flowers for drying: which ones, and how-to, with jenny elliott

A READER EMAILED me not long ago, asking if I’d ever written a story or done a podcast about dried flowers—which ones to grow and how to dry them and so on. And no, I hadn’t, I had to admit, so I called Jenny Elliot of Tiny Hearts Farm, a farmer-florist friend. And that’s what our topic is today: what you can dry that you’re growing now—yes, even your marigolds and things to forage for and more.

Farmer-florist Jenny Elliott with partner, Luke Franco, owns Tiny Hearts Farm in the Hudson Valley of New York (follow them on Instagram, too), where they grow flowers organically, both for the wholesale market, for subscribers to their weekly flower CSA, and also for events in a normal year, including weddings that she designs and more.

Read along as you listen to the August 31, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. (Apologies for occasional hissing that I am blaming on the challenge of remote recording connections in the age of coronavirus!) You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

flowers for drying: which ones, and how, with jenny elliott



Margaret: Hi, Jenny. Down on the farm are you?

Jenny: Yeah, here I am. Yeah. It’s at least cool today, so I’m happy about that.

Margaret: Well, what a year this has been for gardeners and farmers. No crew, no rain, no weddings for flower farmers, oh my.

Jenny: All kinds of weird bugs that I have to ask you about all the time. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Right. Text me those insects to ID, my last name is Roach.

So honestly, after the very dry year you’ve had, maybe it’s a good thing we’re talking about dried flowers. And my only background with dried flowers really is being the granddaughter of a sort of Victorian-era lady—and I mean lady as she was very proper, my grandmother, who gardened and had a wooden flower press and made pressed-flower pictures of them. But we didn’t have arrangements. And today, we’re going to talk about kind of growing and drying and arranging things. So can I just dry anything, or where does it all begin?

Jenny: Yeah. Well, I mean, yes, you can dry anything, basically, but it’s not all going to look good, right? There’s specific things that really lend themselves to drying, that either keep their color or have fun textures, or that are otherwise useful for whatever you want to use them for, because there’s all kinds of things you can use them for, too.

Margaret: O.K. So they’re sort of … in the seed catalogs, which before long, the way this year has been going—it seems like it’s just whooshing by in a weird dystopian way—but before we know it, we’re going to see a seed catalogs. And if I’m looking, there are some that are everlastings, right? And those are sort of the dried flowers. Those are the ones that that’s what they’re supposed to be for, is that the idea? But you dry other things.

Jenny: Yeah. Right. So there’s all the ones that you think of when you think of dried flowers, right? Strawflower comes to mind, statice is one, Gomphrena maybe, the globe amaranths, which are practically dry when they’re fresh, right? You can tell that they’re going to be a good dried flower because you touch them when they’re fresh, and they’re all crinkly and they make that kind of rattling sound. Yeah. So those we always do. I grow lots and lots of that stuff because that stuff, they’re good, dry flowers because they keep their color so well. So they’re bright, vibrant colors, and then you dry them and they stay bright and vibrant, which is really nice.

But then there’s also a whole bunch of other things that you would look at out in the garden and wonder if maybe it would make a nice dried flower. And a lot of the times, they do. A lot of the times, it takes some experimentation. And sometimes there’s things that look like they wouldn’t dry at all, but, surprise, if you try it out, they do quite nicely. I tried Ranunculus this spring, and they dried beautifully, and I was very pleased.

Margaret: I’m imagining, or do you, in fact, grow either is it larkspur, delphinium for drying, do you … is that-

Jenny: Yeah, I grow extra, extra, extra larkspur for drying because it dries so beautifully. It holds its color. You have a lot of choices of colors. So that’s one that I used to just grow as a fresh flower and always regretted every winter not having more of it dried. So now I think I’ve doubled production. We grow 800 feet of Larkspur now, and probably, at least half of that goes up into the drying loft.

Margaret: And we’ll talk about the drying loft and all that good stuff, the how in a minute, but we’ll get a little more info on the what first.

Jenny: Yeah–the what. Yeah. So I’ve been walking around the fields the last few days thinking about what’s going to go up into the drying loft, and actually, I start putting things in the drying loft as early as, well, with the ranunculus, April, about April, May, June.

