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Saving summer

June 20, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

Much of this year's lavender has been harvested. Two plants yielded more than a thousand stems that are bunched and hanging in the garage to dry.

Now it's time to think about other dried pretties and tasties to brighten the winter.

Different plants require different handling if they going to dry well. Generally plants chosen for drying - whether they are for cooking or display - should be picked after the dew has evaporated in the morning. Quick drying helps preserve the color and flavor. One of the critical components for preserving plant material is to place them a dark, warm, dry location with good ventilation. A garage is better than a basement.

Kitchen herbs should be picked before they flower, except for oregano that develops better flavor after blooming. Forget about drying chives, coriander and parsley. They are so easily available fresh for much of the year. Most other seasoning herbs can be hung to dry.

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Tarragon retains its flavor and color better if placed in a brown paper bag and stored in your frost-free refrigerator for several weeks. Sage, because it has such thick leaves, has a tendency to mildew if dried in bundles. Instead, pull off the leaves and place them in a single layer on an old window screen raised up from the floor.

Since mid-June is bee-balm time, you might also want to strip some petals and screen-dry them as well. They will add a cheerful touch to winter salads and breads. Rose petals for potpourri and cooking are also candidates for screen drying.

When the herbs feel dry to the touch, store them out of the light in glass containers with tight fitting lids.

There are innumerable, elaborate ways to preserve flowers and foliage for arrangements and wreaths - silica gel and sand are but two. I find it simpler to dry things naturally. Winter arrangements that combine interesting shapes with touches of color that are reminders (but usually not exact facsimiles) of the summer garden are my goal. Right now the garden is full of attractive plant material.

Echinacea, daisies, chamomile and Queen Anne's Lace are best dried by poking the flower stems through a piece of hardware cloth, raised so the stems don't touch the ground, until the flower head is flush with the metal. This way the petals don't droop. If you need a lot of Queen Anne's Lace and the stems are not important - perhaps for decorating the tree and mantle at Christmas - lay the flowers flat, in a single layer, between sheets of newspaper, then place the newspapers under a rug in an area where there is little traffic.

Pods and seed heads with stiff stems, when placed upright in tall jars, will dry with more graceful curves than if they are hung upside down.

They should all be picked when they begin to look dry. Some of my "pod-dy" favorites include: false indigo, swamp milkweed, rue, sweet cicely, day lily, poppy, nigella and money plant. Money plant needs post-drying treatment as well. When the ovals are dry, strip the coating on both side of the pod to reveal the silvery "money."

Since nigella is an annual and money plant a biennual, strew a few of these seeds on the ground to assure future crops. So that the seedy floss from milkweed and swamp milkweed don't spread all over the neighborhood, cut these just as they start drying and place the seed heads in a large brown paper bag. Tie at the top. When the pods are dry, use your fingers to push the floss out of the pod into the bag. Put the bag in the trash.

Globe thistle and sea holly are best gathered just as the flowers are opening. The same is true of hydrangeas and baby's breath. With goldenrod, tansy, Lady's mantle, statice, sea lavender and yarrow, wait until about one-third of the flowers open. The rest will open as the stems dry. Strip the leaves from the stems of the plants and stand upright in a tall vase.

As soon as your flowers, stems, seeds, pods are dry, place them in large, black plastic bags and tie tightly. Store in a cool dark place until you are ready to make something wonderful happen with them. Come fall you'll have elegant bouquets and a cupboard full of tasty herbs to grace your home.

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