How to harvest your cutting flowers for longest vase life and more production

Mixed bouquet
Big mixed bouquet in early June, with alstroemerias, feverfew, and delphinium

It’s so much fun to start harvesting your cutting flowers and bring them inside to arrange them into pretty bouquets! There are several factors that affect the vase life of your flowers once they’ve been cut. And when you harvest you can do it in a way that helps your plants produce more cutting flowers. Be sure to follow these instructions and you’ll be much happier with your flower growing efforts.

You can expect your flowers to last a good week or more in the vase. Some flowers last longer, like Alstroemerias, which easily last 2 weeks. The flowers I include in my website are all good for cutting mainly because of their good vase life. If not, I mention that.

When to harvest

The best time to harvest is in the early morning or in the evening. This is when the pressure of heat and sunlight are off the plant and the flowers are better hydrated. Morning is best because the flowers have had overnight to drink up their water and nutrients.

How open should the flower be before you cut it? That varies slightly from flower to flower. But in general, harvest before the flower is fully open, and always before pollen is showing. You can look at the anther, the flower part that will open and release pollen, and cut before it’s open and releasing. I give any special instructions with each flower when needed.

Cut your flowers so they continue to produce more flowers, and look nice

First of all, cut your flowers at an angle so that there’s more surface area for them to take up water. And this way they won’t sit flush with your bucket bottom and get blocked.

When you cut your flower cut it at a node that will produce another set of flowers. This will vary with the type of flower. For many, choose a node that has buds but no flower buds yet. If it has a flower bud then the stem will not get much longer. In that case you’d want to cut to the next lower node. This enables the plant to grow two more flowers for you with normal length stems. Sunflowers are a very clear example of this process.

You don’t have to keep the whole long stem but you can and just cut off the side shots before placing the stem in water.

If you simply cut where you want it and leave a stub sticking up, it’s not pretty and it drains a little energy away from the plant’s production efforts. For most flowers, when the cut is lower, more of the plant’s energy goes into more flowers with longer, thicker, stronger stems. So please, no stubs!

This is basically an advanced form of deadheading. The reason you would deadhead is to prevent the plant to start producing seeds. When the plant starts producing seeds it sends a signal throughout that success in procreation has been achieved and flowering slows down.

This is important for flower production. If you don’t harvest all your flowers try to keep up with deadheading them so you can maintain good flower production. But always cut at the lowest node to produce more flowers with good stems.

That means that you may need to cut flowers and add them to the compost pile. That can be a lot of extra work but when you have fewer plants in a home garden, maximizing production is what you need.

What if you’re going on vacation? Well, all my advice is for optimizing production, so you can let it go a bit and not worry. Catch up when you return.

Put them into a clean bucket of water

It’s best to carry a bucket of water out to the garden to get the flowers right in. I had originally learned that warm water was best to let the flower drink up. I rarely do that, though, and I think cool water is just fine.

The bucket and all water vessels and vases must be super clean to prevent dirt and bacteria from growing on the cut stems and clogging them. I use new buckets that have a new, smooth finish inside and set them apart solely for flower gathering use. I scrub with a clean sponge and sometimes with bleach.

When cutting your flowers strip the lower foliage off the stem to keep it from rotting in the water. Some leaves I pull off, but cutting makes a cleaner surface and reduces the number of broken cells.

Bouquet with alstroemerias, scabiosa, and feverfew
Bouquet with alstroemerias, scabiosa, and feverfew

Condition flowers before you arrange them

Next step is to place your bucket of flowers in a cool, darkish spot so they can hydrate for 8 hours. This conditions them and adds vase life.

Next you can arrange them! When you make your bouquets, you’ll make a final cut to all the stems. This one will not be at an angle. It works anyway. But if you have a flower that wilts, you can take it out and recut it at an angle.

Then put them into your pretty vases, pitchers, and plain old jars to add summer beauty to your home.

An acquaintance once told me that when company comes, if you have fresh flowers, they never seem to notice how dirty the house is.

Maintain your bouquets to keep them looking good

A few tips to maintaining your flower bouquets can increase vase life:

  • Keep them in a cool place and out of the sun
  • Change the water every few days, recut the stems if they go limp,
  • Use flower food, it provides sugar for the flowers, and bleach and acid to prevent bacterial growth, which can clog the water uptake vessels in the stems.

I used to use food when I was selling flowers because the flowers would be spending too much time out of water and I wanted the buyers to have the longest life from my flowers. But at home where I have and constant supply of flowers, I don’t bother with this. But here is a recipe for it if you want to use it: 1qt. water, 2 Tbs. lemon juice, 1 Tbs. sugar, ½ tsp. bleach.

Truthfully, I don’t change the water too often, either. Most of the time it stays clear—but just in case.

Enjoy your flowers!

June bouquets with alstroemerias, scabiosa, feverfew, and agastache
June bouquets with alstroemerias, scabiosa, feverfew, agastache