I  used to really wait and those couple of days before the first frost came, I would run around like an insane person trying to cut all the flowers and hang them in the loft. [Laughter.] But turns out it all works out better if you just pick the nice stuff out of the garden when it’s ready in a timely manner, go figure. So right now, when I’m walking around, there’s the strawflower and the statice. And I have a new row of hydrangeas, which are really nice, that will dry beautifully, and then gomphrena, and so many kinds of celosias are beautiful for drying.

And then the marigolds that you mentioned, that’s something that people are always surprised about. I do the tall cutting marigolds, and they keep their color really, really well. They dry really nicely.

And then some other things I have hanging up already from the perennials that have come and gone already, I dry a lot of Echinops, and that gold yarrow, ‘Cloth of Gold’ or the Parker’s Variety.’ That keeps its color really nicely.

I didn’t do it this year, but back to annuals, I guess, Bells of Ireland dries beautifully. Ammobium, you know, is one of my favorites. Actually, what’s the common name? Winged everlasting, right? It tells you right in the name and that stays pure, pure white when you dry it, which is really unusual for something to actually stay white and not get muddy when you dry it. So those are some favorites.

So then there’s all the pods and the herbs and all of the unusual types things also.

Northern sea oats, upland or inland sea oatsMargaret: Northern sea oats [Chasmanthium latifolium, above] is a … I have just one clump of it in the garden because I love passing by it when it’s in its moment. And it kind of looks like flattened pine cones, the seed heads as they form right?

Jenny: So, so good. It’s so good. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yeah. So that’s one that I think of that would be beautiful. And you said poppy pods. Did you try any of the other perennials, like peonies? Have you tried those? Do they work?

Jenny: Yes. Peonies, that’s one of the ones that is always a surprise to me, is how well peonies dry. And maybe I shouldn’t be because we all know that roses dry well, right? So peonies, roses, and then with the dahlia season soon upon us, dahlias actually dry fairly well, too, especially the ball-shaped ones, the tighter type dahlias, not the big blowsy dinner plates so much, but the ball shapes, and the pompoms dry really nicely and keep their color fairly well. They darken up a bit, but those are nice.

Margaret: So generally, and I don’t know if there’s an across-the-board thing here, when you’re a florist and you’re going to be selling over time, all the peonies of a particular variety might be coming in all together, but you might cut some things much earlier than their peak moment and cold -store them—and not to get into that, but florists have tricks so that they can have a crop to sell over a longer period of time. They know how to store things.

But with these, if I’m going to do it to dry it, what stage generally of the … is it at the when it looks its best, or is it a little earlier, or a little later? What’s the timing, do you think?

Jenny: So I would say just slightly before peak perfection. And I say just slightly before, because I would say right at peak is perfect, but if you wait a little too long, they’ll shatter when they dry.

Margaret: Oops, oops.

Jenny: They’ll just fall apart, and you’ll end up with a big bunch of petals on the floor. [Laughter.] And I think an important thing to remember, too, when you’re thinking about this stage is, you’re right, for fresh flowers, you’re going to cut kind of closed and let them open in the vase. And you can do that and let your flowers sit in the vase for like a week until they open to perfection, and then hang them to dry.

I tell people that all the time. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation with your flowers. But one thing to remember is that if your flower is slightly past or slightly damaged or slightly anything, it is not going to improve by drying, you know what I mean? I don’t know how many times I’ve hung things that I thought, “Eh, it’s still looks O.K, I’ll just dry it,” and then, of course, it only gets more brown, more wilty-looking while it’s drying. So those beautiful peak flowers are what you want to be hanging up.

Margaret: O.K. And so you’ve mentioned a couple of times hanging up, and you have the loft and so forth. What are the ways that we can … maybe we don’t have a loft and maybe we’re only going to do a few things, home gardeners, but what’s the general practice? And again, not the put it in glycerin or whatever, whatever, not the fancier processing, but air-drying, I guess we’re talking about, right?

Jenny: Right, right. Right. To me, all those other forms of drying, that gets into crafty-land, which, right, we’re gardeners, I don’t go there so far. [Laughter.]

Margaret: You’re not as crafty.

