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Cutting It

The pennisetum grass showed signs of growth, too, its roots taking hold -- and its tenacity gave me hope. The cosmos and nigella began to grow, but too slowly, too sporadically. These were no fast-sprouting lettuce or radishes. They were temperamental flowers, and I was beginning to resent them. Meanwhile, the birds came back for seconds of the sunflower seeds.

My pal Haynie, who with partner Tom Hamlin runs a display-garden nursery and restaurant called Buffalo Springs Herb Farm, told me what I was doing wrong. A lot of the flower seeds need warm soil to germinate and freedom from competing weeds when young. They are better planted in a greenhouse in April and transplanted as seedlings after frost, in May. Directly sown, "they're poor germinators, they don't consistently come up, and when they do get established, you're a whole month behind with blooms, and our season is short enough as it is."

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)

Haynie likes to grow gomphrena, an annual whose long-lasting flowers resemble red clover's, but he sets his out in his field in late May as started plants.

He does the same with strawflower and the tender salvia varieties Blue Bedder and Victoria, which blossom in late summer for weeks. To his rows of annuals, he adds an old-fashioned herb named mountain mint, a native perennial with fragrant bright-green leaves. "A wonderful filler for dried and fresh material," he said. His selections have an added benefit for gardeners in outer suburban and rural areas: deer don't favor them.

Back in the city, things were looking grim and I couldn't blame the deer. The cosmos was up but far from blooming; the nigella was filling in but saw its role as a foliage plant, and holes were forming where the galinsoga had been pulled.

Some serious late-summer intervention was called for. I bought some perennial pincushion plants, which don't thrive long-term in the heat of Washington, but fared well in the rich soil and part shade of my cutting bed. With a color scheme of purple and blue in mind, I also selected some chrysanthemums in shades of lilac. Finally, I moved a large, purple coleus from my other garden and carefully replanted and fed it -- and watched with fascination as it sent up attractive spikes of blue flowers.

At cutting time, the pincushion was between bloom cycles and the cosmos was two or three weeks from its main flush of flowering. However, and even with all the setbacks, I was able to amass an attractive bouquet that featured the grasses, coleus, chrysanthemums, cosmos and pincushion. It was not something to set before the king, but it achieved the essential role of the cut flower from the cottage garden, the capturing of one's own garden in a vase. There was an adequate sense of pride in the endeavor, even if the cosmos blooms were small and a little bug-eaten.

This year, the bed will be in a sunnier location. I shall amend and till the soil as I did last year, but then I'll wait. Wait for the weeds to germinate, and then hoe them repeatedly until their numbers are depleted. In May, I shall buy flats of gomphrena and strawflower and stick them in, and they will be ahead of the race with the galinsoga. I shall raise the cosmos and sunflowers in little cells in the greenhouse, and plant them only when they are big enough to ward off birds and slugs and weeds. I may try other varieties, including salvias and other plants that hail from south of the border, including Mexican cosmos and some dahlias.

I have caught the cut-flower bug. My little arrangement, feeble and hard won, was thrilling for a reason I didn't immediately grasp. Then I understood, and whenever I glanced its way, I thought: "There's a lot of me in that vase."

Adrian Higgins is The Post's garden editor. He will be fielding questions and comments about the Spring Home & Design Issue Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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