Plant a bouquet in your backyard with help from Oregon flower growers

Greg Stevens

After a rare April storm smothered Oregon with snow Monday, Portland flower hobbyist Kishra Ott was called to rescue lilacs shaken from a toppled century-old tree.

She filled floral buckets with the deep purple blooms, returned to her home and made bouquets, which she later delivered to the tree owner, the worker who hauled away fallen branches and a dozen friends.

Rain or shine, flower fans are ready to bundle up blossoms and bring them indoors.

As with live houseplants, interest in growing flowers and foliage to use in floral arrangements rose during the COVID-19 era, as people cooped up at home sought ways to bring nature’s beauty indoors.

Even longtime veggie gardeners are discovering that flowers are pretty and provide pollinator and nectar sources “for their pea patches,” says Debra Prinzing, the Seattle-based founder of the online Slow Flowers directory to help customers find local cut-flower farms.

She declares: The divide between home gardening and floristry is disappearing,

Over the last few years, flower dabblers turned serious, craving sentimental varieties and fragrances not found in most store-bought bouquets, and Oregon flower farms started offering workshops and selling starter plants of unique cultivars.

“With COVID, our farm stand became a place people could gather outside and have an activity picking flowers,” says Bethany Little of Charles Little & Company in Eugene, adding with a laugh, “after 30 years of being here, a lot more people started finding us.”

This spring, Charles Little & Company is offering a monthly Harvest & Design class that includes a walk through the fields and Jen Healy of J&B Garden Center in Albany is teaching, in-person and online, about bouquet-worthy flower selection, ways to grow longer stems and succession planting to harvest blooms over time.

As a gardener, landscaper and florist, Healy doesn’t ignore greenery of any kind. She incorporates foliage from shrubs, persimmon branches, tomato vines, berries and seed pods in her bountiful bouquets.

“You want to add surprises,” she says, pointing to an arrangement with strawberry vines, asparagus foliage and ‘Kent Beauty’ oregano.

A single fragrant rose, however, has the power to “remind you of the joys and comfort of your grandma’s yard,” she says.

Architect Sarah Cantine of Northeast Portland was a home vegetable grower who didn’t understand the appeal of raising flowers. Then 19 gray winters ago, she noticed a man at her office poring over David Austin Roses catalogs and dreaming of a colorful summer garden.

Cantine was captivated. After planting a rose bush, she shifted her thinking from, “Who would grow flowers if you can’t eat them?” to later eyeing her vegetable garden and saying, “This is over.”

Now, she mingles raspberries with roses, and presents fresh cut bundles of zinnias, lilies and Daphnes to people she visits. The birthday tradition among her friends is to bring mini homegrown flower arrangements to decorate a restaurant table.

Cutting gardens create surplus to be shared, says architect Sarah Cantine of Northeast PortlandSarah Cantine

Cantine has learned the benefits of cutting gardens to create flowers to display:

  • The more you prune roses and some other plants, the more they will flower.
  • A cutting garden doesn’t need a lot of space. Flowers can grow in containers on a patio or deck.
  • A cutting garden, like a vegetable garden, can be messy and will perform while the rest of the yard is getting an upgrade.
  • Flowering plants create habitat for wildlife.
  • Homegrown cut flowers are inexpensive to give as gifts, especially if the vase is a repurposed pickle jar or secondhand.
  • Flower arrangements can be personalized, selected to represent someone’s favorite color or be scent-free for people with allergies.
  • A bouquet is an ice breaker to talk about what’s happening in a garden

“Portlanders are seasonalists and they want to know what’s blooming,” says Cantine. “I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like getting flowers.”

Ott, the lilac saver, has a day job as a real estate broker but for 20 years, she’s also been tending to her home gardens near Southwest Portland’s Tryon Creek.

Here, she raises heirloom and old garden roses, varieties of peonies and other flowering plants along with lady’s-mantle and lamb’s-ear.

Kishra Ott of Portland makes May Day bouquet, tucked in a cone made of a paper doily and tied with a ribbon, to hang on friends’ front doors.

Kishra Ott of Portland makes May Day bouquet, tucked in a cone made of a paper doily and tied with a ribbon, to hang on friends’ front doors.Kishra Ott

Coming soon: Deliveries of May Day bouquets, a May 1st tradition. As a child, she and her sister made tiny bundles, tucked in a cone made of a paper doily and tied with a ribbon, that they hung on neighbors’ front doors.

