Gardening How-tos

Cut-Flower Care: How to Make Fresh Flowers from Your Garden Last Indoors

It's late spring, early summer. Your garden is in peak bloom, filled with vibrantly colored flowers. And now you've picked up an article urging you to cut those beautiful blossoms. "No, never!" you say. But this is precisely the time to create a stunning bouquet from the fruits of your labor, so you can enjoy the sights and smells of the garden inside your home as well as outside it.

As soon as the plants in my small border garden begin flowering, I begin cutting. I know that it only takes one gusty wind or heavy summer rain to destroy my beloved blooms. Cutting guarantees that at least some of my flowers will be spared this cruel fate.

There is another reason I cut: It encourages more flowering on my plants throughout the summer months and even into early fall. Periodic cutting performs the same function as deadheading—promoting more blooms by delaying the onset of fruit.

Of course, the main reason I cut is for the tremendous satisfaction I get seeing my garden-grown flowers sitting pretty in a vase on the kitchen table. The number of flowers needed depends on the size of the vase used. In order to avoid cutting too many, I add foliage to the arrangement. I use a branch or two from a tree or shrub, or some groundcover with assorted grasses. These materials help me create bouquets of various sizes and shapes.

I make sure to pick and condition my flowers properly, so they'll have an extended vase life. There are many tricks in the cut-flower trade for creating long-lasting displays. Following are some of the best of them.

When to Cut

Early morning is the ideal time to cut fresh flowers. The flowers have had the benefit of cool night air and morning dew. Their stems are filled with water and carbohydrates and so are firm to the touch. As the day warms up, flowers gradually dehydrate. Midday is the least auspicious time to cut, as transpiration rates are at a peak and plants are rapidly losing moisture through their leaves. Flowers become limp; their necks become bent. If cut, they will not recuperate well and their vase life will probably be short.

When harvesting, have a bucket of water on hand to put the flowers in. Don't dillydally; place the cut flowers in the bucket immediately. I like to use a plastic pail rather than a metal one because metal can affect the pH balance of the water.

Different types of flowers must be harvested at appropriate stages in their development. Flowers with multiple buds on each stem should have at least one bud showing color and one bud starting to open before being cut. This is true for spike flowers (salvias, agastaches, delphiniums, Eremurus, gladioli, snapdragons, stocks, larkspurs, and the like) as well as cluster flowers (agapanthus, Alstroemeria, baby's breath, Clarkia, lilacs, phlox, Queen Anne's lace, verbenas, yarrow, and silenes, for example). If gathered too early—while they're still tightly budded—these flowers will not open in a vase of water.

By contrast, flowers that grow on individual stems (such as asters, calendulas, chrysanthemums, dahlias, Datura, gerbera daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, Tithonia, and zinnias) should be cut when fully open.

When selecting foliage, look for firm leaves and stems with strong coloration.

Cutting Tools and Techniques

Always use clean, sharp utensils when cutting flowers. Knives, clippers, or shears can be employed. Never use ordinary household scissors. The gauge on scissors is set for paper or fabric, not for flower stems, which are bulkier. Using scissors will crush their vascular systems and prevent proper water uptake.

Flower and foliage stems that have been left out of water, even for a short period of time, seal up and inhibit the absorption of water. Air bubbles sometimes enter the stem and prevent a steady flow of water. In order to prevent this from happening, some people cut their flowers under water before transferring from bucket to vase. However, I have found this to be awkward. Custom-cutting the flower stem in open air and immediately placing it in the vase of water is usually fine.

Cut all flowers and foliage about one inch from the bottom of a main stem. Make the slice at an angle of about 45 degrees. Cutting at an angle provides a larger exposed area for the uptake of water. It also enables the stem to stand on a point, allowing water to be in contact with the cut surface. Remove all the lower foliage that would be submerged in water. This will retard bacterial growth, which shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul.

Water Temperature

Professional florists and commercial growers always use lukewarm water for their cut flowers. The water temperature should be 100°F to 110°F. (An exception is when you are using bulb flowers, such as hyacinths and tulips, which need cold water.) Warm water molecules move faster than cold water molecules and so can be absorbed by flowers with greater ease. The objective is to get water and nutrients as quickly as possible to the head of the flower.

