Read about my experience in creating a cut flower garden from start to finish using dahlias and zinnias.
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Don’t you love fresh flowers? When someone brings you flowers, it’s the best thing in the world! Okay, that might be a bit exaggerated but a flower bouquet is still a pretty great thing. Especially when it’s right outside your door, just waiting to be picked.
Come with me and let’s explore the Garden of Aquarius. I’ll tell you what flowers I planted, where I planted, the problems I had, the changes I would make and then give you a final review of my experience. I hope you’ll read on and be inspired.
Create a theme and plan it
Last winter I was dreaming about my garden. I had a brand new garden journal and I was sketching out garden beds. I got outside and measured the dimensions and logged everything into my journal. (Read more about my gardening journal here). Here is what I realized, I needed a goal or theme because I wanted a cohesive look.
My goal was to have a garden that would produce flowers to cut and bring inside for flower arrangements. I wanted flowers that bloom all season long and didn’t require a lot of maintenance.
I envisioned tall flowers and a variety of different sized blooms. There was no particular color scheme, just a good variety of rich colors. I also wanted the flower garden to have a cottage garden type of appeal.
I did an enormous amount of Pinterest pinning with ideas that fell in line with my dream flower garden. (Check out my boards here). Then I researched the plants to see if they would get enough sun and how tall they would grow. Most importantly, would they grow here? Not everything grows in Florida, some things just shrivel up and die in the blistering heat.
The best flowers for cutting
After I knew what flowers I needed, I purchased seeds and bulbs. Some from a reputable online retailer that I love and I also bought some items at a big box store and a home improvement garden center. This was intentional as I wanted to see if I noticed a difference in quality for the price. All in the name of science and research.
Here is a list of the flowers that I had planted in the various garden beds: dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, echinacea, and wildflowers. These flowers all have lovely long stems that are great for using in different sized vases around the home. Also, cutting these flowers stimulates them to bloom again.
(For the purposes of this article I will concentrate on the beds of zinnias and dahlias. Please see my other post on my cosmos and wildflower garden.)
These plants were all prolific bloomers, except the echinacea. (This was expected as it was a first-year plant and they normally take two seasons before they bloom.) The only downside to these flowers is that none of them have a scent. This may be an upside to someone with sensitivities but I was just a little bummed about it.
The zinnias that I planted all came from seed and I planted four different colors: fuchsia, white, red, and yellow. Dahlia plants grow from tubers. If you are unfamiliar with what a tuber is, think of a potato. A potato is a tuber that grows underground and from which a plant grows. Same concept. I had 16 different varieties of dahlias planted, yeah, I went a little crazy. I do not regret it. The cosmos and wildflowers were all grown from seeds. The echinacea was grown from a root.
Preparing the flower beds
Let me start by giving you some motherly advice, please wear gardening gloves at this stage. You will get blisters, trust me on this one.
I started preparing the beds by outlining my bed’s shape with the shovel. I used it initially to mark out the beds by digging around the border and turning the soil over.
At this stage, I have my gardening journal in a zip-lock bag open to my page. This way you can hold it and look at it with your gloves on and keep it clean. I followed my sketch and measurements and began digging the edges of the beds. Just turn the dirt over once and after you’ve finished, stand back and evaluate. Sometimes things look great on paper, if it’s not working for you, now is the chance to change it.
Amend the soil
I have terrible soil. I wouldn’t even call it “soil”. The yard is comprised of construction grade sand. I wouldn’t even call it “sand”. It’s horrid. If you dig long enough and you will find lots of construction “relics” that someone couldn’t bother to clean up before putting down the sod. But I digress.
I dig it up anyway and add some nice things to make my sand fertile and hospitable for my seeds and tubers. I like to amend the soil with peat moss and garden soil. Garden soil is different than potting soil. Potting soil is for pots. Garden soil is for gardens, don’t interchange them if you want success.
Dig, dig, and dig some more
I added equal parts of each until I got a nice mix that looks like fertile earth. Anything is better than the sand, trust me. One thing about peat that bugs me is the smell. It smells like somebody else’s grandma’s house. Even now, in the middle of January, when I walk out there I can still smell it. The peat is important though, worth the smell.
Your soil may need something different if you aren’t starting with sand. Look up your local agricultural extension office for more information on this -specific to your area.
Dig, dig, dig. Mix it up, fold it in. I dug down about 12 inches to give a nice deep and healthy soil for my new plant’s roots. After you are done mixing the soil additives, start to smooth out the soil, even it and level it off with
I began doing this in February, it was pretty cold but our ground doesn’t freeze here so dig away! Then I let it rest until the last frost date passed. While the soil is resting, pluck any weeds that start to grow. Letting the soil rest isn’t necessary, I just got the prep done early in the season.
