Growing a Cut Flower Garden

A slew of research and attention has been given to peonies in recent years, but research on growing other cut flowers in Alaska has been limited in the last decade. To get an idea of which cut flowers are growing well in Fairbanks in recent years, I asked a few farmers about their go-to cut flowers for creating unique, locally grown bouquets. 

Caitlyn Huff with Arctic Blooms and Bouquets has loved flowers since she was a girl, but got into the flower farming business when she moved into a house in Fairbanks with 600 peonies. She grows flowers and arranges bouquets for weddings, the farmers market, a CSA, and bazaars (as dried flower arrangements). She loves the beauty and joy they bring people. 

buckets of dahlias and zinnias in a market display

She uses caterpillar tunnels to give her flowers a three-week jump start in the spring, and to give some heat-loving flowers (e.g. cosmos, zinnias, amaranth and celosia) an extra boost. Recently, she has started growing tulips which can be hit or miss in Fairbanks.

Dialing in bloom times for some flowers like dahlias has been a challenge — because it varies by type and with the growing season. She said establishing perennials has also taken some work. Cyndie Warbelow gives some excellent advice for perennial flower gardeners in Fairbanks: Northern Garden Symphony: Combining Hardy Perennials for Blooms All Season.

boquet of peonies, zinnias, delphiniums
A mixed flower bouquet featuring peonies, delphiniums, snap dragons, zinnias, marigolds, and dianthus. Photo by Krista Heeringa.

Megan Schulze at Frontieress Farm likes to grow vegetables and flowers. She offers a flower subscription, sells flowers at the farmers market, and makes beautiful wreaths with dried flowers. She grows flowers as a way to express her creative side and feed the soul. She grows flowers “For celebration, commemoration, acts of love, healing, or pure pleasure, flowers express emotion when words falter and cultivate positive connections to each other and nature.” Megan also likes to incorporate foliage from the surrounding boreal forest to make the bouquets feel wild and unique. She shows off her farm in this video.

Krista Heeringa at Far North Flowers is a peony farmer (and also my sister!) with her husband, Nate, but also offers mixed flower bouquets, featuring peonies, for a Community Shared Agriculture Program that now has 50 members. Some of her favorite flowers are snapdragons because they cut and come again, bachelor buttons because their super bright blue color contrasts with the peonies, and salvia it’s hardy, and has a long bloom time and vase life. She says her customers like flowers they can dry such as paper daisies or strawflowers.

If you’d like to grow your own cut flower garden, here are some recommendations for getting started.

Best showstopper/centerpiece flowers
Asters, Chinese

Best texture/filler flowers or foliage
Bells of Ireland
Cosmos (a bonus, as sometimes they do not have many blooms)
Dusty miller
Raspberry leaf
Queen Anne’s Lace

Flowers that hold up in the vase the longest
Anemones (keep growing after they’re cut)
Ranunculus (keep growing after they’re cut)

Flowers that don’t last long in the vase
Sweet peas

Best perennial flowers
Poppy (Icelandic or Oriental)

Best flowers for a beginning gardener
Bachelor button
Sweet peas

Best direct seeded flowers
Bachelor buttons
Giant poppy
Love in a mist
Star flowers

Starting seeds
One of the big considerations when growing cut flowers in Alaska is growing healthy starts. First, this involves starting them at the right time for optimal bloom time. Megan says she starts almost all of her flowers indoors to take advantage of our short growing season. She said, “The very early varieties, like Icelandic poppies, ranunculus, and rudbeckia [I] start in March but are so worth it.” 

Caitlyn has tried lisianthus before, and would like to try it again but that requires starting seeds in January and she is not keen on starting them so early. 

Krista began with direct-seeded varieties, but realized she needed to start most of the flowers indoors to be successful. Unfortunately, in the spring of 2021, she lost about 40% of her seedlings so she is still working on growing healthy starts. 

Here are some seed starting date suggestions for when to start annual flowers and perennials grown as  annuals in Fairbanks, albeit a bit out of date. Johnny’s seed starting calculator may also be helpful, but may not be accurate for flowers with particularly long bloom times or heat-loving flowers. To further extend the season, you could consider frost-tolerant flowers.

Growing flowers
Flowers should be planted in well-drained, fertile soil, deadheaded regularly, and staked. Here are some more tips for growing flowers successfully in the Alaska’s Sustainable Gardening Manual. Drip irrigation works well with flowers (and many other vegetables). 

Creating beautiful bouquets
Creating a unique, beautiful bouquet requires some practice. Think about combining center piece flowers with texture or filler flowers and a pleasant palette of colors. Here is a nice visual for some of the more common flowers discussed here. Here are some more ideas for designing your cut flower garden to make beautiful bouquets, although some of these flowers will not grow well in Alaska or will be extremely challenging to grow (e.g. lisianthus).

boquet with peony comsos and bachelor button in silver pitcher.
One of Krista Heeringa’s bouquets. Photo by Dev Khalsa.

Extending the vase life
Cut flowers when they are not fully in bloom or past the optimal bloom. To extend the vase life, cut the stems at an angle, recut them every few days and change the water regularly, add a little sugar or 7-Up and a few drops of chlorine bleach, and chill the flowers at night.

Other Flower Farms
For inspiration on what’s growing well in other parts of Alaska check out Alaska Stems in Homer, Turnstone Farm in Anchorage, and All Dahlia’d Up Flower Farm in Palmer. You can find more flower farms across Alaska by consulting the Alaska Grown source book.

Published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer March 20, 2022.