Tips for harvesting your garden flowers for the best vase life
It’s September! Bins of pumpkins are appearing in front of the grocery stores, but here in Monterey, it’s peak summer bloom time. The farm is a-flower with dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, scabiosa, marigolds, and sunflowers—and maybe your garden is too! There’s no better time to head outside and cut some flowers as a gift or for your own table.
But maybe you’re nervous to start snipping away at your beautiful beds. Or maybe you’ve tried, and your flowers wilted. Read on to learn how to cut garden flowers for lots of blooms and the best possible vase life.
It all starts with clean buckets
Your flowers need to keep drinking after you cut them if you want them to keep looking their best, and in order to do that, they need clean water. Bacteria and other gunk (a highly technical term for dirt, sap, etc.) can clog up their stems. So before you go out to harvest flowers, make sure you wash your buckets or jars until you’d feel comfortable drinking out of them.
If you plan to cut lots of flowers often, it might be worth picking up some CVBN tablets. These slow-release chlorine tabs keep bacteria at bay and are especially helpful with certain flowers like calendula, daffodils, marigolds, snapdragons, dahlias, and sunflowers, which make the water in a vase dirty faster.
But there’s no need to buy specialized products; you’ll do just fine with fresh, clean water.
Not too hot, not too cold
This one’s simple: in most cases, the water in your bucket should feel slightly cool to the touch. Warm water will encourage flowers to open faster (which you might want to do sometimes if you have a dinner party coming and your roses are still buds, but it’s not the way to prolong vase life).
Use the right tools
You want to give the stems a clean cut, not crush or bruise them. To do that, make sure you use sharp scissors. Even better, make the small investment in floral ‘snips’—they’re much more precise, with nice pointy ends, and designed for cutting plants.
It’s important to also have a pair of pruning shears on hand for flowers with thick, sturdy stems, like sunflowers, snapdragons, and stock.
Whatever you use, cut the stems at an angle so that they don’t rest flat on the bottom of the vase, which makes it harder for them to drink.
Cut early in the morning or later in the evening
Plants get stressed during the day when the sun is beating down on them (I sympathize!), and if you cut the flowers from a dehydrated plant, they’ll tend to wilt.
Here in Monterey, we have it pretty easy – you can cut anytime on a cool, foggy day! But when the sky is clear, make sure you cut your flowers before the sun hits them. Keep your bucket in the shade, and get those stems into water as quickly as possible.
You can also cut flowers in the evening, but make sure you wait long enough that the plants have had a chance to recover and rehydrate.
Yes, it’s really ok to harvest your garden flowers and bring them inside!
I recognize that there can be an emotional hurdle to cutting your garden flowers. They look so pretty out there! But let me talk through it with you.
You’ve no doubt seen the phrase ‘deadhead to promote continued bloom.’ That’s because once a plant sets seeds, it has no more motivation to bloom and will stop growing flowers. So if you cut off the spent flowers before they go to seed, it will continue to bloom.
Here’s the thing: you can achieve the same result by cutting the flowers before they’re spent. That way, you get to enjoy flowers inside, and the plant starts growing more sooner. When you’re picking them for yourself, you can wait until they’re fully mature on the plant, which means there will still be plenty of gorgeous blooms in the garden, too.
Note that this only applies to ‘cut and come again’ varieties. Some, like stock or flowering cabbage, won’t grow another stalk once you cut them. But plenty of beautiful flowers that you’re probably growing in your garden will keep on putting out more blooms the more you harvest them. Some of the most familiar of these include zinnias, cosmos, calendula, dahlias, marigolds, and snapdragons.
When you bring these flowers inside, you get to enjoy a beautiful display in your garden and also appreciate them from up close when you can’t be outside. It’s a win-win!
A helpful trick to make sure they’re ‘ripe’
Just like fruit and veggies, your garden flowers should be mature before you cut them if you want them to look their best and last the longest in a vase. For your own use, you can cut them when they look how you want them—fully open, but without any fading or wilted petals.
But beware! Sometimes, a flower will look like it’s ready to be cut before it really is. Zinnias are the classic example, but this trick applies equally to rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), windflowers, Mexican sunflowers, ageratum, and plenty of other flowers.
To test the maturity of a flower, gently grasp the stem between your thumb and index finger about 6 inches below the bloom and give it a wiggle. If the stem flops around, wait! If you cut it now, it will wilt. If the stem remains basically straight and waves back and forth instead, it’s ready to harvest.
Cut low on the stem
Have you ever wondered how bouquets from a florist or farmers market have such long stems? It’s because the flowers are cut WAY down at the bottom.
Here’s how to cut branching flowers (all those cut-and-come-again varieties I mentioned) to encourage more and longer stems. Follow the stem of the flower you want down to the very bottom, then look for the first pair of leaves and carefully cut right above them. A new shoot will grow on either side of the stem from the nodes above the leaves.
Note that this will almost certainly mean cutting off some other buds. That’s ok! You can do it! Not only will you get a longer stem on this flower right now, but the new shoots will grow from further down on the plant, resulting in sturdier, longer stems the next time, too.
If some of the shoots have already developed blooms, you can certainly snip those off and use them. And as a bonus, some flowers make outstanding foliage at the bud stage. Unopened calendula and zinnia buds, for example, look amazing as greenery in a vase and last forever, even though they won’t open.
For non-branching flowers (such as ranunculus, tulips, anemones, and alliums), you can cut right down to the dirt for the longest possible stem.
Strip off the leaves
Right after you cut the flower, remove (strip) off all but a few of the top leaves. You can usually do this by running a hand down the stem—make sure to wear gloves if you don’t want your hands to be permanently green, like mine are.
Stripping the leaves accomplishes a few things: it prevents them from rotting in the water and encouraging bacterial growth, reduces the hydration needed from a stem that no longer has roots, makes it much easier to slip the stem into arrangements or bouquets, and just looks neater and more professional.
Give the flowers time to drink
With garden-fresh produce, the quicker you can get your strawberry or tomato from plant to mouth, the better.
>>This is probably the number-one place where people go wrong when cutting flowers.
Flowers are a little different. If they don’t have time to sit quietly and rehydrate before you start arranging them, many will wilt and never recover. So make sure to cut your flowers a minimum of 4 hours before you want to use them.
Store them in a cool, dark place for the longest vase life. Florists use a cooler, plenty of people use a spare room in their climate-controlled house; I use my crawlspace (/basement). I often harvest in the evening and arrange in the morning, or vice versa.
Forage for unique additions (in your garden and beyond)
One of the greatest things about cutting your own flowers is that you’re not limited to the standard varieties you can buy. I love to add texture and sparkle with unexpected additions like grasses, seed heads, and herbs of all kinds. You can even use fruiting branches! (I usually don’t, because there’s never enough fruit at my house).
Take a stroll around your own garden and see what you can find—the sky’s the limit! Beyond your garden, just make sure to forage responsibly. I stick to invasive species for foliage, and for grasses, I always leave plenty to spread their seeds.
That’s it! Now go harvest some flowers.
And if you come in from your garden with a bucketful of blooms and aren’t quite sure what to do with them, check out my free guide to floral arranging for a step-by-step method to get those beautiful flowers into a vase you can proudly enjoy or share.
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