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Preserving summer's blooms to brighten the gray months of winter

Drying flowers, an early Colonial practice, is one way to capture some of nature's summer bounty for the winter days that lie ahead. The flowers you choose should have fresh, young blooms. Generally, the proper time for gathering is just before the plants have reached their prime, usually in the first flush of their bloom. Pick some plants, such as goldenrod and other flowers that fluff up, at an even earlier stage, when the buds are full and about to open.

When they're gathered at this stage, the flowering seems to continue even after the bunches are hung up to dry.

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The blooms then fluff up, but they remain so securely compact that they don't shatter when handled for the final bouquet. Strawflowers and pearly everlastings are best when picked in the advanced bud stage.

Wildflowers start wilting almost as soon as they're cut. So take a can of drying gel with you when you're out in the field to start the drying process immediately.

Don't pick after a rain or a heavy morning dew.

Some flowers just won't dry attractively. Deep dark roses, such as American Beauty, will dry almost black. Large, full-blown flowers shatter easily, and very thin-petaled blooms - irises, tuberous begonias, tulips, and other fragile flowers - turn into a papery substance when dried.

Some flower gardeners consider drying an art, and knowing just when to pick comes only from trial and error. You'll develop the ''picking sense'' as you gain experience in your particular climate and locality.

After your flower selections begin to dry on the stem, cut them for the drying process. Just make sure to pick them when the leaves are free of moisture.

One good method of drying cut flowers is to hang them upside down to air-dry in a darkened area to retain form and color. Merely strip off the leaves and fasten the cut flowers into little bunches. Twist a rubber band or wire-tie around a few stems, but not so tightly as to crush the blossoms. Then suspend a few bunches on a clothesline in the garage, attic, or closet.

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The drying time varies from a few days to a week. The more quickly they dry, the better the colors.

Belles-of-Ireland, coral bells, larkspur, delphinium, daisies, blue salvia, and marigolds are good flowers to air-dry. You can experiment with others as well. In Colonial days people picked and dried cattails, goldenrod, sumac, Queen Anne's lace, curly dock, yarrow, wild grasses, and milkweed pods, as well as other garden favorites.

Dry small delicate flowers and grasses flat on trays, sheets of paper, and fine-wire screens. To get a graceful arc, simply let the long grasses and flowers hang over the edge of the tray.

Another technique for drying is using a drying medium. Buy silica-gel crystals, sold under a variety of trade names such as Flower-Dri, at florist and garden shops. Household borax, mixed with an equal amount of cornmeal, also works well, because there's less danger of crushing the petals. Clean, dry white sand is another option.

When using the borax, place the flowers in the mixture and put the open container in a warm, dry place for about two weeks.

Silica gel needs a different technique. Put a layer of the material in an airtight container. A large cookie tin or can with a tight plastic lid is ideal. Make sure the can is airtight; otherwise the gel may absorb too much moisture outside and the flowers won't dry properly.

Once you have the container, cut the flower stems to about one inch and push them into the drying substance so the flowers rest in the medium but do not touch one another. Then add more drying agent, making sure you get into all the crevices in the blossoms, and cover the flowers completely so they'll dry in a natural position.

If the petals fold under, they'll dry in that position. A polystyrene-foam base works well, because you can insert individual flower stems to keep the blossoms upright and not touching.

Drying time depends again on the flower size and the amount of moisture in the air. Usually small blossoms are ready after a day or two. Check to see if the petals are crisp and paperlike, but don't leave them in the drying medium too long or the colors will fade and the petals will shatter when touched.

Remember, if you use the gel mixture, the container must be airtight.

Tight bud roses, yellow daisies, carnations, miniature zinnias, dahlia, chrysanthemum, aster, pansies, snapdragons, Queen Anne's lace, and black-eyed Susans, as well as wildflower varieties, are all possible flower choices, with red and golden celosia turning out exceptionally well.

A much quicker method of drying is using a microwave oven, which reduces the time from days and weeks to minutes. But the microwave may change the colors of some flowers: reds turn to deep burgundy, purple to black, and whites to creamy white to gray brown shades. Yellows, pinks, oranges, light blues, and lavenders dry true.

Remember not to put any metal or polystyrene foam in the microwave oven. Use shoe boxes (staples removed), glass, and plastic or paper cups.

Leave about an inch of stem on the flower, put silica gel sand in the container, and stand the flower up with the stem in the sand. Then gently sprinkle sand over the petals and cover the entire flower so it will retain shape and color. Put a glass of water in one corner of the oven for moisture and turn on the highest oven setting.

Blooms need differing lengths of drying time, ranging from several seconds to about 3 minutes. Thick zinnias need 21/2 to 3 minutes; delicate daisies and petunias need less time. You'll need to keep a drying-time record of your experiments.

The next step takes patience. Remove the containers, but do not dig out the flowers immediately. Let the silica gel and blooms cool for a few hours or set overnight. Disturbing them too soon makes the flower limp.

Once the container cools sufficiently, gently pour off the covering sand and gently lift the blooms out. Hold the stem and use an artist's paintbrush to remove any sand from the petals. Glue back into place any petals that fall off. Finally, seal the blooms with hair spray or moisture protector.

Tape a toothpick to the stem of each flower and stick the toothpicks into the polystyrene foam until you're ready for making an arrangement. Don't store the flowers flat. Also, to keep the flowers from wilting and deteriorating in storage from moisture and dust, you'll need to make the foam base fit the storage container. When you're ready to make an flower arrangement, place the arranged flowers in a see-through, humidity-protective container: plastic shoe box, glass bowl, or plastic corsage holder, perhaps.

Dry foliage, such as fern, rose, and magnolia leaves, can also be dried in the microwave. Simply layer the leaves with paper toweling separating each leaf. Set the timer for one minute; then turn the leaves over for another minute. Wait about 15 minutes before using in decorating.

After a sufficient quantity of flowers are dry for your purposes, put them into a box with a layer of drying material to hold the stems. Since the dried flowers are so fragile, you should attach florist wire to the blossoms before the drying process (except when using the microwave process) to facilitate arranging the flowers and stems for next winter.

Push the florist wire down through the center, with a hook in the flower end. Pull the wire through the flower, straight and downward, until the hook catches and is hidden in the flower petals. If you want to discard the stems, merely cut the stems to the desired length and use the florist wire for a substitute stem when making an arrangement.

Don't try to arrange your dried flowers until the weather has cooled. Summer humidity could easily make them wilt.

What kind of containers can you use for the final winter bouquet? Let your imagination wander. A tiny bouquet in seashells or cut-glass vases and arrangements in large baskets or crocks are all possibilities. Actually, you really don't need vases or pots, because you don't need any water. You can arrange flowers on decorative pieces of wood or on an unusual stone slab. Use florist's oasis, sand, or polystyrene foam to hold the stems in place.

To make pressed flowers for pictures or other decorations, arrange the fresh flowers face down between several thicknesses of newspapers with a heavy weight on top. When the flowers are dry, glue them to cardboard or fabric for a natural background. Then cover with a glass and frame accordingly.

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