Quick Cut Flowers
By: Joan Huyser-Honig
A riot of color. That's the rosy definition of my yard's unruly borders, where colorful annuals and self-seeded dill, parsley, and forget-me-not tumble together. "It's the cottage garden look," I kept telling my husband. "It's a mess," he repeated.
But when my mother-in-law retired, took up gardening, and in a few seasons transformed her yard into a floral Eden, I took stock. American landscaper T. H. Everett wrote, "The joy of being able to cut flowers freely, lavishly, to decorate the house and to give to friends, is an end that justifies a lot of gardening effort." My mother-in-law has that joy. My mess of flowers doesn't cut it.
So I polled floral experts across North America, looking for the best annual cut flowers. "I want flowers that are easy to grow and widely adapted with a long vase life," I told them. Though their cumulative choices topped six dozen, these eleven garnered top marks from California to Ontario.
Asters (Callistephus chinensis)
Vase life: 7 to 14 days. Easily grown and transplanted, asters reigned in the 1880s. But they don't bloom in six-packs for spring bedding plant sales, so marigolds and petunias have eclipsed them. Annual asters, also called China asters, flower in all colors but orange. They sport blooms 1- to 4-inches across on strong-stemmed plants 20- to 36-inches tall. Single-flowered types ('Single Marguerite', 'Single California Giant') look like multicolored daisies. Other China asters resemble pompons ('Giant Princess', 'Powderpuff') or peonies ('Opus'). No matter which shape you choose, one plant makes a bouquet.
Asters grow in all zones and flower from late July until hard frost, even in light shade and poor soil. Though most newer China asters are wilt resistant, you should change their location each year to prevent aster yellows, a disease that stunts plants and turns flowers a sickly chartreuse. Cut when flowers are half-open; recut stems underwater.
Celosia (C. argentea cristata, C. a. plumosa, C. a. spicata)
Vase life: 7 to 10 days. "Most celosias are easy to grow and look good both fresh and dried," says John Dole, assistant professor of floriculture at Oklahoma State University and co-chair of research for the Association of Specialty Cut Flowers. Skip dwarf bedding plants; you need celosias 20- to 40-inches tall for dramatic vertical accent in arrangements.
Cockscomb types (C. argentea cristata), such as 'Chief Mix', boast 6-inch, cauliflower-shaped heads in reds and golds. 'Century Mix' (C. a. plumosa), available in red, yellow, rose, and cream, is the number-one cutting favorite for Rosalind Creasy, landscape designer and author in Los Altos, California. "It has big, feathery, foot-long plumes. It's real easy to grow from seed and often self-seeds," she explains. Wheat celosia (C. a. spicata) is distinguished by long, narrow leaves and finger-length, wheatlike flower spikes in pink ('Flamingo Feather', 'Pink Candle') and white with red foliage ('Amazon').
Celosia flowers midsummer to frost. Cockscomb and plume types grow well in zones 2 to 11, if you keep the soil moist. Wheat types need long, warm summers (zone 6 and below) for optimum flowering, Dole says. Cut celosias when a quarter of the florets at the base are open. Dip stem ends in boiling water to extend vase life.