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The Flower Drying Game – Part 1: Air, Sand, and Sources
Most average gardeners quietly and sadly come to terms with a long winter without the lovely flowers that only a few weeks ago brightened their lives with colors and scents. Yes, it is sad to leave the outdoor garden behind.
Indoor plants alleviate some of the sadness, but somehow it’s not the same. I mean, African violets and Christmas cacti are nice, but I long for my lupines and roses and delphiniums and pansies and all the other wonderfully cheerful little flower faces that once watched from the border. Surely there has to be a way to bring my favorites for the winter! The real trick, as you’ll soon see, is to plan ahead.
This is my best friend of over 45 years, Linda. . .to my aid (why am I not surprised?!). “No fear,” she says. “I’ll bring in some summer delicacies and dry them so they can keep us company this winter!”
“What a wonderful idea!” says I. “But isn’t there some special trick or magic required? Don’t we have to take a class or something?” “Well no” she says. “Just watch. You’ll see!”
So, for the price of a few insignificant moments of summer toil (which this extraordinary person calls fun), our home is often host to a multitude of the most attractive small dry flower arrangements in baskets and vases, adding joy to joy.
You see, there really wasn’t any magic involved. All it took was desire, good old New England determination, a few wire coat hangers and a few twist ties like the ones that come with most household garbage bags. Combine those factors and inexpensive materials with space in your attic or closet—and the picks from the “best-to-start” list I’ll include below—and you’ve reached the prestigious “expert” stage.
What are you saying? “It’s a good time to tell us about this now that the whole world is covered in snow!” “In fact,” say me! This is the perfect time. Winter is for planning. If I had told you about this in May or June, you would have been so busy that you would never have been able to squeeze it in. Isn’t this the time for decisions? So make one that says: “This is the last winter I will spend without summer flowers in the house!”
The instructions are pure simplicity. On a dry, sunny day, cut off fresh flowers leaving fairly long stems. Gather them into small bunches of no more than 6 or 7 stems and wrap the ends tightly with a twist and a string. Attach a few of these small bunches to a wire clothes hanger so they hang and hang them in the attic or closet to dry. The drying process lasts from ten days to three or four weeks. Most will retain their color, but a few will turn a pale color. No worries, even softer, faded colors work beautifully in dried flower arrangements.
The rest is up to you and your arranging imagination and creativity. The pictures in the book are very helpful. Keep in mind that dried flowers are fragile and some delicate parts will fall apart if handled roughly.
Dried arrangements add to the home! They beautify the room and certainly brighten the spirit. The icing on the cake: they make thoughtful and appreciated gifts – especially to inmates.
That’s it for air drying. Here’s the list of “best bets” I promised you:
Artemisia; astilbe; Baby’s breath; Bee balm; Cattails; Celosia; chive seed heads; Cone seeds; Globus Amaranth; Globus Thistle; gold bar; Gomphrena; Heather; Helichrysum; Hydrangea (especially “Pee-Gee”); Lavender; Lunaria (seed structures, not flowers); Ornamental grasses; Pearly Everlastings; Pussywillows; sage; Sea lavender; Statics; Veronica; The centipede.
The list could go on, but I think you get the idea. Just keep your eyes open and don’t be shy.
Now let’s tackle a more complex process: drying some of the more delicate and intricate flowers in sand. Large flowers such as roses, carnations, daisies, delphiniums and many others not only lose their shape, but most fade and turn brown if simply hung to dry.
Sand drying. By far the least complicated method is air drying, but this limits us to a relatively short list of options. Carefully surrounding the more delicate and intricate flowers with sand (or silica gel) greatly expands the list and opens the door to much more complex and lovely floral displays that can last for months.
First, a word or two of warning. Most of the flowers dried in sand are extremely fragile, falling apart at the slightest accident. A playful kitten or curious child will quickly turn a beautiful flower into a handful of breakfast cereal-like debris. The entire process, which is briefly described below, must be carried out slowly, very deliberately and with the slightest touch. The last condition is patience. A flower taken out of the sand bed too early – before it is completely dry – will quickly shrivel and die…so don’t be too concerned.
Sands. Probably the hardest first step is finding the right sand. If you’re willing to spend a little more, most larger craft stores stock or can order the sand that best suits the purpose, usually in five-pound cans. You’ll need about fifteen or twenty pounds to start with. Since sand specially manufactured for this purpose is completely reusable, it should last for some time, especially if it is kept reasonably clean. Silica gel can be too demanding (and expensive) for beginners, experimenters, or anyone on a budget. It dries the flowers very quickly, but it has to be timed almost to the exact, “just right” moment.
Silicate sand (or “glass sand”), on the other hand, is perfect, much more pleasant to handle, and considerably less expensive. It is almost pure white and looks like fine granulated sugar. Beach sand, masonry or “sharp” construction sand, and road sand are irregular and dirty and can leave an unpleasant and hard-to-remove residue on your dried specimens. Take your time to find the right kind.
Containers. Sturdy shoe boxes are perfect for drying flowers. Round cardboard oatmeal containers also work well, but can be a little clunky. Both have lids that fit well and are stable, not easily disturbed. Plastic bags and glass containers are not suitable; nor grocery or lunch bags.
Where? Just the other day someone said to me “Sure, it dries all kinds of flowers! But where can I get flowers this time of year?” A reasonable question and one that is easy to answer. Here you will find plenty of material–
- * From a thoughtful spouse or friend who sends or brings you a beautiful bouquet or potted flower from the local flower shop or supermarket.
- * Weddings are happening all around us. In my earlier days as a wedding photographer I attended hundreds of weddings and many had attractive little fresh arrangements at each reception table.
- * There are almost as many funerals as there are weddings (hmmmm). While I don’t recommend going to a funeral just for the flowers, very often those large arrangements, filled with all sorts of appropriate flowers and greenery, end up in the trash after the service. Most funeral homes would like to see them “recycled”.
- * Local florist or florist. One or two single daisies or mums shouldn’t cost too much. They might even let you have a few of their “rejections”. Small defects that make the flower unsuitable for a fresh arrangement are perfectly acceptable for drying. Ask.
- * And of course there is also our own garden – next year.
Okay…before you move on to part 2, rub out some suitable sand and collect some mushy boxes or shoeboxes. Also, collect a paper cup or two and a small, soft art brush. Finally, if you’re the type to salvage and recycle such things, a block of dried “Oasis”–the spongy, green blocks that florists use in arrangements–will make a handy place to temporarily hold ready-made, dried specimens.
Part 2 in this 3-part series will show you how to use your drying sand and will introduce a secret that florists have kept for decades to keep that “vibrant” look in accents of dry foliage arrangements. Later, in Part 3, we’ll get plans and instructions for an affordable DIY flower press.
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