This year, Ott hopes to harvest early roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, wild geranium, clematis tendrils and English bluebells. Parrot tulips may also be blooming in time. “You can make a bouquet out of anything,” she says, but she saves mint shoot blooms for the bees.

She says her mother started the family’s May Day tradition, but Ott’s knowledge and love of gardening came from her father, whom she calls a self-taught “cutting garden master.”

He designed his garden to produce fresh arrangements all year, she says. He planted specific greenery like sword ferns, as well as hydrangeas, peonies and roses. Throughout the seasons, vinca, camellias, tulips and daffodils took their turn.

Also filling vases were branches from blossoming dogwood, cherry and apple trees.

Ott maintains a row of heirloom roses, chosen for their color, fragrance or number of petals, growing along the front of her property to encourage passersby to stop and smell the roses.

Neighbors sometimes ask for cuttings, but the best scene, she says, is witnessing a child pick a flower to give to someone. “It’s so pure and touching,” she says. “It’s the unexpected creativity that surprises.”

Bethany Little fell in love with her husband-to-be, Charles Little, in a field of larkspur he was growing. That was almost 30 years ago and since then, their Eugene flower farm is where people come with a picnic, purchase a bouquet or pick up flowers to take home where they can watch something mature in slow motion.

“Tulips open and open until the last day you bump the table and they all shatter,” says Little.

Each of her classes spotlights 10 flowers that can be harvested to dry or display freshly cut. “We pull back the veil on what varieties we and other professionals grow and why these are successful here,” says Little, who creates helpful Instagram videos on protecting ranunculus with a frost cloth, making dried flower wreaths and creating a bouquet.

Class participants also learn sustainable flower arranging techniques and that “tending a garden is nourishing,” she says. “It’s a beautiful space to slow down at the end of the day, touch the soil, put in plants and pull weeds.”

Little says there was a generation that didn’t get to experience where food and flowers come from. Now, people are interested in growing, she says, “they want to be part of it.”

Flower farmer Jen Healy of J&B Garden Center in Albany not only encourages the grow-your-own-bouquet movement, she’s showing people effective ways to incorporate cut flower gardens that produce less foliage and more blooms, to home landscapes.

In her classes, she explains how to plant flowers like dahlias and zinnias close together to force stems to reach higher for sunlight. And she shows a layout where snapdragons, sunflowers, dahlia tubers, celosia, cosmos, sweet peas can share a 25-foot-square plot.

She recommends reading “Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms” by farmer-florist Erin Benzakein of Floret Farm, a heirloom flower and seed company in Mount Vernon, Washington.

But Healy’s best advice: Don’t get overwhelmed by information. Just have good soil and starter fertilizer, and plant different varieties that you and pollinators like.

Portland Nursery garden department manager Katie Frey tells hesitant beginners to pick one flower, talk to experienced growers and learn from mistakes.

“Even seasoned gardeners see growing as an experiment,” says Frey, who offers more flower advice on the nursery’s podcast, “It’s All Cut and Dried.”

Frey’s preferred flowers to grow in a garden and display in a home are also good for birds and pollinators.

Dahlias and early season sweet peas bloom in colors to please everyone. Sunflowers can steal the show when it’s hot, and if you let them go to seed, the seed can sprout. Bright blue Nigella also self-seeds.

Portland Nursery offers these tips to harvest a flower garden:

  • Cut flowers early in the morning, when they are at their maximum hydration and will last longer in an arrangement.
  • Flowers with multiple buds should be cut with at least one bud beginning to open. Cut single stem flowers when they are fully open.
  • Put cut stems immediately into water. Leaving them open to air allows damage to the vascular tissue, which affects water absorption.
  • Use a clean vase to prevent bacteria and fungus from killing the flowers, and add flower preservative.
  • To extend vitality, add fresh water daily, re-cut flowers stems (1/4 inch to 1 inch) to open up new vascular tissue and remove the leaves below the water line.
  • Placing cut flowers in lukewarm water (110℉) then moving to a cool location for an hour or two is called “hardening” and allows for maximum water uptake and life for your cut flowers.
  • Keep cut flowers away from heat sources such as direct sunlight, heating vents, and appliances.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

More stories on flower gardens:

• Paint your garden: Portland artist has a colorful idea for flower lovers

• Sketch your garden: Finding ‘stillness and clarity’ during the coronavirus shutdown

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