia, that may lose their heads on you — and especially with flowers like brown-eyed susans (Rudbeckia), where the blooms don't look too swell after hanging — silica gel is what you want. 

Silica gel looks like salt and is a desiccant (so keep away from kids because it also looks like sugar). Get some canisters and gently bury your blooms in it, seal it, come back in a few days. Silica Gel keeps as long as you keep it.

Experimenting with silica gel is exciting and still new to me, so last year I took a few minutes every few days to dry spent flower heads this way. It was a lot like developing film in a darkroom, the process is lovely and enchanting.

This is one of those situations where a spray adhesive can make a difference because the petals of some flowers dried this way tend to easily depart from the head. You can use these dried heads any number of ways, even giving them "stems" again with wire.

Try making a simple garland of these radial blooms with a needle and thread. Dried flower garlands are one of those insanely easy crafts done in twenty minutes flat and will appeal deeply to your highest sense of aesthetic self  (in other words, they simply cannot look bad no matter how artistically inept you profess to be).

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A variety of silica gel dried flowerheads. 

Oma Crafts

Pressed flowers complete my preserved floral trifecta and while I encourage you to experiment constantly with neat foliage (FERNS!) there is no flower more suited to pressing than pansies. These little darlings become perfect handmade card fodder and they will never not be charming, thanks to the tradition of pressed “Johnny Jump Up” cards from sweet, crafty Grandmas, Babas, and Memaws everywhere.

But, press everything. Monarda (bee balm, bergamot, etc) pressed is spectacular. Cosmos and poppies are, too. Nasturtiums. Umbels again. (Heirloom Gardener provided step-by-step flower press directions in their Winter 2016/2017 article How to Make a Flower Press.) In a world of beautiful heirlooms, I say head out and find the most Alice in Wonderland looking variety you can and then go to town.

For kids’ crafts and for yourself, use clear contact paper and make illuminated window mandalas with pressed foliage in January, right after you lose hope of ever seeing summer again.

Living the Dry Life

After you incorporate dried flowers into your fresh flower routine, which honestly is not that much more work, come fall and winter you'll have squirreled away an inspiring and varied collection of dried options that mesh for beautiful effect.

My experience is dried flowers and grasses bring a wistful and stoic sentiment unmatched in emotional depth by summer's youth and bounty, yielding materials you’ll definitely come to appreciate not long after the first frost and sometime before the last one.

 

Carnations Make a Comeback

In my seed stash for the first time this year is Dianthus caryophyllus, also known as the common, lowly, oft-scoffed-at, carnation. 

Up until a few years ago, this supermarket-stand flower had sunk to a most disrespectful low in the eyes of gardeners, florists and would-be brides. And for shame!

With its Latin name translating to “divine flower” and a storied history of cultivation that spans 2,000 years to its earliest mentions in Rome, Dianthus certainly deserves a spot in the modern cutting garden.

From an industry standpoint, carnations as a crop come second in value only to the ever-reigning rose. Most of today’s florists are styling carnations grown under glass in Columbia or Peru, and they bear little resemblance to the glorified specimens that graced famous gardens hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

 

antique botanical illustration

 

Sadly, what made carnations most famous wasn’t their history or easy cultivation, it was their scent, which was lost in breeding thousands of new cut market varieties. Described as “heady,” “intoxicating,” and “jasmine-like,” the sweet and spicy aroma of cloves entranced gardeners, florists, brides and their groomsmen who wore it on their lapels. But if mere beauty and fragrance don’t impress you, you can float the flowers in wine, have them on cake, and eat it too.

I was darkly delighted that the story of Dianthus begins with Diana the Huntress meeting a handsome shepherd in the field. She has a crush on him but he doesn’t reciprocate. So like any Roman goddess worth her salt, she tears out the man’s eyeballs, tosses them on the ground, and voila, carnations sprout!

 

Let’s grow ours from seed.

 

I’ve got to start this line up with the remarkable ‘Black Minstrels.’ This striking near-black and white beauty offers a high-contrast cut that may just be brilliant arranged with textural silver foliage. In an arrangement, you can go the pop art route by combining it with candy-colored blooms or fuse it with a moody mix of wine reds. If you’re not a fan of the white edge (called a picotee), see the impressionable ‘Grenadin King of Blacks’ for a solid option.

 

black minstrel carnation
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.RareSeeds.com)

 

I have a soft spot for beige and brown flowers right now, so the very retro ‘Stripes & Picotees’ mix interests me, offering primarily pink and cream blooms with 25% the rest. I really like the palette of ‘Chabaud Red and Yellow,’ which appears to have all the right peach, blush, and salmon tones to cheer 2017. For an even more refreshing option, look up ‘Chabaud Orange Sherbert.’

