Deadheads in the garden

Our Tuesday volunteer group has been known for years — for ever? — as the “Deadheads” because they work in the Display Garden and traditionally, the biggest summer chore in these gardens has been to deadhead flowers to keep them from quitting and going to seed. While we still ask for help deadheading the annuals in the cutting garden to keep them blooming gangbusters, in recent years we have not deadheaded the other beds as rigorously. Now when the Deadheads ask if we want echinacea deadheaded in the pollinator bed we say, “No… let’s leave their seeds for the birds.” And when they ask if they should deadhead the betony, beebalm, cardoon, teasel, and eryngium, we say, “Nah, don’t those look cool?! Let’s leave them up for the winter.” Perhaps the Tuesday group needs a new name…

I know the betony (Stachys monnieri ‘Hummelo’) wouldn’t have bloomed again because we cut a couple of clumps back last year as a test, but the beebalm (Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’) might have rebloomed, and there are still buds opening along the echinacea stems. But right now I wouldn’t trade any of those seedheads for their flowers. Not only are they beautiful (in the eye of this beholder) but there is more wildlife activity in that garden than I ever remember seeing before. It’s positively mesmerizing – I’ve been so distracted that visitors have caught me gawping instead of working. Goldfinch, wrens, and sparrows are all vying for seeds and hummingbirds, bees and butterflies are still zinging around working all of the flowers that aren’t ready to go to seed yet.

But there’s a fine line between letting the garden go to seed and letting the garden go. Some gardeners and visitors might think the cardoon seedheads look more like the undead than the simply un-deadheaded. And I imagine that it might make some people nervous to watch them self-destruct and send helicopters wheeling on the wind to float with the butterflies and catch in the grass and on bare patches of soil. But that doesn’t make me nervous. As long as the stalks are still standing upright, surrounded by a colorful garden that looks tended (it’s been meticulously weeded and propped, if not deadheaded) rather than abandoned, and the birds are happy, then I figure we gardeners are as golden as the light that falls this time of year.

Do you deadhead everything up until the bitter end or do you leave seedheads standing for their looks and for the birds? Have you found a happy medium? (Have we? – All opinions welcome!)

4 thoughts on “Deadheads in the garden

  1. Definitely let the garden go here. Not happy as I deadheaded the Echinops too late only to watch their prolific seed heads explode all over the bed. No doubt I’ll be plagued with loads of new babies next year. Just as I was thinking of taking them all out in place of Eryngium. This is their revenge, I guess.

    Susan, At least echinops seedlings are easy to identify and remove…I have a friend who used to spray paint the seedheads. Not sure it kept them from self-destructing but I thought it was a fun way to cheat and keep their color a little longer! -kris

  2. I think some of the “deadheads” are absolutely gorgeous, little pieces of sculpture. I’m not so sure how much it affects the garden…I’ll leave that to you guys.

    We definitely get more seedlings popping up than we otherwise would. But I don’t mind a few extra freebies! -kris

  3. I agree that this year I have seen more butterflies, songbirds and hummingbirds. I am in between on deadheading. I leave some, but also cut back on plants that will rebloom. We have two more months, if the weather cooperates, that is plenty of time for some new color along with some food for the wildlife. I think it all depends upon the nature of the bed and types of plants.

    Reed, You’re absolutely right – there are no absolutes when it comes to deadheading. A little hear a little there and every year is different anyway. I am curious how long the monarda would have kept blooming… We’ll see next year! -kris

  4. Call me a contrarian here. I like seeing Blithewold’s gardens looking well-tended, not shabby chic. Yes, the birds and the bees can feast on some portion of the garden with a sign to educate visitors that this is the purpose of not dead-heading or cutting back.

    When I think of Blithewold’s gardens I picture lush and lovely, not tumbled and “gone by”. There, I said it.

    Ginny, thank you! All opinions welcome. These are your gardens too. We do still intend to keep the Rose and North Gardens in peak lush-and-loveliness all season as much as possible (non-blooming dahlias are disappointing us in the North…) And signage is coming … sometime soon… for the wildlife-centric stuff we try in the Display Garden. -kris

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