How to plant a bouquet | March 13, 2020 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - March 13, 2020

How to plant a bouquet

Filoli experts shares tips for having fresh flowers in the house almost year round

by Laura Swenson

In the mid-20th century, William Roth, who resided at Woodside's historic Filoli estate from 1937 to 1963, insisted on wearing a fresh carnation from his garden on his lapel every day. Today, old heritage breed carnations and a variety of flowers continue to grow in cutting cages in the very location and style of those installed during Filoli's construction in 1917.

Throughout Filoli's 100-year history, its cutting garden has grown plant materials for fresh flower displays in the house. The estate's two female heads of household, Agnes Bourn and Lurline Roth, respectively, were avid flower arrangers themselves when they lived on the estate, and today, a committee of volunteers is largely responsible for the arrangements throughout the historic site.

Filoli will offer a "Designing a Cutting Garden" workshop on March 27 and 28, intended to empower students to set up their own cutting gardens. The March 27 course sold out early, prompting the addition of a second class on March 28.

Emily Saeger, one of Filoli's lead horticulturalists, teaches the workshop. Saeger describes cutting gardens as production spaces designed to be cut from continuously throughout the seasons. Typified by an appealing lack of formality, cutting gardens can exist as designated plots or can fill in the margins of a backyard. Because cutting gardens allow us to bring the outside landscape into our homes, they are also, in Saeger's words, "really about honoring our sense of place and connection to place through flowers."

The workshop draws inspiration from Filoli as an ornamental garden by emphasizing the design of the cutting garden itself and not solely focusing on its utilitarian nature. In the class, Saeger will teach basic home garden design principles which may not always be taught in cutting garden classes, such as creating dynamism through varied plant heights, spacing flowers based on their time of bloom, and using odd versus even numbers in the garden.

Students come to Saeger hungry for advice on what to grow, but she finds it difficult to give a blanket recommendation. Instead, Saeger encourages students to observe the nuances of their site's microclimate and sun exposure to inform flower selection. In the workshop, she also teaches how to conduct a mason jar soil test to understand the composition of clay versus silt versus sand, which impacts how to best amend the soil.

That said, cosmos, zinnias, snapdragons, sunflowers and annual scabiosa varieties make for popular choices because you can cut them multiple times a week for many weeks throughout the summer, Saeger said. In late winter, daffodils, hellebore and paperwhites tend to thrive throughout much of the Bay Area.

The workshop includes recommendations on how to cut flowers, including why to cut early in the morning, why to cut low and at an angle, and why to submerge cut stems in water as soon as possible.

However, new gardeners struggle with simply harvesting at all.

"People are afraid to cut flowers," Saeger said. "I think there is a misconception that cutting will somehow deter your plants from blooming, and really, the opposite is true."

Many flowers, such as dahlias, produce more flowers over the course of the season if blooms are continuously harvested.

Saeger discusses sustainable cutting garden practices in the workshop, in terms of selecting flowers beloved by pollinators, installing drip irrigation, composting and sourcing seeds responsibly. She also emphasizes workload sustainability. Home gardeners can have lofty ambitions for time they want to devote to their garden. Saeger encourages students to set an intention for their cutting garden, whether it's making one bouquet per week for their home, or bringing a few arrangements to friends every month.

"Have some understanding about your goals and get clear about those because that will affect how you design your space," Saeger said. A simple goal can help gardeners let go of perfectionism.

After last year's class on the same subject, Saeger's students requested to delve deeper into harvesting. In response, this year's spring classes will continue to emphasize site preparation and plant selection, and a second summer course, whose date is yet to be determined, will focus on maintenance and harvesting, as well as flower arrangement.

Why is Saeger passionate about cutting gardens?

"A cutting garden can be a really cool way to build a relationship with your landscape and spend time outdoors, learn about your property, your whole garden and also then elevate your interior space by bringing your garden inside. It's a very meditative, beautiful practice to have."

She added: "I don't know anyone who's upset if you bring them flowers that you grew."

If you're interested

The "Designing a Cutting Garden" class is offered 10 a.m. to noon on Friday, March 27, and Saturday, March 28, at the Filoli estate, 86 Canada Road, Woodside. Class fee is $60. For more information, call 650-364-8300 or visit

Due to ongoing public health concerns, events may be canceled with short notice. Call ahead to confirm.

Freelance writer Laura Swenson can be emailed at


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