The approach of summer usually brings eager anticipation for the adventures to come. Less so this year. But even in these tumultuous times, we can linger in the sunshine and relish the abundance of nature — especially the flowers in full bloom from now through early fall.
To answer our budding questions on how to make the most of the season’s bounty, we tapped the founder of Floret, Erin Benzakein. Her organic flower farm in the Skagit Valley cultivates unique and heirloom blooms, and in February released its second book, “A Year in Flowers.” The farm will also be the subject of an upcoming documentary series, “Growing Floret,” on the Magnolia Network.
Here, she answers our questions about what to plant, when to harvest and how to arrange flowers for maximum impact (and longevity).
Q: When is the best time to plant flowers from seed to be enjoyed during summer?
A: Many of my favorite annual flowers are sown from seed indoors or in the greenhouse in March and then planted out in the garden after the last spring frost — typically late April. But if you haven’t started seeds yet, don’t worry! There are a number of flower varieties, such as zinnias and sunflowers, that you can still sow now and they’ll still have time to bloom later in the summer.
Q: Which flowers are best grown in full sun and thrive in our Northwest summers?
A: Dahlias, zinnias and cosmos. Dahlias come in a dazzling rainbow of colors and flower from midsummer until the first fall frost. I am a huge fan of ball-shaped dahlias, which have the longest vase life, hold up well in the heat, resist insect damage better than other types and transport very well.
As one of the easiest cut flowers to grow, zinnias are a perfect first crop for beginning growers and are reliable, prolific bloomers.
Of all the annual plants you can grow in your cutting garden, none is more productive than cosmos. The more you harvest them, the more they bloom. A single planting will produce buckets and buckets of daisy-like blooms for many months.
Q: What is some important basic advice you’d give to someone starting a flower cutting garden for the first time?
A: The adage “you get out of it what you put into it” most definitely applies to gardening. Amending your soil is an important investment in the future. For the past 10 years, we have grown flowers intensively on our property. With so much plant mass leaving our small plot, I know it is important to feed and build the soil back up each season. We grow using organic methods, so cover crops, compost, natural fertilizers, mulch and foliar treatments of compost tea are essential tools in our fertility regime.
It may take a few seasons to figure out what flowers grow well in your garden’s microclimate. Start with some of the tried-and-true varieties and mix in a few other flowers for fun. One of the great joys of gardening is learning and experimenting with what you can grow in your space.
Q: What are a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to bouquets?
A: Do use locally grown or seasonal flowers as much as possible. Even if you don’t have a garden, don’t let that stop you! Flowers from the farmers market or grocery store, and a few foraged bits, will work equally well. With a little practice and patience, you’ll get the hang of it in no time. In my book, “A Year in Flowers,” you’ll find a whole section devoted to sourcing local, seasonal blooms for your arrangements, including how to forage responsibly, shopping at your local wholesaler, buying directly from local farms and growing your own, even in the smallest of spaces.
Don’t underestimate the value of good foliage in a bouquet. While big, bold focal flowers are important to any bouquet design, what can make a bouquet really stand out is great foliage, along with unique textural elements and airy accents. I typically incorporate many different types of foliage in my bouquets. I start with sturdy, slightly arching stems in order to create the overall bouquet shape. Then I layer in supporting greens and vines, echoing the original shape of the bouquet. Three of my favorite foliage plants are bush honeysuckle, scented geranium and raspberry greens.
Q: Can you share a few tips on when it is best to cut flowers and how to keep them vibrant once in the vase?
A: Harvest your flowers in the coolest parts of the day. Early morning or in the evening are the best times to cut flowers and foliage because this is when they are the most hydrated. Blooms harvested during midday heat wilt faster and have a harder time bouncing back.
Use clean, sharp clippers. Rusty, dull flower clippers not only are frustrating to use, but they also can damage stems and reduce the vase life of your flowers. So be sure to invest in a pair of high-quality clippers.
Harvest flowers at the right stage of development. Each variety requires some special tricks, but a good rule is to cut flowers when they are between one-third to one-half open and before they’ve been pollinated. Once the bees get to your blooms, the flowers will fade much faster. For foliage, it’s important to wait until the stems are mature and firm. If picked too young, they won’t last long in the vase, often wilting immediately.
Q: Which summer flowers are your personal favorites?
A: Just as it would be impossible to pick a favorite child, I can’t possibly pick just one favorite flower! My answers vary and depend on what is in bloom at the moment. For example, sweet peas will always hold a special place in my heart, as they are the flower that really launched our business.
I also adore dahlias, and that is the flower we’re perhaps best known for — my next book (available in March 2021) is devoted exclusively to dahlias. Here on the farm, we just finished planting more than 8,600 dahlias in rainbow order in our main field. I’m excited to grow “Castle Drive,” “Valley Tawny,” “Honka Fragile” and “Eden Benary,” along with tried-and-true favorites such as “Appleblossom,” “Cafe au Lait” and “Peaches N’ Cream.”