Jenny: Right. So I air-dry everything. And yeah, I have a drying loft, and I hang things from strings. I just have these vertically hanging strings. I clip things up with clothes pins. But any spot that you have that’s warm, dark, dry is a nice spot for drying flowers. And a lot of people, because they look pretty while they’re drying, will hang them in their kitchens or from a beam in the living room or anything, and any spot like that is fine.

And the one thing you want to be careful with is that when you’re bundling flowers for drying is that you don’t want to pack too many into a bunch, and you want to have the flowerheads kind of separated from each other because you want maximum air flow around those. If they’re all clumped tight together, they’re likely to mold, instead of dry. They don’t get the right airflow. And even if you don’t have a dark spot, if you don’t mind that the flowers are going to be a little more faded than they might be otherwise, that’s O.K., too.

Margaret: But if your intention is to retain maximum color, out of the sunlight is probably your best bet?

Jenny: Yeah, exactly.

Margaret: O.K. All right. So that makes a difference. So you also … I think when I talked about this with you recently, you said something like, “Oh yeah. And there’s all these great weeds getting ready to be harvested now, too.” And I’m like, “What? That you forage for drying?” [Laughter.] So are you out there foraging weeds?

Jenny: [Laughter.] Yeah. I pay people to go out and forage weeds.

Margaret: O.K. O.K. Tell us.

Jenny: Well, coming up, not quite yet, but getting there around September, late September, there’s all kinds of cool seedheads and pods out there. So we unfortunately have a ton of foxtail grass in our fields. It’s one of our epic weeds. So I take advantage of that and cut a lot of foxtail grass. It dries beautifully. It makes an arrangement look really nice.

Velvet leaf is one of my favorite weeds for dried flowers. It makes those nice little pods. It’s related to okra. And I just strip off all the big leaves and have these nice long stems loaded up with pods. So that’s really nice.

And then I call it penny-cress or pepper-cress maybe. I’ve heard it called different things. It’s just a little fluffy weed that we have that sometimes gets about 2 feet tall or so max, and that’s when I collect tons of that. Anything interesting, textural, pods.

Around that time of year, stuff is kind of drying out in the field naturally. And so you don’t even have to hang that kind of stuff. You can just … I use my old leaky buckets, and I use them for gathering weeds in. And I just stand them upright in the drying loft and let them dry that way. It’s great stuff.

Margaret: Right. O.K. So we can do a little foraging and so forth. O.K. So we dry it, and you know it’s dry when it’s … I don’t know. It just looks dry? Brittle? Is there a timeline? I mean, you said you already have stuff up there, which I assume is dry—some of the spring stuff like those ranunculus probably were dry, what, in a couple of weeks or a week, or?

Jenny: Yeah, it depends totally on the weather, right? So this summer, stuff has been drying really quickly. It’s been drying in about two weeks. And yeah, I just go and I feel it, and if it feels dry, it’s pretty dry. I feel the thickest part of the stem and give it a squeeze, and if it has any give to it, I let it keep hanging. But if it feels pretty brittle, I know that it’s finished. But then later in the fall, we’ve had these humid Octobers the last few years, and it can take things six weeks, eight weeks, 10 weeks, even, to dry when it’s humid like that. And that’s when you have to be especially careful about the mold and making sure you have good air flow in your bunches.

And then once they’re dry, I mean, you can certainly keep them hanging, but if you are drying in a spot, and you need more space … I take them down once they’re dry, I put them in a box with newspaper, and I throw a few of those little packets of silica that come in your shoe box.

Margaret: Right. The desiccant.

Jenny: Yeah. I hoard those little packets, and you can microwave them and dry them out again. You can use them over and over and over again. And I throw a few of those packets in a box of dried flowers. And that way, if you get a humid week in October or something like that, your flowers don’t rehydrate, which they can tend to do sometimes. So just a little extra desiccant before, while they’re in storage, helps.

Margaret: And so, I mean, if I’m going to use these, as I said, my only real experience with them is growing up with someone who pressed them—it was more almost like making scientific herbarium slides except she was doing it strictly decoratively. So they were flattened. They weren’t dried in 3-D.

