By Gretel Adams
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Growing for Market Magazine.
I wrote an article that ran in the August 2015 GFM about how dried flowers are making a comeback. Well, they are definitely on trend now, and they are also a great way to add value to the end of your season. With more neutral tones being popular due to the bleached flowers and foliage that are coming in from overseas, it actually makes more crops a viable option.
Typically, you would want flowers that retain their color when dried. But now florists are liking hydrangeas that have faded to tan as they dried on the plant, and feathertop grass that has turned white when dried.
We don’t start making dried flower bouquets and wreaths until frost hits, just because dahlia harvest takes all our time in the fall. But the dried items help fill the booth for the farmers market season in late October into November, so it is a good way to still be in folks’ minds in the winter. When customers ask me how long they last, I usually tell them that I replace mine each year since they tend to get dusty. That also helps your sales the following year rather than them trying to hold onto them indefinitely.
Flower drying methods
Everything we dry can be hung upside down as we don’t have time for silica gel packets or preservatives, and we don’t have a freeze-drying machine to do full-petal items. Our dried flower adventure started with drying larkspur that was too bloomed out to sell fresh. Then, we would pull anything dryable from bouquets that came back from market, but now we plant and harvest things intentionally for drying also.
When hanging, we make sure that the bunch is small enough that the rubber band goes around it three times. As the flowers dry and shrink, this will ensure that the band still holds it together and bunches don’t fall apart as they dry.
Drying is a good use for the celosia that bloomed too short, or an influx of gomphrena that isn’t selling. Although it can help use up otherwise unsold product, it does take having the space to hang it for drying, as well as the labor of picking and storing it. It is a lot of work to put everything together when we should be digging and dividing dahlia tubers.
Also, it is hard to justify using our labor to harvest something for drying when we still have a lot of fresh flowers. We’re tracking the numbers, but this fall/winter of dried flower sales will be the deciding factor to see how much we actually need to dry to create all our designs, and to really calculate how much time we spent on all the dried flowers.
We started out drying flowers by hanging them from the beams in the sunroom of our house. But that led to way too much pollen and celosia seed raining down upon us, so we started hanging them in the garage studio space instead. Cutting them short enough so they didn’t hit you in the face when you walked underneath them became an issue.
Now we also use the attic of our barn with wires strung across to hang the flowers. The attic isn’t finished, you have to be really careful up there, so it still is not the most ideal space, but we are making it work with what we’ve got. Some place hot and dry is best, and a dark location will ensure more color retention as well. When it is finished drying, we place product into old flower boxes and put it up in the barn attic so we can hang more from the beams.
Many grasses are dryable, for both the foliage and the plumes. Just make sure to harvest them young enough that they aren’t already dropping pollen or seeds, so they don’t make a mess. We typically cover crop with rye and wheat for the winter, so I try to make sure there is a patch somewhere that is left unmowed so I can harvest it for drying.
Grass and grain items that we use for drying include: miscanthus plumes, amaranth, feathertop grass, oats, sea oats, and all kinds of millets. We also like to use the cover crop sorghum-sudangrass in place of broomcorn because the heads are smaller and a more manageable size. Though sorghum-sudangrass does not color up like broomcorn does, so it gives you more of a neutral look.
Both the spike (plumosa or spicata) varieties, and the brain or crested varieties (cristata) of celosia work well for these purposes. We’ve found the richer tones like red, burgundy, and magenta dry better. Sometimes the persimmon works and other times it looks brown.
Usually when we have tried to dry lime or yellow varieties, they turn brown. So we don’t dry a lot of the Sylphid we grow although I would like to. If you were in an area that had less humidity, or had someplace really hot to dry flowers, you might have better luck drying the lighter color varieties and getting them to retain color. You want the flowers to look dried, not dead.
Larkspur and statice are the most useful dried flowers to help get some nice color into your arrangements, and also provide volume. We don’t take the time to strip the leaves off the stems of larkspur for drying. After we go through and harvest the best stuff for fresh, someone follows behind and bunches the stems for drying that are too bloomed-out. Other flowers that are good for drying and will add color: gomphrena, strawflower, salvia, nigella pods, and yarrow Cloth of Gold. We like to use Safflower too but have found the white and yellow don’t dry as well. So we only grow the orange variety.
Hydrangeas can be dried once they turn green and papery and have started to antique. If you harvest them before they are mature enough, you will see the middle of the flower head start to wilt when you hang it. They make a great addition to dried bouquets or to Christmas wreaths with their fluffiness. We harvest some of them for green hydrangeas, and we also leave some on the plant until wintertime, so we get that nice tan dried hydrangea look (which has been a popular item with our florists this year).
Herbs work well and it is good to have some foliage dried to help fill arrangements. We use oregano with flowers (Kent’s Beauty is a favorite), sage, lavender, rosemary, and any type of mint. With the herbs, sometimes it takes a lot to make a little, so these are used sparingly when making wreaths. People seem to love the wreaths with lavender in them; they always sell first.
We also dry some dusty miller for foliage filler in our designs. It is kind of particular though because if you pick it too soft, it will rehydrate with the humidity in the air. Make sure to harvest turgid stems for best use as a dried flower.
Chili peppers are a great dryable item, and we used to grow a ton of them, but we decided picking off all the leaves is too much work. And even though I like them, folks in the Midwest aren’t as into the Southwestern chili pepper look as they should be.
We test a few new things every year that may get thrown out if they start to brown or don’t hold their color. Since our spot to dry flowers in the garage is open air, if we have a wet or humid spell, things sometimes rehydrate, which causes some browning as well. You want any flowers to look good when they are fresh going into the drying process. So if the celosia is too seedy or something is already looking rough in the field, it may not look any better after hanging.
With our dried product, we make flower arrangements and wreaths. The arrangements use the taller dried product and are about the same size as our regular size fresh mixed bouquets. Dried flowers are good for any time of year, but we typically have a hard time selling orange after Thanksgiving. We try to make a variety of different color palettes so folks can choose what best fits their home.
For quicker dried flower wreaths, we started using the same wreath machine we would use for our Christmas wreaths. We got wreath rings with smaller clamps, and we put some moss down on the base to help hold all the stems in place. We still use curly willow or grapevine as a base for some wreaths that aren’t a full design, like in the photo on this page, but most of them are made on the metal wreath ring.
We take a piece of lattice to the farmers market and hang it to attach the wreaths to for a full display. Floral wire is a great tool for all hanging purposes, and it’s stronger than you think. We also make a little loop that attaches to the back of the wreath for hanging on a nail.
It may seem like extra work during the busy part of the season but hanging flowers to dry helps extend the season in the fall and even into winter. And if you don’t have enough flowers to create your own designs there are fellow flower farmers that grow dried product and will ship. And if you need design inspiration, there are farmers out there working on building the trend with their Instagram feeds (@flowerfarmette, @farmerhands, @charleslittleandco).
Another benefit of using dried flowers is that you don’t have to worry about wilting in the heat like fresh flowers. And they are great for those foam-free installations that are so popular right now. Overall, I think they are still on the upswing of trends, and I’m glad their back in style! We are looking forward to incorporating even more of them into our designs.
Gretel & Steve Adams own Sunny Meadows Flower Farm in Columbus, Ohio. Follow on Instagram for more color and variety details: @sunnymeadowsflowerfarm, @flowerfarmette, and @flowerfarmer.