Preservatives

Using a preservative definitely increases the longevity of cut flowers. To survive, flowers need three ingredients: carbohydrates, biocides, and acidifiers. Carbohydrates are necessary for cell metabolism; biocides combat bacteria and are necessary for maintaining plant health; acidifiers adjust the pH of water to facilitate and increase water uptake.

Homemade Flower Preservative

Home mixes can be as effective as commercial preservatives. This easy-to-make recipe is my favorite.


  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon household bleach
  • 2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice
  • 1 quart lukewarm water

Under normal circumstances, flowers get what they need from the plant. When severed from the plant, however, flowers are deprived of these essential substances. But they are present in ready-made commercial preservatives, like Floral Life. Such solutions contain sugar for nutrition, bleach to keep the water clear of bacteria, and citric acid to gently acidify the water. When using commercial brands, be sure to follow recommended measurements for different container sizes.

One common suggestion is to place an aspirin in the water to keep flowers fresh. It is likely that aspirin's effectiveness is simply the result of the drug's carbohydrate content. Another well-known suggestion is to drop a penny into the water. Apparently, the copper in the penny works like an acidifier, decreasing the pH of the water. Unfortunately, solid copper pennies are no longer being minted.

Preparing the Stems

Garden flowers require some additional preparation after cutting. The type of preparation depends on the type of flower stem: hearty, hollow, soft, woody, or milky.

Hearty Stems

Flowers with hearty (or solid) stems, such as cockscomb, Clarkia, marigolds, statice, and transvaal daisies, need only the diagonal cut to absorb maximum water. They should be left to drink in lukewarm water with preservative for a minimum of one hour before arranging.

Hollow Stems

The stems of hollow-stemmed flowers, such as amaryllis, bells-of-Ireland, dahlias, delphiniums, and hollyhocks, need to be filled with water. Simply turn the flower upside down and pour water into the open cavity of the stalk. To keep the liquid in, you can plug the stem with a small piece of cotton and then place it in the vase. Alternatively, place your thumb over the opening at the bottom of the stem and then put it in the water. The water trapped inside will keep the stem strong and straight. I have noticed that when I fill the hollow stems in this way, the heads of my dahlias stand upright and the small buds on the tip my larkspur actually open!

Soft Stems

Bulb flowers such as hyacinths, iris, and tulips have soft stems and should be cut where the green on the stem starts—just above the white bulb. Place the flowers in cold water. Since most bulbs bloom when the air and ground are still at low temperatures, they do better in a vase of cold water.

Woody Stems

For woody plants such as lilac, dogwood, mock orange, pear, and heather, be sure to split the stems at the ends rather than smash them. This will keep vascular tissues intact and create more surface area to absorb water.

Milky Stems

Flowers such as euphorbia, lobelia, poinsettia, and snow-on-the-mountain secrete latex sap that oozes into the water and clogs the vascular system of other flowers in the container, preventing them from absorbing water. For this reason, the ends of the stems need to be seared before the flowers are placed in the arrangement. There are two ways to accomplish this: Either dip the cut end of the flower in boiling water for 30 seconds or apply a flame from a match or candle to the precut flower stem for about 30 seconds.

Do not use these flowers with a pin holder, because each time the flowers are cut they need to be seared again. Searing is not effective in halting the seepage of secretion from daffodils. Therefore daffodils should not be mixed with other flowers if you want a long-lasting arrangement.

Designing the Arrangement

Now that the flowers you have taken from your garden are conditioned, it's time to create an arrangement. Here are three design tips used by professionals:

  1. The height of the flowers should be in proportion to the size of the container—that is, the height of the flowers should not exceed one and a half times the height of the container.
  2. The arrangement should appear uniform all around. Visualize a circle divided into three equal sectors, and then select similar flowers for each of the sectors.
  3. Support the flowers to keep them in place. One simple approach, which avoids the use of props, is to use the flower stems themselves for support. By placing each flower into the container at an angle, you can form a grid or web that will hold the design together. The only flower that should be inserted straight up in the container is the center flower. This flower cannot stand without the support of the other flowers and should be placed in the container only when the grid has taken shape.

