plant a cutting garden, with jenny elliott of tiny hearts farm
READY TO PLANT a cutting garden? The expression “cutting garden” sounds dreamy, laden with the promise of colorful flowers to harvest and bring indoors for bouquets in the months to come. But let’s get practical: like which of the many possibilities to grow, annual, perennial, or otherwise, and how? That’s today’s subject with flower farmer Jenny Elliott.
Jenny Elliott of Tiny Hearts Farm in Copake, New York, is a farmer-florist. With partner Luke Franco and their crew, she grows flowers organically, both for the wholesale market, for subscribers to her weekly flower CSA, and also for events, including weddings that she designs and more. (That’s Luke and Jenny in the shop below, where they also hold classes.)
Which are the best annuals, I asked–and how do I get the most out of each one? (Hints: making succession sowings is one key, for fresh blooms all growing season, plus pinching young annuals makes for more productive plants, too.)
Jenny is my beloved neighbor and friend and also one of my collaborators May 11th and again June 8th, when we join forces with HGS Home Chef Cooking School in nearby Hillsdale and Broken Arrow Nursery and put on a full day of programs to coincide with my spring open garden days. She’s got a calendar for classes at her Tiny Hearts Flower Shop, too, in Hillsdale, and is the featured speaker at Spencertown Academy in Austerlitz, New York, on June 15. Details, bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the March 25, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
start a cutting garden, with jenny elliott of tiny hearts farm
Q. Welcome, Jenny, my plant-maddest neighbor. How are you?
A. [Laughter.] Hi, neighbor. I’m good. How are you?
Q. Maybe people want to know how plant-mad we are. The two girls, as soon as the ice and snow melted, what were we out doing the other day?
A. Cutting willows and dogwoods and looking at all the pretty, fantastic colors.
Q. Cutting all the twig shrubs from my yard to turn into, what, a stick garden in your greenhouse, right?
A. Yes. Yes, I had that treasure trove of … I guess it just looked like sticks to everybody else, huh? … in the back of my car when I left.
Q. Yes. It was good. It was good. You made cuttings and you’re propagating them in your greenhouse. That’s really exciting. Actually, you showed it on your Instagram. It was pretty hilarious. [Above.]
Tell us briefly what Tiny Hearts Farm is.
A. Well, Tiny Hearts Farm is a cut-flower farm smack in the middle of Copake, New York. We do … Well, it will be about 25 acres this year, up from our original 15 acres, and-
Q. Whoa, Nellie. [Laughter.]
A. I know, right? I’m just getting used to hearing myself say that now, you know?
Q. O.K., good.
A. We’ve had a propagation greenhouse [above] and another greenhouse, but this year we’re building another and leasing another, so we’re up to four greenhouses this year, too, which is exciting. We grow lots and lots of flowers. We sell them through retail outlets and we wholesale them around the Hudson Valley and in New York City, and we do weddings and events. We’ve got the shop in Hillsdale [below], so the flowers are coming in from the field and going out very quickly all over the place.
Q. In the dead of winter—because we, of course, live in the Northeast, both of us, you and beautiful Downtown Cupcake and me in Uptown Cupcake Falls, New York—you don’t have … It’s not a flower shop that’s open in the dead of winter because there’s nothing to harvest, yes, from-
A. Yes. There’s nothing to harvest. We stayed open until, what, mid-December about. Then, we shut down for the winter. I am waiting for … Well, I thought I was waiting for the tulips to bloom, but now I’m wondering if the anemones aren’t going to beat them. Whoever comes in first is when we’re going to open the shop and have flowers again.
about the tiny hearts csa subscriptions
LOCAL CUSTOMERS who subscribe to the CSA can pick up a weekly bunch of fresh, organically grown flowers from Tiny Hearts at their Hillsdale, NY, shop–whether tulips in spring, or mixed summer bouquets, or dahlias galore in late summer to fall. More info on that here. Subscriptions also make a great gift.
