I was raised in a family where every penny needed to do double duty, so I learned early the value of preventing waste and preserving what you were given. These lessons followed me into the garden, where I’ve generally been pretty successful in maximizing nature’s bounty – my previous posts on harvesting honey and canning tomatoes are good examples of this kind of horticultural parsimony. There’s one prominent exception to all this however: the flower border. Every spring, I spend considerable time, effort, and money planting multiple beds, until just now they are overflowing with flowers – a luxurious bounty of color, form, and shape. Then in a few weeks will come the first frost and the product of so much expense and exertion will wiped away in a single stroke. While I’ve previously accepted this as the inevitable consequence of the gardening season, a few years ago I began to wonder: since I regularly harvested and preserved the offerings of the vegetable garden, why couldn’t I do the same with flowers? A quick trip one year to the local craft store in search of dried fall decorations, and the price shock that ensued, further motivated my mission. I was determined that at least some of these magnificent blooms would escape the grim reaper of frost. After a bit of investigation and a lot of trial and error (and, to be honest, some help from several on-air experts while I was filming The Victory Garden lol!) I discovered that the process of preserving flowers is remarkably simple. Done correctly using modern methods, the results can be outstanding: masses of delicate blossoms that almost entirely preserve their original garden beauty.
Historically, of course, flowers have long been dried indoors, generally hung in bunches from the rafters. While this does a decent job for certain species like lavender and straw flowers, most plants with more delicate blooms such as sunflowers, daisies, dahlias, and peonies simply shrivel into a dusty brown mass when left out to dry. Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue in the form of silica gel. You’ve probably seen silica gel before, and just never paid much attention to it: it’s those little packets of white crystalline powder that are often packed with new electronic equipment to prevent moisture build-up. They’re included because silica gel has the amazing ability to attract and absorb water – which also makes it the perfect medium for drying flowers. When placed in silica gel, blossoms emerge completely desiccated and ready for use in dried arrangements, but unlike the hanging method, color and form are much better preserved.
Here’s what you need to get started: several cans of flower drying silica gel (this, and the rest of the following supplies can be found at most craft stores); an 8x12x4 (or approximate) plastic container(s) with sealable lid; florist wire and tape, and a pair of sharp scissors. (And, of course, a garden to cut from! While the beginner can utilize already established ornamental borders, the enthusiast will soon exhaust these, and require a larger, more specialized cutting garden.) Unlike the hanging method where only a small number of varieties can be used, silica gel allows for a much wider selection of flowers – everything from lilacs, roses and peonies, to sunflowers, salvia and zinnias. The only kinds of flowers that don’t dry well are those with soft, velvety, water-filled blossoms like iris. Experimentation, and a good guide, like Cathy Miller’s Harvesting, Preserving, and Arranging Dried Flowers (Artisan: 1997) will soon teach you which species work best.
The drying process is extremely simple. With your basket and scissors in hand, head out to the garden in the morning after any dew or rain has dried, choosing only those blossoms without blemish or damage. (This may sound obvious, but it’s not. The drying process magnifies whatever faults there are to be found in the bloom, so only perfectly formed flowers should be used.) In terms of cutting, all flowers essentially fall into two categories: those with head-like blossoms, such as daisies, roses and zinnias, and those with long, spiky blooms, such as salvia, Bells of Ireland, and lavender. Spiky blossoms are cut with stems as long as will fit in your container; head-like flowers are cut off with only about an inch of stem just below the blossom.
Once your flowers are harvested, they must be immediately placed in the drying medium. Pour an inch or so of desiccant gel on the bottom of your container; next lay your blossoms face up in the gel (except for daisies, etc, which face downwards, and spiky flowers, which are lain sideways) and then gently cover them completely with the silica gel. Be careful not to flatten down any upright petals of the larger, more three-dimensional blossoms such as peonies and dahlias, as the flowers will dry exactly as they stand in the silica. Pressed down, they will emerge a flattened wedge. Instead, carefully pour the silica gel in and around the various petals, supporting them upright with one hand if necessary so that flowers are standing in the silica gel as close as possible to the way they opened in the garden. The result will be a realistic three-dimensional, dried bloom. Repeat these steps until the container is filled, and then seal with the lid.
Exactly how long the flowers need to remain in the silica gel depends on the type of flower, the number of flowers in the container, weather conditions during drying, and a host of other factors. Once again, simple experimentation, and a good reference book will be your best guide. I’ve found from my own personal experience that 10 days is about the norm. If in doubt, hedge your bets on the side of a longer, rather than shorter duration. While flowers can be over-dried if left to sit too long in the gel, this is far less risky than removing them too soon. Taken out prematurely, the blossoms quickly absorb atmospheric moisture and begin to wilt. My first several attempts at drying actually resulted in failure for just this reason; eventually, I learned to recognize when the blossoms were completely and totally dry by their look and feel. I also recommend using several containers at once, filling them a week or so apart – that way, if you fail on your first attempt, you’ll be able to alter your methods on the next go-around. Another good tip: try, as much as possible, to fill the box with similar flower types that require similar drying times.
When you’re ready to remove your flowers, gently pour the silica gel into another container. (The silica gel, by the way, changes color as it absorbs water, generally from white to pink; when its completely depleted, it can simply be placed in a baking tin, and following the manufacturer’s recommendations, revived by a stint in a hot oven.) While it’s okay to allow a few silica crystals to remain on the petals, excess silica can eventually harm the dried buds and should be removed with an artists brush. Spiked flowers with stems are ready for use in arrangements. Individual flower heads without their stems, though, need to be given new ones using a length of florist wire: simply place the wire along the remaining inch of stem, and attach with a bit of tape. One final suggestion: because dried flowers lack foliage, you’ll need four to five times the amount of dried flowers than fresh in a similarly sized arrangement, so be sure to dry far more than you’ll think you’ll need – there’s no such thing as “excess” dried flowers. Also, “filler” plants, like artemisia or ornamental grasses, which are used for their foliage, not for their flowers, are extremely helpful in adding bulk to arrangements.
So what are you waiting for? That frost is just around the corner!