And you do this … I assume, you sell these, you sell bunches or arrangements and so forth at your shop in Hillsdale, New York, or are you going to do it mail-order as well? Is that another thing this year that you’re doing? Going to have them-

Jenny: Yeah. We’re going to get them up on the website and do mail-order this year [starting about Labor Day; check their website, or Instagram].

Margaret: O.K. And I have to say to people that I really admire—and we talked about this, we did an article in “The New York Times” together early in the season—and I really admired that you guys, as flower farmers, knowing that there wouldn’t be a lot of big events to utilize all your crops with, you pivoted smartly as did many other nimble, smart farmers and said, “Hey, we’re going to sell some of our dahlia tubers instead of planting them. And we’re going to sell them mail order to gardeners.” And you’re recognizing that things are different this year. And so good for you for doing that ,and good for us, too, if we want to order. [Laughter.]

But when you think about making an arrangement with dried material, are you approaching it the same way design-wise and structurally? What are you using as a base? How is it different from … I mean, it’s not a vase of water. Is it still a vase? I mean, what are you doing?

Jenny: It can be. It often is. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good … well, let’s see. So the first thing I think about is that I still … I do not want a stuffy, 1980s-style dried arrangement, right? I want a dried arrangement to look very much like my fresh arrangements do, which is wild and like they just came out of the garden. And one of the things I think about is when you’re driving down the road in the winter, and you see those beautiful stands of dried grasses and dried weeds and bare, twiggy trees, that’s a really beautiful scene, and how can we recreate that with dried flowers instead of having these very formal, stylized arrangements, right?

Margaret: O.K.

Jenny: So in that sense, I do use a high amount of natural colors and textures to the bright-colored, purposely dried flowers. I like that look a lot. So I also don’t … we don’t use any floral foam or anything like that. It’s toxic, and it never biodegrades, so we avoid that like crazy. And it took me a long time to figure out how to do a dried arrangement without that. So now for the most part, I use a vase or a flower frog. And if I don’t have a frog, I cram balled chicken wire into a vase, just like I do for a fresh arrangement often. And I just start filling it in, and it works nicely. And then there’s the whole realm of wreaths, wall hangings, and things like that, too. There’s a lot you can do with dried flowers.

Margaret: With the wreaths, do you use some kind of particular wreath base, or is that a foraged thing, like grapevine. What’s the wreath base because, again, you’re not using the foam kind of thing?

Jenny: Right. I mostly go around sometime in September and yank all the grapevine out of the trees and use that. We have so much of it. It’s choking out the trees. I feel like it’s my good deed for the year to go and yank it out of the trees. And then I just can wind it up really easily and make a nice wreath frame. If I’m doing a fussy little formal wreath, like that’s kind of small and circular, maybe all, I don’t know, all statice in a perfect circle or something like that, I’ll use a metal wreath frame you can buy at the floral supply, but mostly I do grapevine. Wisteria works well.

Margaret: And do you just kind of work them in, the stems in, or do you glue gun or any other things that you do to adhere the things to the structure?

Jenny: I use wire on the wreaths. I just keep wrapping wire around the flowers, and then occasionally I will … I think of it is cheating, I shouldn’t, but occasionally a dab of glue to get that last piece in there that’s always hard to get in, it can use a little glue. But for the arrangements that would be in a vase or something, I don’t use anything. I’m trying to keep those as natural and free from any kind of mechanics as possible, so that they don’t look so stiff.

Margaret: Right, right. Hydrangeas, you mentioned, which kind do you think you have that you’re growing? Are they the big mop-toppy kind of blue things, or are they the panicle types or what that you’re growing, you mentioned earlier?

Jenny: Well, you tell me. You helped me pick them out.

Margaret: Oh, it’s my fault, is it? O.K.

Jenny: It’s your fault. They’re mostly the panicle types. I know I did ‘Limelight.’ And then I have a panicle type that’s really surprising, dark pink. It’s beautiful. I don’t have any mopheads, although I have seen those dried very nicely. But the panicles already are almost … some of them are almost already dry on the plants, and they’re very pretty.

Margaret: So those you’re going to cut and add to some of these arrangements, stem and all?

