Flower Gardening 101
A garden filled with flowers will brighten up and enliven any landscape.
Flower gardens can turn an ordinary area into a colorful showcase or create a border that pops. Whether you choose an easy to manage perennial or a particularly touchy annual, growing flowers is a rewarding addition to any yard or landscape.
Selecting the right plants for your flower garden is often a matter of preference, but with so many species and varieties available it can be mind-boggling. Consider the following when designing a garden: hardiness, color, fragrance, height, time of bloom and size of plant. Do you want to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, or song birds? Or are you trying to create a work of beauty just for you?
It is also imperative to think about your growing space. Is it in full sun? Partial shade? Is your soil well-drained and loamy? Or will your plant roots have to fight through clay soil?
Once you have determined what you want in a flower and what kind of environment you can provide, buying flowers for your garden becomes fun. Check with your local garden store or the “Other Resources” listed below for information on specific flowers.
Tip: At Planet Natural we offer a wide selection of heirloom flower seeds that are sure to brighten any landscape. From amazing asters to unusual zinnias, we’ve got the one-of-a kind flowers you’re looking for!
There’s no problem finding plants that love full sun, but if you are looking for flowering plants that can handle partial or total shade consider these plants — primroses, hosta, astilbe and trollis (perennials) and impatiens, viola, pansies, begonias, coleus and fuchsia (annuals). Learn more about Gardening in the Shade here.
For plants that have pretty flowers and also double as herbs, consider catnip, thyme, chamomile, mint, rosemary, parsley, dill, and fennel for partially shaded areas and sweet woodruff, angelica, chervil, and sweet cicely for areas in full shade.
Perennial plants come back year after year, growing in stature and size until they reach maturity. Some perennials lose their vigor after 3-4 years and may need to be replaced. One advantage to perennial flowers — beyond the fact that they do not require replanting every year — is that they can be divided and planted throughout the garden.
Perennial flowering plants can be started from seed or purchased as starts in a variety of sizes.
Soil preparation is very important when growing perennials, because they will not be relocated. Perennials will likely require pruning and feeding. Also, consider how big the plant will be after a couple years and leave enough room for it to fill out.
An annual completes its life-cycle in one year, and must be replanted. However, if left to go to seed, many annual flowers will reseed themselves — you just don’t get to decide exactly where they’re planted. Some annuals are technically perennials (such as snapdragons) in areas with a year round growing season, but are treated as annuals in places that frost and freeze.
Unless you live in an area with a very long growing season, or you want to start seeds indoors, annuals are best purchased as starts that can be transplanted right into the garden.
As long as the soil is reasonably rich in nutrients, most annuals are not too picky about where they are planted.
Preparing the Soil
Whether planting perennials or annuals, preparing the soil in advance will help your plants flourish (see Building Healthy Soil). Annuals will probably be less choosey about where they live since they will only be around for about a year. However, the better the growing conditions, the better the plant will fare.
If you are starting with a bare or weedy spot of land, you’ll need to start at the beginning. Determine the area for your flower bed and start digging. Remove all surface weeds along with rocks and roots.
Next, dig some more — double dig that is. To double dig a garden bed, dig a trench the width of the garden to 2 shovel depths. Set the soil off to the side. Then, dig another trench next to the first one, dumping the soil into the first trench. Continue this process until the new garden space is completed. (Use the soil from the first trench to fill in the last trench.) For an added kick mix organic compost into the trenches as you refill them.
When starting plants from seed, be sure that your soil has been adequately prepared. Dig a small hole in the ground according to the directions on the seed packet (usually about twice the depth of the seed) and drop in a couple of seeds. Cover with soil and water gently, but thoroughly. Be sure to keep the soil moist as the seed sprouts. If you have trouble getting seeds to grow, check out “Why Seeds Won’t Grow.”
Many flowers are started in a greenhouse before moving to the garden. Whether you grow your own seedlings or purchase them from a garden store, be sure to harden them off first (see Hardening Off Isn’t Hard).
Next, dig a hole as deep as your seedling (including it’s root mass) and twice as wide. If your garden soil is mediocre, this is a great time to throw some compost or organic fertilizer into the hole. Loosen the root ball and place the seedling gently into the hole. Add enough soil or planting medium to fill in. Tamp the soil down gently and water thoroughly. Click on Transplanting Summer Flowers to learn more.
