Gardening How-to Articles

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.

More: Making A Midcentury Wedding Bouquet

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

  • Ellie May 16, 2022

    I am looking for a project to do at a science fair about different cuts of stalks and temperatures of water affecting the preservation of different types of flowers, what would be a sensible time frame to carry out this experiment?

  • Laurie June 25, 2021

    Can you spray the preservative on a garland?

  • Jill Omen September 9, 2019

    Do you have any recommendations for keeping pollen from my sunflowers from dropping out of the flowers and all over everything? LOL they are so beautiful but are making such a mess.

  • hoa August 6, 2019

    I liked that you mentioned that in order to maintain a healthy bouquet of flowers for the longest amount of time possible it is important to leave them in a cool area, away from direct sunlight and drafts. I love floral arrangments and desire to have them brighten my home for a long time, so this information will hopefully help me achieve that. Thank you for your comments in regard to ensuring a lasting beautiful arrangement.

  • Patricia Luken February 26, 2019

    I am making several hydrangea and rose center pieces for a wedding. I know about alum for hydrangeas; I am getting the flowers on a Thursday for a Saturday evening wedding. #1 Can I add alum to water for roses if so how much to a gallon of water? #2 How much alum to water after dipping hydrangea stems in alum? #3 Can I soak my roses in a water-alum mixture? When do you think it is safe to make arrangements so they will not wilt? The wedding is March 9, 2019 and I sure could use your help, thanks!

  • BBG Staff February 21, 2018

    Thanks, Keith…perhaps the kids could continue the experiment by changing the proportions of ingredients and keeping a record…let us know what you discover!

  • Keith February 20, 2018

    Tried the flower formula in a kids’ science fair project. Plain water beat it out. It appears that your formula has too much bleach or the amount of water is not correct. Thanks, Keith

  • 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!).

Submit a Comment

Please keep your comments relevant to this article. Comments are moderated and will be posted after BBG staff review. Your email address is required; it will not be displayed, but may be needed to confirm your comments.

Image, top of page: Caroline Voagen Nelson