 

stripes and picotees chaubaud red and yellow carnation
Left: Thompson and Morgan presents 'Stripes & Picotees,' and Chaubaud 'Red & Yellow' (Photo, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds wwww.RareSeeds.com)

 

Another beautiful heirloom you can find seed for is ‘Enfant de Nice,’ sourced from a multigenerational farm in French countryside. The blooms are as romantic as where they come from, running a feminine palette from scarlet and salmon through rose, pink, and white, with some showing picotee and stripes.

 

But let’s talk about “Bizarres”, the legendary carnations of yore that had four inch blooms and were quite popular through the 1700s until 1830 or so when they fell out of favor and all but disappeared. The good news is I found one survivor for sale, and it’s the incredible purple and bright pink bicolour ‘Chomley Farran.’ This 300 year-old bloom proves carnations are capable of a lot more pop and pizzazz than most of us give them credit for.

Chomley Farran carnation
Annie's Annuals shows us the rare surviving Bizarre, 'Chomley Farran.'

Growing Sunflowers for Efficiency and Elegance

There’s hardly a flower that can hit you in the face with more happy, hi, nice to see ya! than a sunflower. And as far as cuts go, what a sad state the late summer cutting garden would be in without them.

As a garden companion, Helianthus annuus will not play well with others thanks to allellopathy, a biochemical process that sees sunflower roots telling other plants to go away. (You can make this mean streak work for you if you’ve got a patch of grass that needs clearing). Put sunflowers anywhere, I grow mine in nearly bare sand and never water them.

Those of you who make-do already know that sowing basic, black oil birdseed — the kind that comes in a 30kg bag — will grow perfectly cheery yellow sunflowers in the 3 to 7 foot range. Broadcast and rake seeds before a warm rain and thin afterwards. You’d be wise growing these in front of ugly things in your yard and as windbreaks for protecting wimpier plants on exposed sites.

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‘Evening Sun’ Helianthus competes with dahlias and amaranth for the title of most luxurious looking bloom.

As a cut flower for yourself and, especially for market, consider growing rare and colorful cultivars. Last season I grew ‘Evening Sun,’ and found its velvety red blooms rivaled the richness of dahlias and Amaranthus, if not completely stealing the show.

Should you have fancier seed, or a harder time with germination, don’t be afraid to sow in trays. They say sunflowers don’t transplant well, this isn’t quite true, just be sure to move them out early enough. I worked on one flower farm that saw thousands of greenhouse-born sunflower seedlings transplanted into the field during mid-morning heat. They fell over from fright, got spanked by a light frost, and still held their golden heads high come August.

You’d be on-trend in the 2017 season growing heirloom stock in ‘Italian White,’ ‘Autumn Beauty,’ and ‘Teddy Bear.’ The ‘Italian White’ is a real stunner, offering butter cream blooms with hints of lemon yellow and vanilla encircling warm brown centers, while ‘Autumn Beauty’ offers a trendy bicolor palette of terracotta, bronze, copper and faded pink. 

Italian white
Photo Credit: Thompson and Morgan Seeds
‘Italian White’ sunflowers are, dare I say, good enough for a wedding bouquet.


autumn beauty
Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange
'Autumn Beauty’ has all the right tones for trending floral designs this season.

New on the heirloom market is ‘Fantazja,’ an unusual Polish heirloom with some antique-looking elements. Fiber artists will appreciate the historical significance and indigo-violet coloring found on ‘Hopi Black Dye’ sunflowers.

As cut flower arrangements lean into more textural territory, sunflower seed heads sold well for me last year at fall markets (sans petals). For arts and crafts and a contemporary look, grow a white-seeded sunflower to play with in autumn, like the very chic ‘Tarahumara’ sunflower, which originated with the Northwest Mexican tribe proper and was then brought to Canada by Russian Mennonites. 

Come winter, save your seed heads whole before the birds get them, and dry them quickly. You can use them in wreaths, paint white seed heads with the kids, or pass some long winter hours like I did, meticulously gluing heirloom corn in their fascinating framework for hanging on the wall. You’d earn some serious crafting points using a white-seeded wreath of sunflowers combined with evergreens for Christmas decor that brings birds right to the door. 

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A gigantic ‘Arikara’ seedhead forms a framework for nature-based crafts, this time with ‘Glass Gem’ corn.