by Blas Espinosa, Naturalist, St. Catherine’s Montessori
Flowers can have a big place at the table and in the garden. For me, growing flowers at first was a little intimidating, but once I tried, I soon realized they’re just as easy as growing carrots. In fact, one common cut flower, Amni, is a cousin of the Carrot, and is grown exactly the same.
Although there are plenty of similarities between vegetables and flowers, there are some things that are unique on flower farms like horizontal trellises, toxic plants that are harmful if eaten, and buying trays of plugs (little transplants) that are especially hard to germinate and grow, like Lisianthus. For the backyard garden, these issues can easily be avoided, or adjusted to fit your context. Living in zone 9 means cut flowers all year long, so here’s some basic information on growing annual warm-weather and cool-weather flowers in Houston.
Early Spring/Summer: February-August
Warm weather flowers are probably the easiest flowers to grow here. Zinnias are what I would suggest as a great flower to grow for folks starting out. They are fast growers, heavy producers, only get about 4 feet tall, and can take a fair amount of stress. I plant them just like I plant bush beans, in rows, with about 6-10 inch spacing, depending on how big or dense I want to grow them. They are prone to powdery mildew, so get varieties that are disease resistant, and be careful with planting them too dense. Sunflowers are just as easy to grow, but they can get the size of a small tree, so be aware of which variety you grow. There are lots of hybrid, one-cut varieties of sunflowers that won’t get as tall, but will only produce one flower per plant. Amaranth is another heat-loving big plant that is a common cut flower. Cosmos, Celosia, and Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower) are more easy flowers to grow in the heat. Different varieties of Basils are also great for cut flowers, and can add a great waft of fragrance to a bouquet. Cinnamon and Mrs. Burn’s Lemon basil are common varieties grown for their flowers. My favorite is called Blue Spice which smells like pink bubblegum. When growing cut flowers, be sure to harvest frequently, just like vegetables, in order to encourage the plant to produce more blooms.
Early Fall/Winter: September-January
Like I mentioned, planting cool-weather flowers is a lot like planting carrots. A lot of these seeds are very tiny, so they need some light to grow, may need some thinning, and can take our winters without any protection. November is a great time to plant these and if we get a short freeze in December/January, they will be alright, even as little seedlings. There are many seed companies out there with different flower mixes, and they will all probably work as long as they have cool-weather flowers like Nigella, Centaura, Snapdragons, Larkspur, Dianthus, Amni, Stock, and Poppies. This is also the time to plant lots of our native wildflowers from seed. Once the weather has cooled down in late fall, prepare a bed of nice, loose soil, water thoroughly, sprinkle the seeds on top of the bed, then water them in with a gentle shower spray. It helps to plant them in a bed with minimal weed pressure, or at least know what the weeds look like in their seedling stage, because most of the fall and winter will involve pricking out weeds that pop up around the little flower seedlings before they establish a full canopy. Keep the bed watered like you would any other annual vegetable bed. Once the weather starts warming up in the spring, they will start growing a lot faster, and will start blooming around March – May. These are flowers that prefer cool weather so they can also be planted in our early spring like in February, especially from transplants, to get another succession of flowers. They will live on until it gets hot around June, which you can then replace with more warm-weather flowers.
There are lots of perennial bulbs, shrubs, and trees that are great for cut flowers as well, but that is another topic. There are plenty of local nurseries that have these for sale in the fall and spring, and huge plant sales like the Garden Club of Houston’s annual Bulb Mart every October, and the Houston Arboretum’s Fall and Spring Sales.
Whether you do or don’t grow flowers, make sure to support your local Flower Farmer when you buy them. Local Flora, Addy’s Flower Farm, and Animal Farm sell flowers every weekend at our Saturday Farmers Market.
For more information on growing flowers, here are some helpful resources to look into:
A Gardener’s Guide to Growing Bulbs on the Gulf Coast by Sally Mcqueen Squire (found at Southwest Fertilizer)