One of my guilty pleasures has been to keep a bouquet of fresh flowers on my dining room table. Every week I would poke through the grocery store’s display racks until I found the perfect choice —. Colorful, fragrant, full of unusual blooms and BIG. Always big. I'd head home and arrange them in an antique vase my mother gave me years ago. I loved those floral displays gracing my dining table; like I said, they were an extravagant, guilty pleasure. Then, I read an article about the environmental costs associated with my beloved bouquets. I was heartbroken, but after studying the issue, I knew that I had to break the grocery store bouquet habit.
In 2022, the cut flower industry here in the United States topped out at nearly 37 billion dollars. (By comparison, the 2021 craft beer industry was 27 billion dollars.) Within four years, the industry is expected to rise to 46 billion. Unfortunately, 80% of the industry flowers are currently shipped, usually by air, from largely unregulated overseas growers in Columbia, Ecuador, Kenya and the Netherlands.
While some international growers are beginning to use Integrated Pest Management on their floral crops, many do not. Instead, highly toxic and long-lasting synthetic pesticides are sprayed to kill insects. Though harmful pests are the target, a great many beneficial ones are also destroyed, adding to the worldwide decline of important pollinators. In addition to the destruction of pollinators, the poisonous chemicals eventually seep into waterways, polluting our water systems and contributing to illnesses in humans and wildlife. Finally, some of the pesticides continue to be present on blooms, even as they reach store shelves. (I think about all the times that I have encouraged my grandkids to “take a big sniff” and cringe inside.)
The distances that imported flowers travel to reach stores’ coolers have an enormous environmental impact. Stems coming from Columbia, South America for example, have to travel over 2,600 miles to reach us here in Columbia, Missouri. If they are Dutch grown, then they travel a minimum of 4,500 miles on refrigerated planes to refrigerated warehouses to refrigerated display coolers. These containment systems usually emit hydrofluorocarbons, which is a type of greenhouse gas estimated to be 9000 times stronger than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. One recent study by the EPA compared the environmental cost of 100 million roses (average Mother”s Day sales) to driving more than 22 million miles!
No matter where it originates, it’s impossible to deny the high cost I pay each time I put a grocery store bouquet in my shopping cart. The solution then, lies in having fresh flowers closer to home. One option is to shop locally grown stems. Our farmer’s market has several cut flower booths on the weekends, but unless you shop at the crack of dawn (which I no longer do!), the selection is, to put it kindly, limited. The second option is to grow my own cutting flowers and to learn how to put together my own gorgeous groupings.
For years, I was taught that a cutting garden needed to be relegated to the far back of the property. Because it would look ragged, it would be unattractive and not worthy of a prime flower garden spot. In the days of huge yards, that may have been a possibility, but for most people, giant yards are a thing of the past. Like many of you, our small, urban space has to house it all –native gardens, butterfly patches, hummingbird retreats, places for grandkids to play and space for our favorite summer food crops. In our yard, there simply is no “out of sight.” Instead, the idea of a cutting garden has to adapt to today's realities.
Since it can’t be hidden away on the back forty, my cutting garden will have to claim a sunny spot in the front of the yard, right outside my office window. I’ll plant the cutting flowers in a series of converted stock tanks. Using raised beds rather than in-ground beds allows me to better control the soil type and water levels. (Our quarry soil is primarily rock, clay and leftover fill dirt from construction. It’s great for pouring concrete but terrible for gardening!)
Because my space is limited, I’ll forego the typical row planting style and opt for a staggered pattern. Using a triangular pattern instead of a straight line makes the bed look fuller. It’s possible then to select stems for cutting from the middle and rear plants, leaving blooms in front to enjoy.
I will also have to be much more selective in the species I choose for my cutting garden. While I love to grow some of the more dramatic varieties—think gladiolus and iris — they are not great choices for a mini cutting garden like mine. Once a stem is cut on a single=stemmed flower, then there is an obvious hole in the planting. A better option is to use plants that are multi- stemmed, easy to grow, quick to rebloom and have a long vase life.
Here in the United States, garden centers tend to stock between 60 and 100 different species of annuals and perennials, giving consumers a huge range of choices. However, for one reason or another, many of those varieties are simply not good candidates for a small home cutting garden. To help you fill your urban cutting garden with an array of blooms from spring into fall, the experts at Embassy Landscape Group have compiled a list of the Best of the Best as well as some tips for designing beautiful bouquets. Join us next week as they share their secrets with us. See you then.