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Cutting It

The Post's garden editor, Adrian Higgins, takes a crack at planting an old-fashioned flower garden but finds it's no bed of roses

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page W34

In the good old days -- when the cobbled streets were powdered with horse dung, and the sewers ran freely, and no one had heard of roll-on deodorant -- you could repulse the horrors with a simple posy of flowers, wafted under the nose.

Imagine, a nosegay of lavender or tuberoses repelling a whole malodorous world, and transporting you to the garden where you picked them to boot. The same flower beds furnished the house: vases filled with English daisies and pinks in the spring; black-eyed Susans and zinnias in the summer; goldenrod and asters in the fall. Nothing too ostentatious, just a little bit of nature on the farm table to remind you of the paradise of the cottage garden.

The author's cut-flower arrangement
The author's cut-flower arrangement
The author's cut-flower arrangement: a study in purple, invention and desperation. (Welton Doby III)

Dream on.

Have you ever actually tried to grow flowers for cutting? It might be easier to unpluck a goose. I found an exercise that was supposed to be straightforward to be fraught with difficulties. Yet through a bit of guile and lowered expectations, I pulled off a bouquet that sufficed.

Even in near-defeat, the dogged gardener remains philosophical and optimistic. The most encouraging aspect of the project was in knowing that there is always another chance in gardening. Each spring, we learn a little more and the slate is wiped clean. This year, my friends, this year.

What is a cutting garden? At its simplest, it is a state of mind. Stroll the garden with a pair of pruners, see what's blooming and harvest it for the vase. Cut-flower fans in the country can go beyond their cottage gardens to harvest the fields and hedgerows, treasures such as Queen Anne's lace and joe-pye weed in summer, meadow grasses in the fall, and flowering quince at this time of year. This, to me, is the ideal way to gather a bouquet. If I've given any nod to the practice, it has been in allowing a few more coneflower seedlings to remain in a perennial bed -- and the planting of extra rose bushes in the spring, and jonquils and Darwin hybrid tulips in the fall.

By contrast, the classic cutting garden is a vegetable plot for flowers. The well-to-do had areas of their estates set aside for flower production, and gardeners would raise blooms for months on end: hyacinths and tulips in early spring, peonies and irises in late spring, lilies and summer annuals, and, later, asters, zinnias and chrysanthemums.

Few gardeners do this anymore, even on humbler properties and for themselves, in part because gardens have become smaller and shadier, and there is little room for flower farming. And yet, there is something about a cut flower that runs deep in the human psyche. When a toddler comes upon a Shasta daisy, what is the first thing she does? She smells it instinctively, and then she picks it. The flower's beauty speaks to us, and we want to bring it with us. We want to possess it.

Suzanne McIntire, a veteran cut-flower gardener, recalls her old rowhouse on Capitol Hill. In her book, An American Cutting Garden, she writes that "any city garden close to the street is a cutting garden, it just may not be the owner who does the cutting."

Later, she grew flowers in a community garden in Arlington, raising hollyhocks and lavatera and coreopsis where others might grow lettuce and radishes. "I always tell people to have a garden that looks more like a vegetable garden or a cottage garden than a border," she said recently. "And it's much easier to care for plants if the annuals and perennials are separated."

Annuals allow successive plantings. When one lot has finished flowering, yank it out, and sow or plant something else.

I made my cutting garden at a friend's place in Georgetown. My own established garden in Alexandria has few suitable areas for entirely fresh cultivation, but in the District, my friend has a secluded, walled area where I grow vegetables. I decided to try to grow flowers there as well. After all, raising flowers for the vase is much like raising lettuce or peas. You select a fresh bed; you turn it with a garden fork to break up the earth and pick out the established weeds; you add fresh amendments to enrich the depleted soil, turn them in, rake smooth, and sow your seeds. Water and wait. This modest toil converts tired, compacted ground into a dark, rich tabula rasa, brimming with fertility and potential. What could possibly go wrong?

In a week or two, I thought, the seeds would germinate, and I'd pluck out the odd weed and thin the prodigious seed-lings as they grew, giving each its own space for light, moisture and nutrients.

One nagging problem was the bed I had selected for the experiment: It was close to a high brick wall, and, though it got plenty of morning sunlight, I wondered if it would be too dark, especially as the season progressed. As a rule, cutting gardens need sunny locations, but assessing exact levels of light is tricky, especially in a garden that you don't know well. Full sun means, generally, six hours of direct sunlight, and anything less is measured in shade, from part to full. But the dappled shade of a high tree is not the same as the blanket of shade from a wall or a building. I thought that if my flowers leaned a little into the light, I could stake them.

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