Deadhead(er)s in the Garden
May 27, 2021
Creative resistance was kicking my butt at the drawing board so I headed outside. Cora confirmed in a quick text that this afternoon yes, would be wonderful for a visit, so I headed across the river to her place lickety-split for a garden excursion and a mood shift.
We made the Dwarfs in the Meadow Habitat Garden (Cora and George’s place) last Fall, only six months ago. It includes a colorful mix of dwarf conifers with meadow perennials that make habitat of the former lawn. I do love a Fall planting. It takes patience as you wait over the rainy winter months, nothing happening above ground and then boom! spring hits and rain-grown root balls explode from deeper in the earth than we know. So, when I pulled into Cora’s driveway and saw the color and growth, the highlights and flushes of vertical stalks, I was filled with that special kind of joy that comes from a calm willingness to wait for it.
Joy holds curiosity, wonder, an open-heart. Joy is kind, playful, laughing and connected. Joy is generous. All the very best things you can be are held by the great big lopsided bowl that is joy. A garden that evokes joy is medicine for your soul.
Cora, from Scotland, lover of her low water lawn substitute, is also admirable for her joyful nature. She delights in seeing each day’s changes out her front door. A new surprise today was the first sign of the broccoli-head buds of an old hydrangea that has never bloomed. At least not since she’s lived there. I suspect a hard pruning to get the place “market ready” took it back to the base and it’s had only new wood since. Most big leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) bloom on old wood. Looks like it took a couple of years for this big guy to develop old enough wood! I’ll have to return next month to see the long anticipated blooms.
We ambled through the front garden on the decomposed granite paths. Cora wondered about deadheading. Actually she said, “I’m a deadheader.” Oh yeah, definitely a fan of puttering, this one. A real joy bird!
As we strolled and admired, Cora and I talked about deadheading – how it effects different plants differently and how to know when to deadhead and when to hold off.
Some perennial and annual plants respond to deadheading with a second wave of bloom. They’ll re-bloom until they’ve set seed. Deadheading essentially rewinds the plant’s natural cycle from flower to seed. The avens (Geum coccineum ’Queen of Orange’) and speedwell (Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’) in Cora’s garden will definitely re-bloom with deadheading. I’m curious about the beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker’s Red’). It seems worth a try. In general, spring and early summer-blooming perennials are good candidates for re-bloom over the summer. Meadow sage (Salvia nemerosa), yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and some torch lillies (like Kniphofia ‘Mango Popsicle’) thank your deadheading task with at least one more flush of bloom. When you know which of your early blooming perennials have this tendency, you can trim the stalks all the way down to the rosette of leaves once the flowers fade. Towards the end of summer though, just let them be. Let them go to seed and rest for the year.
The seed heads of tulips, daffodils, and oriental lillies are best lopped off for another line of reasoning. For these bulbs, energy put towards seed growth robs the bulb of vigor for the following year’s flowers. Snapping daff heads is a great way to fidget while stuck on hold on the phone, or in passing as a sign of care for your garden.
A third type of plant we talked about is the re-seeding biennial Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum). Today, the speckles of bright orange throughout the meadow are sparking fun and cheerfulness. Cora points to more buds coming from lower on the plants, a second wave in the making. Should she deadhead? I’ve seen this native flower disappear in one garden, and only lightly spread through self-seeding in another. So, I say to favor seed production over re-bloom. With a shy seeder, I want all the little pods to ripen brown and dry to scatter around. This is the main plant in Cora’s garden that has the potential to add a naturalized, spontaneous flower weaving throughout, changing companions and vignettes from year to year. But only if you let it go to seed. Restrain your inner deadheader!
Angelica (Angelica archangelica), which we planted years ago in another garden, is an example of a re-seeding biennial that needs the opposite approach. Big and beautiful as it is, invoking the feeling of fairy land, dwarfed by giant umbels, magical spheres of May, angelica needs to have most of its heads cut off before the abundant seeds near anything close to brown. It’s a prolific seeder and all those little seeds want to become great big four foot wide by eight foot tall plants. There’s only so much room! Keep just enough seed heads to ensure there’s always some volunteers, cut the rest down and smell the sweetness of green angelica stalks as you work.
Back in Cora’s garden, shaded by a Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) ready to smother its branches in honeyed, white lanterns, we planted swathes of foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia ‘Brandywine’). With lush new leaves hidden under a scrim of light little stalks already shifting tan to brown, the foamflower’s blooms have come and gone. Deadheading these is a good idea only for the sake of revealing the patterned leaves and tidying up. I don’t expect any re-bloom. The stalks aren’t particularly architectural. They’re growing on the front corner here, a good place to show a little polish. But honestly, if the foamflower were in a shady nook of my back garden, I’d probably let the flower stalks stand until they withered on their own. Call me lazy, but I like watching what happens when I don’t interfere. When the Heuchera finish blooming, treat them the same way, neat and tidy for the kind of joy that comes from tending, or loose and gauzy for a different kind of wonder.
A sixth type of plant here and hopefully in your garden, too (if not, head to the nursery!) are those whose seed heads are as much a part of their interest as their blooms. Cora has astilbe (Astilbe ‘Cappuccino’) growing in a few areas of her garden. They look promising now in May, with confident buds raising on dark stalks. Their lacy foliage is glossy and darkly fresh. Later a froth of clean white flowers will stand out from down the block. Summer’s passing is another form of aging when you’re a plant. Instead of graying like old men or dogs, astilbe browns. Let it stand. There’s no benefit from deadheading. No repeat bloom. You might consider it tidier, but then you’re left with a blank spot in the planting. However, as you sit back, pruners holstered, you provide habitat for nesting bees and other insects. You let a new kind of beauty attract interest in your garden. Strong upright stalks catch dew and attract seed eating birds. In my garden, it’s the evening primrose, the opium poppy, and the alliums that stand long and beautiful. Garden grasses, like the autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis) and feather reed grass (Calamgrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) that define the meadow-iness of Cora’s garden have wonderful, long lasting seed heads. It’s a poverty to miss out on their long show through winter if you mistakenly deadhead them.
Making your garden rounds, pause before snipping spent stalks. Are you addressing a plant that will re-bloom or one with potentially interesting seed heads? If these seeds ripen, will it be a blessing to see volunteers or a burden? How important is tidiness versus the possibility of letting some small creature make a home in the debris?
There are many right answers in the garden. Approach with curiosity and wonder, connection and generosity. Let your inner deadheader putter and preen amidst the roses and patio pots with only a light foray into the nature – forward zones of your yard.
Who benefits from deadheading in your garden? Is there a plant you’re not sure about? Comment below!