Q. To accomplish all that, to supply your customers, and I mentioned the CSA. You also have subscribers, people who come on given days of the week and pick up their weekly goodies. They subscribe for six weeks or a month or however long it is for a different assortment of flowers.
You can’t suddenly, with all these different kinds of customers, you can’t suddenly say, “Oh, oops, we have no flowers this week because I forgot to plant them at the right time.”
A. No. [Laughter.]
Q. Or, “I only planted zinnias and nothing else so, oops, we’re not …” You’ve got to really strategically plan this monster cutting garden, so to speak—much more complicated than for any of us home gardeners but same strategy, yes?
A. Yes, same strategy. I haven’t … We went from an acre to now it’ll be 25 acres pretty quickly, but I really have not changed my strategy for field planning at all. Yes, I think it all is kind of the same deal on all sizes. Yes.
Q. Maybe we start there, with the sort of 101 version if we’re just getting started, or feeling our way, what are some of the easier things that we can do to start with in our cutting garden that we’re dreaming up? And then advance to sort of the slightly more sophisticated palettes to layer in? What do we start with?
A. Well, we start with annuals. You can start them now and throughout the spring and summer. Gosh, it’s a big, wide world of flowers, the annuals. There’s so many.
Q. It is. Yes.
A. That’s our bread and butter still. We have these big, flat, open fields that just lend themselves to these long tractor rows, and annuals has been the perfect thing for us. I still … All these years, I still, when I think of annuals, I think of these little six-pack bedding plants and stuff. I think we have to shake that notion out of our heads, because there’s so many, so many things.
The big ones for us are zinnias, celosias, cosmos, gomphrena, rudbeckias, marigolds, and so many others. But those are the easy starters, ones that you can pretty easily start from seed yourself. Some of them can be direct sown. Those are kind of the big producers, too.
A. They just throw up flower after flower after flower.
Q. Generous, yes, generous.
A. Yes. Some varieties more than others, but, across the board, they’re workhorses, and beautiful.
Q. One of … You just said we should get past the sort of little six packs of the most familiar things, widen the palette a little bit, even with the easy, almost direct-sowable or four to six weeks indoors kind of easy things. But even within the familiar zinnia world or marigold world, there’s more interesting things to look at, yes?
A. Yes, there’s all kinds of good stuff.
Q. When you say you’re sowing zinnias, and I love some of the traditional zinnias and everything, but there’s even more exciting ones. What are some of your favorites at the moment? I just ordered ‘Jazzy Mix’ [above], which is a Zinnia haageana. It’s kind of in mahogany shades and bicolors, they’re kind of marked. Anyway, do you like that one? Is that one that you grow?
A. I love that one.
Q. Oh. Oh, good.
A. I think that one replaced the old ‘Persian Carpet’ zinnia, right? It’s just … The only difference, I think, is it’s taller, which is really nice for cutting. I love that one. It’s tiny, the flowers are tiny, but you can get some height on it. A couple years ago … Actually, I think I did this two years in a row. I shouldn’t admit this, probably, but we didn’t weed them and they grew so tall and they were amazing.
Q. [Laughter.] Interesting.
A. Though I’m not recommending that, but if you let your patch get weedy, there’s a silver lining to that. Those are great. I love those guys. They’re not that exciting, but I’m obsessed with the ‘Oklahoma’ series this season.
They’re just … I love the colors they come in. The salmon is my favorite. We sell tons of those. I did ‘Oklahoma Golden Yellow’ last year and they’re just … The flowers are smaller. You can get those really full doubles, which is nice on those. Gosh, they’re just tall. They’re more mildew resistant that the Benary’s, which is supposedly mildew resistant. Not in my field.
Q. Right. The great thing with the Benary’s, I don’t have the same mass production going on, so what I love is that you can get the single colors like you’re talking about with the ‘Oklahoma Salmon’ [above]. I can get just the chartreuse-y sort of green Benary’s, or just the orange, if that’s all I want.
