Tuesday, April 13, 2021 2:19 PM
As much as we look forward to the bounty of summer vegetables, it would be a sorry garden that had no cutting flowers to bring inside along with edibles. Even my no-frills Italian grandmother, with 10 children to feed, allowed a row of gladiolas some space along the edge of her vegetable plot, and sunflowers can be found nodding over many a serious grower’s garden fence. But incorporating a cutting bed full of colorful annuals into your vegetable garden, one filled with asters, cosmos, snapdragons, zinnias, marigolds, bachelor’s buttons, scabiosa, nasturtium, calendulas, tithonia and cleome, to name a few varieties, not only provides endless bouquets for the table, but attracts pollinators to your garden.
In addition to these traditional blooms, most of which are easily started by direct seeding or can be purchased as started seedlings, there is a group of flowers called everlastings, which deserve a spot in your cutting garden. Everlasting refers to flowers and seed pods that hold their shape and color after harvesting, making them suitable not only for bouquets when freshly cut but, after drying, for use in wreaths, sachets and long-lasting floral arrangements.
Many everlastings are perennial plants, such as lunaria, or money plant, with its papery silver discs and Chinese lantern, with bright orange globes. Sea holly (eryngium) has purple-blue flowers that look like small glowing thistles surrounded with distinctive bract collars in silvers, blues and greens. The heads of many hydrangeas dry into soft pastel globes, and yarrows, statice and lavenders also retain their soft colors when dry, while the cloud-like puffs of baby’s breath dry into airy filler. But some of the most beautiful everlastings are annuals that can easily be grown from seed and combined with other blooms in the cutting garden to make a riotous floral kaleidoscope. Gomphrena, or globe amaranth, has pink, purple, or white gumball-shaped flowers that bloom from early summer until the first hard frost. Another old-fashioned favorite, nigella, also known as love-in-a-mist, has blooms of pink, blue, white and lavender that are framed with lacy bracts (the ‘mist’ in the name), followed by gaily striped pods that are striking in both fresh and dried arrangements. Strawflowers’ daisy-like flowers come in brilliant shades of orange and yellow, as well as purple and pink, their blossoms looking like they’d been formed from colored paper. Celosias bear velvet-like flowers in rich colors and shapes ranging from combs to spikes to plumes, while ornamental amaranth, or love-lies-bleeding, has long trailing plumes in greens, white and, most common, rich burgundy.
All of these everlastings are easy to grow from seed started indoors, with the exception of nigella, which doesn’t like to be transplanted because it has a long tap root; it does best if seeds are direct-sown outdoors in early spring, when the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees. As nigella is a short-lived plant, for continuous bloom, repeat sow every four weeks. The others — gomphrena, celosia, amaranth and strawflower seeds — can be started inside right now and after hardening off, the seedlings set out after the danger of frost has passed.
Once your everlastings are thriving, they can be treated like any other annual and be cut for bouquets. As the season progresses, you’ll want to begin to cut them for drying.The best time to cut and gather everlastings is in late morning, before the blossoms have fully opened, but after the dew has dried. Nigella pods should be harvested while they are still somewhat greenish and fresh, and gomphrena, celosia, amaranth and strawflowers when they’re about three-quarters in bloom, as they continue to open as they dry. Cut the flowers close to base of the plant to keep stems as long as possible.
The simplest way to dry most everlastings is to hang-dry them, as you would herbs. Pull off their leaves and fasten them in small bunches with rubber bands, You can tie them with twine, but rubber bands will keep your bunches secure as the stems dry up and shrink. Small bunches work best, as bunches with too many stems prolong drying time. Dry flowers of the same species or variety together; they can be mixed with each other after drying. Hang them in a well-ventilated space out of the sun, to prevent fading. Attics of garages, barns, and houses can be choice locations for drying flowers, as are spare rooms, woodsheds and garden sheds. If you are drying only a bouquet or two a couple of hooks or nails to hang the flowers from will suffice. But for drying larger quantities of flowers, stretch a strong wire or two between the rafters, like a clothesline, to serve as drying lines.
While hanging works well for the gomphrena, strawflowers, celosia and nigella, as well as for perennial blossoms you might like to dry, like lavender, statice, sea holly and yarrow, others do better when placed upright to dry; this includes amaranth, Chinese lanterns, hydrangea and baby’s breath. Place these in jars, vases, or cans. It usually takes about five to six weeks for flower bunches to dry. Once they’re dry, you may want to protect your blossoms with tissue-paper wraps, to keep them dust-free until you’re ready to use them.
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