Welcome to our cellar. Please duck your head before entering, lest you become entangled in the stuff on the ceiling.
It isn't cobwebs but cockscombs that hang from the rafters -- huge red flower heads turned upside-down to dry in the cool, dark basement. Beyond the cockscombs hang several bunches of baby's breath, their delicate white flowers perfectly preserved in death. Then comes yarrow, statice and a number of other "everlastings," all tied up with string and looking just as pretty as when they were harvested last fall.
I wish my vegetables would keep that well. Try hanging a cabbage upside down for 6 months and see what happens.
I grow the everlastings for my wife, Meg, who uses the decorative flowers to make wreaths for fun and profit. Armed with a tool known as a glue gun -- a formidable weapon when hot -- Meg attaches the dried flowers to Styrofoam rings covered with Spanish moss. She works with painstaking precision, arranging the brittle flowers, coordinating the colors and fussing over each newly completed wreath as if she were its mother.
Of our two roles, Meg's is easily the most demanding. Growing everlastings is a snap. I've attended craft fairs where people paid $8 for a bouquet of dried flowers which cost 50 cents to raise.
It isn't difficult. Some of the most popular everlastings are perennials which, after planting, rarely need tending. These include yarrow (achillea) and gypsophila (pronounced gip-SOF-i-la), commonly known as baby's breath.
Yarrow produces yellow flower clusters borne on stiff, erect stems. Technically, this makes yarrow the ideal everlasting. Cutting the blooms regularly lengthens the harvest season. Yarrow forms dense root systems; the plants should be divided every 3 years.
Baby's breath yields masses of small, starry white flowers that are typically added to floral arrangements as filler material. It's a garnish, like parsley, except that baby's breath is darned expensive when sold by itself in bouquets.
Gypsophila means "gypsum" or lime-loving, so the plant is finicky about its soil requirements: an alkaline pH between 7.0 and 7.5 is ideal. Choose a double-flowering variety, such as "Perfecta." Several varieties of baby's breath produce single blooms, but the flowers are disappointing when dried.
Both yarrow and baby's breath plants are sold at most garden centers. Patient gardeners can also start them from seed, but don't expect a payoff for 2 years.
Most everlasting annuals are easily grown, thrive in warm weather and will tolerate drought. How much water does a dried flower need anyway?
Cockscomb (celosia), statice, globe amaranth (gomphrena) and strawflower (helichrysum) are our favorite annuals. All plants are grown from seed sown in flats, two months before the last frost date. We start them at the same time as tomatoes and peppers.
Most everlastings have drab foliage and are unsuited for a showy garden. I plant them in bare spots in the vegetable plot. However, both cockscomb, which resembles a rooster's comb, and globe amaranth, with its clover-like flowers of purple, rose and white, make striking additions to flower beds in the front yard.
When should everlastings be picked? Timing the harvest is critical. Most dried flowers should be cut before fully mature. Strawflowers, which come in a variety of colors from white to crimson, may even be picked in the bud stage. One plant may produce as many as 40 blooms, although a cool, wet summer can ruin the crop.
Statice produces a curious, paper-like flower with funnel-shaped blooms that should be cut when three-quarters of the funnels are open. Wait any longer, and the oldest blossoms will die. Experienced gardeners suggest earlier harvests for yellow and white statice, as the light-colored flowers fade more quickly than darker ones.
All of these everlastings can be hung to dry in a cool, dark, airy room. But try hanging them away from congested areas. I stumbled into a bouquet of Baby's-breath last week, got the flowers tangled in my hair, and wound up looking like a 220-pound flower girl at a wedding.