Care of Cut Flowers in an Arrangement

Here are some general rules that will help you make your cut-flower arrangements last:

  • Don't overcrowd the flowers in the container.
  • Check the water level in the vase and replenish it frequently.
  • Flowers that go limp are not drinking well and need to be recut.
  • Always discard wilted blooms.
  • Keep flowers away from drafts, direct sunlight, and ripening fruits, which emit ethylene gas—a substance that causes buds to remain closed, petals to have poor color, and flowers to have a shortened vase life.

Rose Edinger is an award-winning floral designer with over 20 years’ experience. She specializes in thematic design work and has decorated events in the New York region and beyond.

    Discussion

  • BBG Staff October 28, 2016

    Gail: Give the blooms a light shake as you cut them to dislodge insects, or remove them by hand. You can also give the bugs a chance to escape by leaving the flowers outside for a while in a container of water. For a fuller answer, please see our post of August 6, 2014, below.

  • BBG Staff October 28, 2016

    Emmalee: Roses have a hardy, somewhat woody stem. Use sharp clippers or a secatur to cut the stem at a slight angle and immediately immerse it in water to keep it fresh.

  • Gail S. October 24, 2016

    How can I remove any bugs that are on my flowers? What about a mist of soapy water or diluted alcohol or diluted bleach?

  • emmalee September 30, 2016

    What type of stems do roses have ?

  • Hayes August 15, 2016

    For the flower food/preservative, it seems like the bleach (a base) would react with the lemon juice (an acid) to create chlorine gas. I realize that it’s a relatively diluted solution of lemon juice, but it seems to me this solution would still generate chlorine gas (probably at a slow rate) until the water is either not acidic or all the bleach is gone. Have you experienced this at all?

  • Irvine Herb June 24, 2016

    Another small piece of advice: Never place the flowers close to fruits. Fruits emit gas that will age the flowers faster (common botanical knowledge). As to the upkeep, I am pretty sure that only changing the water every day will keep your flowers as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

  • BBG Library Staff April 21, 2016

    So far we haven’t found any wonderful suggestions with regard to ostrich ferns in flower arrangements. If you can somehow cover the blade and/or its leaflets, you could try immersing the bottom inch of the stalk in near-boiling water for a minute. You may also want to split a portion of the blade edge, so that one side is sort of asymmetrical. We are not sure any of this would work, and would appreciate hearing back if it does. Alum powder, which is used for pickling, can also help with wilting, but does cloud the water, necessitating careful selection of the vase or container. We suspect using the powder would be easier than attempting the boiling process. We will do further research, but thought these tips might help in the meantime.

  • Natanya April 13, 2016

    I have beautiful very large ferns—ostrich fern, I think—that tend to wilt rather quickly when I cut them for arrangements, especially the older, larger stems. What could I do to make them last?

  • Linda Cohen March 8, 2015

    Thank you so much for this informative and well-written article! I have shared the link with others, who also found it interesting. If only I had learned about stem-dependant cut flower care in high school biology, a lot of my received bouquets would have lasted longer! 

  • BBG Staff January 14, 2015

    BBG offers classes in floral design year-round, along with courses in horticulture and botany. You can also visit BBG’s Garden Shop to order books about growing and caring for flowers and other plants.

  • Thumah Hachizibe Moono January 14, 2015

    I love flowers and need more information about them. Do you offer short courses, and can I buy books online?

  • Timothy Ebert September 11, 2014

    I figured that a copper penny puts a trace amount of copper into the water. Copper is a widely used agricultural fungicide. It is also antimicrobial. But if there is too much copper you can kill your flowers. You will get more dissolved copper if you acidify the water with a little lemon juice or vinegar.

  • BBG Staff August 6, 2014

    Avoid using pesticides. Instead, give the blooms a light shake as you cut them to dislodge insects, or remove them by hand. You can also give the bugs a chance to escape by leaving the flowers outside for a while in a container of water. Some sources recommend dousing the flowers upside down in a bucket of water, but this could harm the petals (and give you a soggy bouquet!).

  • Dee Reagan July 30, 2014

    Worried about bugs on the cut flowers. Once had ants crawl down a vase on my counter. Should you spray flowers with a bug pesticide before or after cutting to avoid the little creatures?