The first year, add about 2 inches of mulch right up to the plant crown to help retain moisture, keep weeds at bay and moderate soil temperatures. Each year add additional mulch without exceeding a depth of 2 inches. Read more about mulching here.
Water on average an inch per week the first year. Check the requirements for specific plants, as watering needs will vary depending on species and location. Deep, but less frequent watering encourages the plant to develop deeper roots, which will aid it in surviving drought conditions (or lackadaisical watering). An easy way to water perennials is to bury a soaker hose beneath the mulch. In the following years, perennials will require less water.
Perennials planted in good soil will not require much fertilization. Adding a good organic bloom fertilizer and some compost at the beginning of each growing season should be sufficient. Perennials grown in poor soil will benefit from occasional foliar applications of fertilizer — as always, read the instructions on the label for recommended application rates.
Note: Studies have shown that foliar fertilization can be 8-10 times more effective than soil drenching. Up to 90% of the nutrient solution can be found in the roots of a plant within one hour of foliar application.
Dividing plants is a great way to get new (free!) flowers for the garden, share plants with friends, or create more space. Dividing perennials is good for the health of the plant as well. The best time to divide flowers is early fall or early spring when the plant is dormant.
Before dividing a plant, prepare the garden soil by adding compost or an organic fertilizer.
Lift the plant you plan to divide, being careful not to damage the roots. Shake off loose soil gently and remove any dead material. Using your hands, a fork, a knife or a garden spade, separate the plants.
Throw the center of the clump into the compost pile if it is weak, woody or dead. Then divide the vigorous parts of the plant into 3-5 shoots each.
Dig a hole in the prepared soil and place the divided plant in the hole. Fill with soil and firmly tamp it down. Water thoroughly and continue watering deeply throughout the first growing season.
If dividing in the fall, add mulch after several frosts have past and the temperature of the soil drops.
Annual flowers require a bit more after plant care than established perennials. Water annuals about 1/2 to 1 inch per week, depending on rainfall. A rain gauge can help determine how much water your flowers are getting. To prevent fungal diseases, water in the early morning hours to give plants time to dry out during the day.
Use an organic plant food according to the directions on the label — too much fertilizer can burn flowers, while too little may lead to yellowing leaves and weak plants. Annuals will likely only need one or two fertilizer applications during the growing season, unless they are planted in containers where they will benefit from additional fertilization.
Apply 2-3 inches of organic mulch around the plants after they are planted. This will help conserve water, inhibit weeds and keep the soil cool. Mulch also looks nice! Shredded leaves, bark chips, compost, dry grass clippings, hulls, or pine needles can all be used as mulch. In the fall, mix the mulch into the soil to improve it.
Deadhead (pick, snip, prune, pinch, cut, etc. dying flowers) as needed. If the plant produces seeds it will “think” it’s job is done and stop producing flowers (see Removing Spent Flowers). Deadheading tricks the plant into growing more blooms. The only drawback of deadheading is that you are also removing the seeds. Some people prefer to leave spent flowers on the plant at the end of the growing season to encourage natural reseeding, others may collect and store seeds for the following year.
Caring For Cut Flowers
You may want to use some of your flowers for arrangements in the house. There are several techniques for keeping cut flowers that prolong their life — and enjoyment!
- Cut the stems under water to avoid letting air into the delicate plant cells. This can be done by cutting flowers in the garden, and immediately taking them inside to cut them again under a running faucet or in a bucket of water.
- Use a knife and cut the stem on an angle. This will open the veins and allow more water to be taken up. Scissors can seal off the stem by pushing the outside of the stem toward the middle.
- Immediately place the cut flowers in a clean vase filled with warm water. Remove all the leaves that are below the water line; they will quickly rot and pollute the water.
- Keep the vase in a cool spot for the first hour or two while the flowers recover from shock. Then display the arrangement away from cool or warm drafts and fruit (apples, for instance, emit ethylene gas — a hormone that promotes aging in flowers).
- Change the water in the vase daily to keep it fresh.