Know thy garden
While I waited for the temperature to rise, I paid attention to a few things in the garden. When the rain fell, I looked for standing water. If you see this, try to fix any drainage problems before you plant.
Another note you should make is where the sun falls and for how long. Between the six beds I have in the front of the house, they all get different hours of sunlight. I noticed a decrease in blooms in the beds that received less sunlight. Something to think about.
Time for the magic
My garden beds are irregularly shaped with rounded edges. They are not up against a wall and can be viewed from all sides. With this type of exposure, I planted the tallest plants in the center and smaller around the border.
I planted dinnerplate dahlias and most of them grew to about 3 foot tall. A few of these in the center spaced about a foot apart. Then I planted zinnias around them. The dahlias were tubers that I planted about 4-6 inches deep with the stem pointing up. The zinnias were sown directly into the soil from seed.
Our last frost is usually near the third week in February. I had the soil ready but time got away from me and I planted later than I had hoped. The dahlia tubers and the zinnia seeds all went into the dirt on April 8th.
The zinnias came up within a week as the soil was already warming up. The majority of the dahlias (14) all broke the soil on April 23rd. Two dahlias came up two days earlier on April 21st. It was pretty satisfying to have such fast germination.
Bloom where you are planted
As soon as your zinnia has a few sets of leaves it will send up a bud. Then it will branch and bloom again. My zinnias, despite aggressive cutting of blooms and deadheading regularly, grew to over 5 foot tall.
These zinnias were pretty fantastic. Tough plants that just don’t stop. I collected thousands of seeds. I can’t wait to see what new colors the mixed seeds will bring.
The dahlias were the belle of the ball. The dinner plate variety of dahlia promises “dinner plate” sized blooms. I never had a bloom larger than 7 inches, and that’s not a bad thing. These blooms were as big as my face. I had some smaller dahlia varieties as well and they were beautiful, but the dinner plate dahlias stole my heart.
Funnily enough, all but two of the dahlias bloomed on the same day. That’s 14 dahlias all bursting forth at the same time! I’m pretty sure everyone was sick of my social media pictures of my “babies”. I don’t even care, it was very exciting.
Online retailer vs. garden supercenter
Looking back at my start performing dahlias, I could not tell the difference in quality between the online retailer and the local garden superstore. The tubers at the garden center were almost half the price of the online retailer. They did not have a large variety available though. The online retailer had dozens of different dahlias to choose from. This year I will do half and half in the name of being frugal.
To give my plants a little happiness while trying to grow on amended construction grade sand, I fertilized. I had liquid fertilizer that I diluted in a watering can and fed them every two weeks during the blooming period.
I would recommend thinning out your zinnias once they start to look like a jungle. As fun as it was to see so many flowers attracting butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees, I was having trouble with fungal issues.
It took me a while to figure it out why a rust pattern was developing on the zinnia leaves. The dahlias were never affected even though they were practically holding hands with the zinnias. The problem seemed to be the lack of air flow between the plants allowing them to stay damp.
Once all of the plants broke the ground and were about a foot tall, I used mulch around the plants. This dramatically decreased the time I spent weeding the garden.
Pruning your plants
The zinnias are very forgiving of haphazard pruning methods. Even when a 4-year-old picks a flower, they don’t mind. When I cut the flowers to bring inside, I was cognizant to leave a good amount outside as well.
There really wasn’t a need to prune the dahlias. I will do something different this year and “top” or pinch the dahlias early in their growth. I did it on one dahlia as an experiment and loved the results.
To “top” the dahlia, wait for the plant to have 4 sets of leaves and then pinch off the growth tip at the base of the fourth set of leaves. This will force the plant to branch into two growth tips.
The plant that I pinched was the bushiest and bloomed three times as much as the other dahlias. This girl was pretty amazing in all of the great work she did. I will pinch all of my dahlias this year.
Now that your garden is blooming, grab your garden pruners and take a walk to survey your bounty! Cut a bunch of blooms for a vase and give a gentle shake before you go inside. Tree frogs love to sit inside the dahlias during their lunch breaks. Leave the critters outside.
Consider hanging up a hummingbird feeder in the garden. You will be amazed at the incredible number of butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees you will attract. I had a small seat where I would watch the wildlife enjoying the flowers. They became so used to me, they would fly past my face, grazing my nose.
This garden provided me with so much entertainment and joy. It truly was a labor of love. I was always out there, primping, plucking weeds, and admiring my work. It is very fulfilling to put a seed in the ground and turn it into something beautiful. My garden goal was to have fresh flowers every day and it was achieved.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about my garden. Be inspired to plant dahlias and zinnias in your garden this spring. If you would like to share in the Garden of Aquarius zinnias, they will be available in my Etsy shop. I will also have sections available soon specifically on dahlias.