A. Yes. Right, right, because there’s some … There’s a ‘Salmon Rose’ Benary’s Giant; that’s a beautiful one, but then there’s also five colors of different shades of red. I don’t know if we need all those. It’s nice to be able to choose.
Q. Yes, you can get single-color strains. So those are some zinnias that you have been liking. I love marigolds. I think, when I first met you five … Was it five years ago or six years ago? How many years ago is it now? Five? I don’t know.
Q. Something like that. I said to you, “Oh, I know this person who has been breeding or selecting marigolds for a long time and they have these crazy marigolds,” and I think you have sort of waded through that collection. Do you have any marigolds to recommend?
A. I do. We do grow a lot of just the big, tall African marigold sorts.
A. I think we do the Jedi series, yellow and gold, but the best ones are from Peace Seedlings, which you turned me onto. My favorite ones there for seasons now, is ‘Sparkler,’ [above] which …
A. Again, they’re small flowers. They’re just so charming. They’re tall—they can get shoulder height, like a hedge. They’re this mix of red and orange; on one petal, there will be different patterns of red and orange. They look like sparkler. Go figure.
Q. Oh. Huh.
A. Those are rad. There’s one, ‘Burgundy Bliss’ [above, from Peace Seedlings]–
Q. Did you just say those are rad as opposed to red? [Laughter.]
A. Oh, rad. They’re both. What else? ‘Burgundy Bliss’ was a new one that I tried this year and I loved it. It’s actually burgundy and then it has an orange picoteed edge on each petal.
A. Really awesome. I like those because marigolds, they can be … I don’t know, they’re marigolds. But these are really, really special.
Q. Yes. Yes, those [‘Burgundy Bliss’] are from the breeding work of Alan Kapuler. His kids carry on with Peace Seedlings, selling the seeds of all his progeny, which is great.
I noticed that there are rudbeckias now, that I’m seeing more. You said Rudbeckia, and you know I sort of think of rudbeckia, being a longtime gardener, doing a lot of perennial rudbeckias. But there’s ones that I guess are treated more like annuals, as well. I bought this one from Select Seeds the other day called ‘Sahara’ [below] and I bought it just because the picture sort of had these peachy, buffy, pale, dusty coral-looking, these kind of muted colors on the picture.
A. Yes. Well, I’m trying that one, too, this year. [Laughter.] All the florists are really excited about that one.
A. Yes. I kept seeing it pop up last season with all these florists who were stoked and trying to get their hands on it, so I’m trying that one, too. Then, some of the others … Have you tried ‘Chim Chiminee’ [below]?
A. That one … I think I get the seed from Johnny’s for that one. In the pictures, it looks weird. It has these very narrow petals that don’t touch so it kind of looks like some weird spaceship ray gun kind of thing. In person, they’re just huge, they’re the size of your hand, and they come in all these yellows and browns. They’re just really unique, tall, sturdy, good producers. Everything good. I like those guys.
Q. A couple of quick celosias to recommend, if we want to try those crazy guys?
A. I’m a big fan of the Sunday Series.
A. ‘Sunday Dark Pink,’ ‘Sunday Orange.’ They’re plume celosias and they’re just really vibrant. I did a new one, new to me, the Celway Series, which is kind of like these little spikes. That was great and just produced and produced. There’s a terra cotta color that blends really well with all kinds of color schemes and arrangements, which is really nice.
Q. Some of those, many, we could direct sow, probably, the zinnias and the marigolds. I don’t know which of the others, but I usually give them four or six weeks in a cell pack or flat inside or under lights, for me. I don’t have a greenhouse.
But that rudbeckia, I was thinking I need to start that sooner, because even though it’s Rudbeckia hirta, it’s an annual-ish thing, it still needs more time than, say, a zinnia or a marigold, yes?
A. Yes, I think I give the rudbeckias six or maybe seven weeks. They’re so tiny when they start out. They need a little time to grow on.
Q. Are there foliage things, too, in your sort of 101 palette of annuals, that aren’t for the flowers but are for the sort of filler or …?
