The Kindest Cut 

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Have you noticed that the cost of nearly everything is increasing these days? With the price of gas and groceries on the rise, many of us have started tightening our budgets and cutting out some indulgences. I make myself walk past the $4 organic chocolate bars and find myself shopping a bit more prudently in the wine section. Potential recession aside, I am stoked for summer, knowing that an affordable luxury awaits me: fabulous cut flowers.

Growing your own flowers is easy,   and the joy of having flowers to liberally and unabashedly cut at will is truly a delight. Having flowers for your home is a treat, but sharing the bounty of your garden with others is what really makes growing them fun. All you need is a sunny spot for a few easy annuals that can give you loads of cuts from a relatively small space. But the more space you have, the more flowers you can cut, arrange, enjoy and give away.

At the farmers' market, people cannot get over our zinnias,  just about the easiest flowers to grow. The seed pops up in as little as four days after it's planted (once May has hit and the earth has warmed). The secret is to grow the right variety: Benary's Giant, with its big flower size, bold color and good stem length for cutting, is the one you want. The more you cut, the more flowers you'll have, so don't be timid. Whack away, making good, deep cuts into your plants to keep them flushing out new stems all summer.

Nancy Hugo, the gardening queen of Virginia and flower grower extraordinaire, loves ageratum Blue Horizon for its sublime color, a periwinkle blue that looks great with everything.  "It's a must-have for the summer cutting garden, along with anything chartreuse," says Hugo.

Green flowers have been all the rage recently.  There is a good lime zinnia in the Benary's Giant series, but our favorite green flower is the inflated seed pod of Gomphocarpus physocarpus. This cousin of our native asclepias, the organge butterfly weed you see blooming alongside the road in late spring, Gomphocarpus physocarpus grows much taller and has dainty white flowers that develop into wildly inflated seed pods with soft spines. These pods resemble -- hmm, how shall I say it? — monkey balls.  Yes, this is the name that florists use.

Another tall beauty for the garden is celosia. Most folks think celosias are short little bedding plants because this is typically what the run-of-the-mill big-box home store carries. Tall celosias, however,  are a much better choice; with bright spikes or globular crests, they provide drama in the garden and are great for cutting. The varieties Pampas Plume, Forest Fire and Cramer's Amazon will provide lots of bright, spiky cuts for arrangements; the crested varieties can be used fresh or dried.

All of these are easily started from seed. Johnny's Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com) carries all of the varieties I've mentioned, but you may also be able to find the plants at Maymont's Herbs Galore and More or the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden spring plant sale, or at local farmers' markets and good garden centers.

Late April or early May is a fine time to get your cutting garden established; the plants should flower from June to late summer.  Just imagine: taking a step outside on a calm summer's evening to gather armfuls of beautiful blooms.

Amy Hicks started Amy's Garden, a certified organic farm, in 1995. Along with husband George Ferguson, she sells specialty produce and cut flowers at local farmers' markets.



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