Preserving beauty

Now's the time to pluck fresh blossoms for dried arrangements later

The gardens of Lawrence are a bounty of colors and scents, and everywhere you turn, some magnificent blossom is smiling at the sun.

But the beauty is fleeting.

The lilies in full bloom now will soon go the way of the peonies that dazzled in June.

It’s possible, however, to keep flora prominently displayed all year long. Even when the dreary days of January are keeping our green thumbs concealed under mittens, reminders of summers past can be scattered throughout the house if we exercise some forethought and dry plants now, while they’re at their freshest.

When I contacted Karen Pendleton, owner of Pendleton’s Country Market, 1446 E. 1850 Road, she thanked me for asking about flower preservation during the height of the growing season.

“Usually I get calls asking about drying in September or October, and at that time it is too late to harvest most plants,” Pendleton says. “Now is the time to be harvesting so you have something to arrange with later on.”

Drying flowers and foliage from the garden is a centuries-old tradition. The finished products can be displayed in a vase arrangement, or you can try your hand at creating swags, wreaths or baskets full of blooms. Whatever the final result, having a bundle of flowers from your own garden all year long can be rewarding.

Kathy Hagen, owner of Prairie Flowers, began gardening as a young girl, when she moved with her family from one Kansas town to another as the little country schools her mother taught in closed.

“We would plant gardens at each new school,” Hagen recalls. “Now when I go back to visit, I find the schools are crumbling and in ruins, but the irises and the peonies that we planted are thriving.”

Hagen dries many of the flowers she collects from her massive garden and makes unique creations that she sells at the Lawrence Farmers Market when her fresh flowers are depleting.

Many of her plants came courtesy of her mother.

“Forty-six years ago when we bought our land, my mother noticed that this great old neighborhood was being razed to make way for the post office that stands there today,” Hagen says. “But in the wake of the bulldozers, all of these marvelous flowers were going to be discarded along with the brick and mortar. She dug up those plants, and many of them I still have and either sell them fresh or I dry the blooms.”

Hagen simply air dries flowers and foliage in her workshop. Pendleton uses more varied methods for drying.

“We use air drying for roses, peonies, larkspur, yarrow, pepper and more,” she says. “We practice silica drying for the sunflowers, zinnias, rudbeckia and similar flowers, and glycerin preserving for mostly leaves, foliage like cedar, pine, sweet Annie, Solidago, dock, liatris and so on.”

Drying is really quite easy. Flowers with rigid stems tend to work best. These include statice, money plant, sea holly and yarrow. Flowers with large, flat petals, such as lilies and poppies, generally don’t dry well. Multiple-petaled flowers like marigolds and roses dry well. Many culinary herbs also dry spectacularly and add a delightful aromatic touch. Among these are mint, sage and sweet marjoram.

Keep in mind that the best time to harvest is late afternoon on a hot, dry day when the flower contains the least amount of moisture. Dried blooms are best kept out of direct sunlight to avoid fading colors.

When drying flowers, Hagen suggests keeping your creative juices flowing.

“People have more ideas than they give themselves credit for,” she says. “If you like something that you are creating, then you are doing it right.”

For those seeking more hands-on direction, Pendleton’s will offer workshops this fall on dried flower arrangements, wreath making and swag making. Call 843-1409 for more information.

For now, think about the winter ahead, when you’d normally have to read books and take exotic vacations to get your gardening fix. Maybe this year you can plan ahead, filling your home with nature’s bounty to color the long, gray off-season.

Drying methods

Air drying: This is the easiest method. Remove most of the leaves from the stem, put four to eight stems of the same flower together, secure with a rubber band and hang upside down. Dark locations with a good air flow work best. Flowers should be dried in a few days. (Hint: Spraying flowers with hairspray can keep them more intact.)

Desiccant drying: Daisies, zinnias and rudbeckia all lose their shape when air-dried, so this method works best for these blooms. Use a shallow container and a 1-inch sprinkle of silica gel (sold in craft stores), sand, cornmeal or fine kitty litter. Use a plastic or metal container with a tight-fitting lid for silica gel; use an open cardboard box for the other materials. Set the flower face down with the stem completely cut off onto the desiccant material, then sprinkle a layer of the desiccant on top of the flower, covering it completely. Wait three to seven days, and then carefully brush off the grainy substance.

Glycerin drying: This technique keeps the greenery soft and supple and is best for foliage, grasses, solidago, etc. Karen Pendleton’s recipe for glycerin drying:
1 gallon glycerin
5 gallons warm water
2 drops cheap dish detergent (don’t use Dawn or degreasers)
1â4 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons powdered vegetable dye
Mix the ingredients and fill vases with about 3 inches of solution. Harvest plants and put them directly in the solution. It should take one to five days for the plant to take up the solution. After the plant has absorbed the mixture, hang it upside down to dry any remaining water.