Long after the season for cut flowers has passed, dried versions of summer's bounty let you continue to enjoy color from your garden. Flowers that dry well are typically colorful, compact, strong-stemmed, and relatively low in moisture content. Most flowers can be preserved by air-drying them in bunches. However, fragile and moist blooms such as anemones, daisies, pansies, and zinnias need to be dried with silica gel. Here's how to collect and dry your own flowers.
Harvest Flowers. Harvest stems just as the first flowers reach maturity. Don't wait too long. Flowers at the top of the stem may be partially closed, but that's okay. The best time to harvest is mid-morning on a slightly breezy day. By midmorning, the dew has dried off the leaves, but it will be a while before any flowers wilt. Dampness slows drying and can lead to mold. When cutting, take as much stem as possible and make a clean, angled cut with a sharp pruner.
Air-Dry Bunches. Choose a cool, dry, airy room such as a spare bedroom or large closet as your drying room. Low light is fine, but direct light will drain the color from your flowers. Hang flowers upside down in 1-1/2-inch-thick (at their stem) bunches spaced apart. Secure the bunches with a rubber band and hang from a 1/2-inch-diameter horizontal pole, a pipe from the ceiling, or a drying rack. Bent paper clips make perfect hangers for your bunches. Place newspaper or a dropcloth under the bunches to catch fallen leaves and petals.
Apply Silica Gel. To preserve fragile and moist blooms, use silica gel, available from florist and craft suppliers. In a shallow, airtight plastic or glass container, spread the flowers on a 1-inch-thick layer of silica. Carefully spoon more silica on top until you've covered the flowers with at least another inch of powder. Seal the container and leave it for 3 to 4 days. Or microwave the flowers, sealed in a plastic container, for about 3 minutes. Allow 15 minutes to cool.
Remove the Finished Flowers. Check the blossoms to be sure they are adequately dried. With either method, remove the blossoms carefully when they're finished drying, and shake or brush off the crystals lightly. Store dried flowers in arrangements out of direct sun to reduce the leaching of color from the blossoms.
You don't need a field full of flowers to have enough for drying. Just three or four plants of each type will yield enough stems for several dried arrangements.
Harvest more flowers than you need. Many preserved flowers are fragile, and you will undoubtably lose a few in the drying process.
Air-drying flowers takes 10 to 20 days, depending on the plant. When dried, the stems should snap easily. Good plants for air-drying include yarrow (Achillea), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), larkspur (Consolida ambigua), globe amaranth (Gomphrena), pink paper daisy (Helipterum roseum), statice (Limonium), and starflower (Scabiosa stellata).
Photography by former managing editor Sabin Gratz/National Gardening Association