A. Yes. Well, we use basil a lot.
A. I haven’t had luck with Genovese basil for years now. It just gets mildewy right away. But lemon basil does well for us. Some of the purple basils are really nice. I tried … Oh, I might be wrong on this, Alternanthera? Is that how you pronounce it?
Q. Alternanthera. Yes, sure.
A. Oh, marvelous. Oh, my gosh.
Q. Fabulous plant.
A. Easy to start from seed and it just grew like crazy. That glossy, really … Like the outside of an eggplant, right?
Q. Yes. My favorite one is the “rubiginosa.” I believe it’s a species [update: It’s actually a variety, Alternanthera dentata ‘Rubiginosa.’] It has a deep wine-ish, like you say, almost eggplant-y but wine-ish color. Wonderful. It sprawls out of a big pot also. It’s used as a filler or a cascading thing in pots, too, so I love the alternantheras.
A. Yes. That’s fantastic. Oh, shiso. I have a ton of shiso this year.
Q. Perilla, yes. I’ve used copper fennel in the past for its ornamental value, as well as … I guess that’s not technically an annual probably, but …
A. Oh, yes.
Q. Yes. Copper fennel.
A. Yes. We do that one. We let it bolt because the flowers are really great, too.
Q. Now, again, in your “cutting garden,” 25 acres of it-
Q. …you’ve got to have stuff, a succession of things. I’m assuming that just because you’re starting some of these things now or soonish to plant out in May in our Zone 5B, doesn’t mean you expect those same seedlings to be perfect and still producing flowers in August and September. Are you doing succession plantings of these things or what?
A. Yes, we’re doing successions. Depends on the plant, right? We do four successions a year of zinnias.
A. Yes, and Celosia [below]. I think cosmos gets five.
A. Yes. Just because, when it’s a cutting garden, too, you want top-quality flowers every time you cut, right? We’ll just ditch an old planting just because it’s not so good anymore, and move on to the fresh planting. Even though it might still be producing flowers, they’re not that great anymore. Keep having fresh plantings, and you keep getting really nice flowers all season long.
Then, there’s other things. Sunflowers, we plant every two weeks. Then, there’s a few things that we only have to do twice a year, so I do an early spring planting of gomphrena, and then we’ll plant out more in July. That gets us through the fall with a nice fresh crop of that. Strawflower, the rudbeckias we do twice a year, scabiosa. Yes, a lot of things. Then, there’s some things that you could succession plant all year long, but I kind of get bored of them, or things I don’t want to see again until the fall. [Laughter.]
Q. Right. Right, right.
A. You know what I mean?
A. Calendula is one. Yes, we could grow it all year, but it’s … The oranges and yellows, I kind of want to see that yellow in the spring and then the orange and yellow again in the fall, but I have enough other orange and yellow in the summer that I don’t want it.
Q. The thing is, what you just said about the multiple successions and having … You want to have a nice, fresh supply of something. Even with the basil that you mentioned that you use, if you plant basil, people set out basil at last frost in their garden And then it turns into this gangly, almost woody shrubby thing and is flowering like mad. People keep pinching the flowers, but, really, it would be better to have a couple of successions of basil, too, from a culinary point of view. Do you know what I mean? Even with our edibles, that’s the case. Both ornamentals and our edibles.
Q. I’m assuming … With some of the ones that we’ve talked about, do they require any other treatment like pinching or anything, or are these all things that just sort of you let go to their natural inclination?
A. Gosh. I’m trying to think of anything I don’t pinch. [Laughter.]
Q. Oh, good. O.K., so explain that to us, because, of course, a lot of us mere gardeners over here don’t do that. We set them out and we … You know what I mean? Tell us about that.
A. Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I start every year with the intention to pinch everything, and of course, I don’t get to everything and they do fine. But, yes, we pinch everything when it’s … General rule, I would say when it’s about 4 inches high, we pinch it down to about three sets of leaves. All the zinnias … I guess certain celosias, I don’t pinch, like the brain celosias. They won’t form that big center flower if you pinch them.