  • Rebecca July 27, 2014

    I bought a large bunch of flowers from the florist a couple of days ago, and they had dropped many stamens the next day. Is this normal or a sign that the flowers aren’t fresh?

  • toms July 5, 2014

    I take a lot of Passiflora cuttings in water. Would your recipe inhibit rooting?

  • ted May 17, 2014

    I use a little colloidal silver and a dash of sugar.

  • BBG Library Staff April 11, 2014

    Lorraine: Alum, or aluminum sulfate, is one of the standard compounds used in “hydrators,”  products that help cut flowers and other plants take up water more quickly—the cut flower and plant industry’s biggest challenge. Since woody species used as cutting plants, like hydrangeas, have difficulty taking up water, perhaps we tend to hear about the use of aluminum sulfate in this context more often. There is also considerable research with regard to the use of aluminum sulfate to preserve many different plants across the cut flower and plant industry. If you wanted to experiment, we would recommend doing so with the more woody plants as opposed to herbaceous ones.

  • BBG Library Staff April 11, 2014

    Gail, we’ve not found any information indicating the CO2 would harm the cut flowers, but experts seem to disagree about whether or not wine or other forms of alcohol would do any good. There is some research on the use of vodka and other alcohols to inhibit the growth process of Narcissus forced for indoor winter delight. They tend to grow overly tall and keel over, so the alcohol may be useful in that regard. According to one retailer, CO2 pads are also available to help preserve arrangements in floral display areas.

  • BBG Staff February 4, 2014

    For keeping your cut flowers fresh, you don’t need plant food but rather a preservative. This is what the article above recommends:  1 teaspoon sugar; 1 teaspoon household bleach; 2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice;
    1 quart lukewarm water.

  • Polly stafford January 23, 2014

    What exactly is in the plant food and how much?

  • Gail Smith January 16, 2014

    Will small amounts of CO2 from fermenting wine shorten the life span of cut flowers?

  • lorraine August 23, 2013

    Can dipping the stems into ground alum will help to prolong the life of fresh-cut hydrangeas? If so, would this be for all flowers or just hydrangeas?

  • BBG Library Staff July 3, 2013

    Removing the stamens can help a lily last. Stamens consist of a stalk, or filament, with a tip called an anther; pollen develops within the anther.  Removing the stamens (or even just the anther tips) prevents pollination. After pollination, the flower normally fades, so removing the anthers and preventing pollination will preserve the cut flower a bit longer. If doing this in the garden, you might want to keep the anthers on some of them to allow the reproductive process.

  • Gary Kolb Sr. June 4, 2013

    I’m wondering if removing the pistil (or stamens) will prolong star gazer lily blooms either cut or in the ground.

  • BBG Library Staff April 4, 2013

    Hellebores can achieve a vase life of one to two weeks. Some tips include cutting the stem on an angle and making a few more vertical cuts at the base of the stem so that the plant can take up a lot of water. Another suggestion comes from Charles Marden Fitch in Fresh Flowers: Identifying, Selecting, and Arranging (Abbeville Press, 1992); Fitch suggests dipping the stem tips in boiling water for 30 seconds and then soaking the flowers in lukewarm water for six to eight hours before arranging. If you have enough hellebores to experiment with, compare the two methods. We would love to know what happens!

    As an alternative, the flower heads can be snipped off and floated in a bowl of water. Please be aware that hellebore seeds and all parts of the plant are toxic to dogs, cats, and human beings; if ingested, the result can be fatal.

  • sheila cooke March 19, 2013

    I have the most fantastic display of hellebores in our garden, various colours. How do I keep the cut flowers in a vase? Thanking you in anticipation.

  • KC February 18, 2013

    My husband occasionally brings cut flowers home. I love them but over and over they fail to open—at all. I’ve tried every combination of instructions, including filtering my somewhat hard water. The only thing I haven’t done is put them in the sun as instructed above. I’ll do that next time.

  • BBG Staff February 13, 2013

    Hi, Helena: To keep your cut flowers fresh as long as possible, avoid setting them in direct light.

  • BBG Staff February 13, 2013

    Sharon, you might try The Complete Book of Cut Flower Care, by
    Mary Jane Vaughn.

