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For as long as I can remember, I have always loved flowers. They have the ability to communicate such a vast array of emotions: romantic love, friendship, self-love, remorse, condolences, celebration, and “just because.” The “just because” is my personal favorite, since we all need more beauty in our daily lives. There really is no greater joy than handing someone a bouquet of flowers that I grew and watching their face light up. I hope to share with you a few bits of concrete advice on how to get started growing healthy flowers in your own garden!
Knowing your location’s USDA hardiness zone is helpful, but alone does not provide enough information about when to plant and start your garden. Understanding when your area may experience freezing temperatures is an extremely important aspect of gardening. Tender annuals (such as zinnias, cosmos and sunflowers) cannot survive freezing temperatures, so knowing when it’s safe to plant them is extremely important. The Farmer’s Almanac provides average annual frost dates by zip code, with “last frost” being sometime in spring and “first frost” occurring in the fall. Tender annuals should only be planted after this last frost date.
Choosing a place for your garden is the first step in being a successful gardener. Good gardens have 6-8 hours of full sun per day, excellent drainage (puddles of water will cause a plant’s roots to rot), access to water for easy irrigation and good air circulation.
My ideal garden bed preparation for new garden beds follows these steps:
- Cover the new garden bed with a silage tarp (a heavy plastic black tarp which kills weeds and grass) for several months.
- Rototill until the soil is smooth and loose.
- Cover with the silage tarp again for several weeks to suffocate new weed growth (new weeds are stirred up by a rototiller).
- Plant immediately after removing the silage tarp. You can skip this step, but be prepared for a little extra weeding.
- Other great garden bed options included no-till gardening (also called lasagne gardening) or building raised beds or garden boxes.
Why use the word “soil” instead of “dirt”? Soil is alive, while dirt is dead. Soil is made of living organisms, bacteria, worms, minerals, air, moisture, and the decaying bodies and waste of living organisms. Testing the soil is the perfect way to understand what you’re working with. Soil test kits are offered through each state’s agricultural Cooperative Extension Service office (often for free!) or are available for purchase online through private laboratories. The most important pieces of information you need to know from the soil test are (1) the pH of your soil and (2) the levels of available nutrients. Good soils are mostly neutral, with a pH of about 6.0–7.0. The soil test will make recommendations on what to add to make your soil more balanced and healthy.
While each flower variety is unique, I put them into two general categories when it comes to the number of flowers per plant: repeat bloomers and one-stem bloomers. Like the name implies, repeat bloomers grow multiple stems and flowers per plant. They often bloom for months on end and the more you cut them, the more flowers they produce. One-stem bloomers, on the other hand, produce just one stem of flowers per plant. Because my goal is to grow more flowers as efficiently and abundantly as possible, most of my space is dedicated to repeat bloomers.
My favorite repeat bloomers: Zinnia, Cosmos, Poppy, Gomphrena, Queen Anne’s Lace, Snapdragon, Ranunculus, Anemone, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Not, Feverfew, Delphinium, Dahlia, Celosia (spike varieties), Ageratum, Dianthus, Scabiosa, Sweet Pea, Phlox.
Succession planting is when you plant the same crop multiple times throughout the season, staggering the times at which you plant. This allows you to enjoy a larger variety of flowers for a longer period of time. You can plant a smaller quantity of plants several times throughout the season, which leads to less deadheading and healthier flowers.
If your goal is to grow flowers AND create beautiful garden bouquets, plan ahead to have the proper mix of flowers blooming to make balanced arrangements. Here are my general categories to create balanced bouquets: focal flowers, greenery, filler, spikes, round and whimsy.
Seed starting and planting has a reputation for being complicated and tricky, but the truth is that plants want to grow! Seeds want to germinate and grow into flowers. It’s up to us to provide the right conditions and then nature will do what it’s meant to do.
Fill a tray with soil, making sure every single cell is full. Water the trays well with a watering can before adding seeds. Place one seed per cell. After the tray is full of seeds, sprinkle vermiculite or more seed starting mix on top. Gently smooth it over so the seed is covered with about a quarter-inch of soil. Erring on the side of the soil being a tiny bit dry is much better than overwatering.
To acclimatize the seedlings in preparation for planting into the garden, move the trays of seedlings into a sheltered spot outdoors for a few hours on the first day. Gradually increase the number of hours they are outdoors each day, paying special attention to heavy rain and wind. After about 5 days, the seedlings are ready for transplanting. Gently guide the seedling out of the plug tray and use a trowel (or a butter knife, my favorite planting tool) to open up a small hole in the soil. Use your fingers to gently press around the seedling so there is good contact between the seedling and the soil. Don’t plant in the heat of the day because delicate seedlings can dry out very quickly and water immediately after planting; keep them watered well for the first couple of days if there is no rain.
Once your garden is planted, there is so much joy ahead! Surprisingly, garden maintenance such as weeding, watering and harvesting, can be some of the most joyful aspects of gardening. Growing flowers will be a lifelong labor of love, with each season bringing different challenges, successes, and lessons; taking good notes throughout the garden season helps keep a record of successes and lessons learned. Part of what I love about gardening and flower farming is that it’s never boring! Thank goodness each new season provides a clean slate to begin again, to try new things, and to experiment with growing new flowers.