Cosmos does much better pinched. Gosh, just about everything. Yes, so you pinch it down and it seems really harsh and scary and like you’re killing your plant. [Laughter.] All that it does it lets you get more taller flowers.
A. You’re really doing a good thing.
Q. Let’s spend our last few minutes talking about what else besides annuals—sort of the 201 version, the more advanced class. Obviously, you start your season with things like bulbs, tulips [below], that you have planted the fall before, things like that. We can put bulbs into our assortment. You have dahlias in the fall, in late summer and fall, and those are tender bulbs. Are there perennials in the assortment, as well, or biennials or anything else?
A. Yes. All of the above. I think that the next easiest thing to do is that fall is going to be here before we know it. [Laughter.]
Q. Don’t say that.
A. I know. It’s true, though. I’ll buy my tulip bulbs in a few months. That’s an easy one to plant, is planting tulips and fall-planted bulbs for the following spring. We’ll also be starting seeds for the biennials in a month or two, really. I try to get them planted out in the summer so that they have nice roots so that they can be held through the winter on nice sturdy plants.
Q. A couple of examples? Yes.
A. Yes. Sweet William, carnations—we do the little heirloom French carnations. Foxgloves. Quaking grass, which I’m obsessed with. Luke hates it. I love it.
Q. Now, when you say quaking grass, I’m sorry… I don’t know what it is. That’s not what I mean. Is it-
A. Oh, gosh. I don’t know the grass name.
Q. Is it flattened like Northern sea oats?
A. It kind of is. It’s rounder. You shake it and it sounds like a rattlesnake. I grew up in California. It grows wild all over the place where I grew up.
Q. O.K. I’ll look it up.
A. Oh, Briza.
Q. Oh. Sure.
A. Briza maxima, right? I do know that grass name. Yes.
A. Right. Those are the guys. Then, again in the fall, this is super climate-dependent, even microclimate-dependent, whether you can get hardy annuals to over-winter here where we are. I can get Centaurea and Nigella pretty regularly to over-winter so I’ll seed it in September, and then it’ll bloom the following spring outdoors, but some of the other things, larkspur … I don’t know. What else? A few things. They just don’t make it here. Bells of Ireland, things like that.
Q. For those of us at home starting cutting gardens, we could also buy some perennials, or like foxglove, which are more biennial for me, or short-lived, we could buy some bigger pots, get started in advance, and add those to our cutting garden as more permanent fixtures. Right? You may be sowing them from seed but we could do that, as well.
A. Oh, yes. Yes, for sure. Yes, some things that have done really well for us, I love yarrows. We have this tremendous bed of Echinops that I use like crazy.
Q. Oh, love them. Yes.
A. Love it. So good. They’re very short-lived in a vase but I wouldn’t do without them. Oriental poppies I adore.
Q. Jenny Elliott from Tiny Hearts Farm, I’m so glad to speak to you and thank you so much. I’ll see you around the neighborhood when we can go out taking some more cuttings.
A. Yes. I can’t wait.
jenny’s spring 2019 hudson valley, ny, events & more
- April 14 cutting garden class and more classes at Tiny Hearts flower shop, Hillsdale
- May 11 flower arranging and dahlia growing classes at the shop (plus get details Margaret’s Open Day and more local events and make a day of it–even box lunches to pre-order!)
- June 8 more classes at the shop (details to come)
- June 15 Spencertown Academy, Austerlitz, NY, “Bringing Cut Flowers into your Garden and Home” plus garden tours and more
- The Tiny Hearts CSA subscriptions (weekly flowers for friends nearby)
(Photos except Select Seeds’ image of Rudbeckia ‘Sahara’ are from Tiny Hearts Farm, used with permission. Disclaimer: Select Seeds, where Tiny Hearts and I both order some of our flower seeds, is a seasonal advertiser on A Way to Garden.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 25, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
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