  • Helena Munoz February 12, 2013

    And how much light?

  • sharon October 6, 2012

    I just got a new job in a floral department in a grocery store. I’m hoping you can suggest a book that I can read to help get me started in this new field. I have very little knowledge of fresh-cut flowers and large plants. This new job is really exciting so I’m eager to learn what is required to keep them fresh.

  • Mara Gardiner June 26, 2012

    If a pH of 4 is ideal, how about using aluminum sulfate to acidify the water? I checked this morning, and although aluminum sulfate is sparingly soluble in water, the pH appears to be right at 4 (on the acidic side). You could add excess aluminum sulfate and be safe, whereas too much or too little citric acid from a lemon would be harmful. I have aluminum sulfate because it is sold in nurseries to acidify soil for plants like hollies and evergreens, and to turn the flowers of hydrangeas blue.

    And have you compared the efficacy of dextrose (glucose) over common table sugar (sucrose)? I have dextrose, being a master baker. Sucrose needs to be broken down in the human body in the duodenum before it becomes glucose and fructose, and I do not know if plants can do this.

  • Mary Streeter May 21, 2012

    How do you keep poppies fresh and not sagging?

  • Michael Garforth May 15, 2012

    Any special advice on peonies? Those in our garden now have buds approx. 1” diam and are showing just a bit of color at the top end. Many thanks.

  • Gardener's Resource Center February 22, 2012

    Cherle: Cut flowers last better in slightly acidic water, with a pH of about 4.

  • Cherie Rechka February 3, 2012

    I was wondering what the ideal pH would be for the water you place the flowers in. Is a higher or lower pH needed than tap water?

  • Gardener's Resource Center September 19, 2011

    Hi, Nyree:
    A quick peruse of the web will reveal dozens of helpful sites and books devoted to cut-flower care, including many on state and provincial cooperative extension sites. The most specific material can be found by searching “postharvest care of cut flowers.” To get you started, here are a few suggestions:

    Websites
    http://www.uvm.edu/pss/ppp/coh29ph.htm
    http://www.floristryexpert.co.uk/flowerpreparation.html

    Books
    Cut Flowers of the World: A Complete Reference for Growers and Florists, by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Johannes Maree
    The Complete Book of Cut Flower Care, by Mary Jane Vaughan

  • Nyree Long September 19, 2011

    Hi, do you have a more complete list of the flowers varieties and their STEM types please? For example, do you have a list of the most commonly used hollow-stemmed flowers as well as woody stems, milky stems, hearty stems, soft stems (more that the few above)? It would be most helpful. A link to another page or website would be just as good, please. Thank you so much. Nyree

  • Gardener's Resource Center August 16, 2011

    Sara, the recipe above includes the water for the vase.

  • Gardener's Resource Center August 16, 2011

    The text is correct, but perhaps it’s confusing: Foliage submerged in water causes bacterial growth. Bacterial growth shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul. Therefore, removing any foliage that would be under water retards bacterial growth.

  • Lee August 14, 2011

    You have made a small factual mistake in this article—your last sentence under “Cutting Tools and Techniques” reads: This will retard bacterial growth, which shortens the vase life of flowers and makes the water smell foul.

    The phrase “will retard” must surely be an error—it should be replaced with “promotes.”

    regards,
    Lee

  • Sara July 29, 2011

    Is this added to the water already in the vase? or the flower food alone is all that should be put in?

  • Gardener's Resource Center July 27, 2011

    Start with one full recipe of preservative, which makes one quart (just a little less than a British litre).

  • Rachael Wilson July 23, 2011

    how much of the homemade flower preservative would one put in a typical large vase of flowers please?

    kind regards, from england!

  • Helen Scheiderer July 12, 2011

    PLEASE GIVE SOME INFORMATION ON HOW TO PRESERVE ROSES

    VERY INTERESTING.

  • Cassie Benamati May 11, 2011

    Thank you guys a lot this helped me a lot with me understanding why my flowers all ways die the first couple of days.Now I know how to make them last longer.Thank You again!!

  • GRACE February 7, 2011

    ARE CUT ROSES PRESERVED IN THE SAME MANNER AS OTHER FLOWERS?

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