Jenny: Yeah. Yeah. And I’ll probably cut some in peak and dry them, and I’ll probably let some just dry on the plants. And they’ll turn brown if they dry on the plants, and that’s O.K. I want some of that also. If I cut them in color and dry them, they’ll be a flower in one of my arrangements. If I let them dry on the plant and they turn brown, I’ll cut them and use them, and then they’re a texture in my arrangements. So they have different uses.

Margaret: O.K. And what the heck do you do with like … if you have … I mean, I know what I would do. I’d probably compost it, but a dried arrangement that’s a little dusty? [Laughter.]

Jenny: Yes. Well, you can actually blow it off with a hairdryer.

Margaret: Oh, you’re kidding.

Jenny: Yeah. Most of it just blows right off. And you can keep a dried arrangement around for many years, if you want to, and they will get dusty, and the hairdryer trick, it works. It won’t keep all the dust off eventually, but… Yeah, I’m with you. I usually get tired of them by the end of the winter and want to see something new. And that’s part of why I try to keep arrangements so mechanics-free so that I can just throw it in the compost heap at the end of the season when the fresh flowers are coming in.

Margaret: Yeah. Good point. Good point. Well, Jenny, we’re basically out of time, but just super quick, catalogs that once they start coming in November, December that might have good everlastings and other things that could be dried. I mean, I know Select Seeds is one that you and I both use. Any other places you look for great things?

Jenny: Yeah. Select Seeds is where I go for something unusual, or different colors even. And then Johnny’s has a great selection of cut flowers. They’ve done really good job, and they have a lot of those everlastings also. And then I’d say when you’re looking at seeds, try some things just to experiment with, because you never know. Some things dry beautifully, and you’re surprised.

Margaret: O.K. All right. I’ll talk to you soon again and thank you for the first time ever my talking on the show or on the blog about dried flowers. Thanks, Jenny from Tiny Hearts Farm.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 31, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. jan says:

    Thank you, very informitive. I’ll be looking at my garden differently this fall. Usually, I leave everything for the birds, but may save some for myself this year.
    One needs to make sure that they aren’t collecting/drying/using invasives – for example, the oriental bittersweet is beautiful, and makes great wreaths and arrangements, but is “banned” in CT (prohibited from importation, movement, sale, purchase, transplanting, cultivation and distribution under CT General Statutes). Some “wild” grasses and seedpods also fall into this category, such as Canada thistle, Japanese hops, and many more…they look nice, but…especially if you dump them in your compost pile – you’ve introduced something bad to your yard.
    A couple years ago, I saw a small specialty grocery store sell oriental bittersweet…they said they sourced it from Wyoming or someplace where it wasn’t invasive…they did get rid of it once I told them (and the cipwg), but unless you look it up, it is easy not to know…even in the wild…if something looks too good to be true, it just might be.

    the CT list is at: https://cipwg.uconn.edu/invasive_plant_list/.
    I looked for the NY invasive “list” and found http://nyis.info/regulated-species/.

  2. Cheryl McNulty says:

    Love this episode. Gave me so many ideas not only to go outside and start collecting but also what to plant next year. Thank you.

  3. Cathryn Kaspe says:

    Great episode, Margaret! Now I want to enlarge my garden so I can plant some of these flowers!! I’m thinking I’ll add some of the newish Blue Wave Echinops, too!!

  4. Terry Gardner says:

    Funny story. Last year I had a hanging basket of Begonias. Mind you that was a year ago. Today I was weeding a small flower bed below where the hanging basket was last year. I started to pull a plant that was not there earlier this season. It had small pink flower and small leaves and compact to the ground. Then I realized it was a begonia. There were even more of them coming up between the bricks on the walkway. Crazy. I never thought a Begonia would self seed. I live in central Ohio.

  5. Louise says:

    I dry hydrangeas after they begin to turn pink. I also dry Autumnn Joy sedum. I wonder what else I could dry. I’ll look around!

  6. Amy Monteith says:

    Loved this episode! I grow and collect plant material for wreath making, and not only did I learn a lot, I loved listening to fellow gardeners who do the same! I listened three times, will likely listen again! Thank you!

  7. Cynthia Donahey says:

    People should try the double kerria. The bright gold petals were strewn at Versailles The buds last two or three months. Black locust petals were scattered at funerals. Using tree flower petals is not done much now.

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