Saturday, January 27

In Defense of Dead Plants

I have been reading with interest several web forum and blog posts about the issue of cleaning up your garden in the winter. Many gardeners--more than I would have anticipated--have confessed that they can't stand seeing dead plants in their garden at all. Some cut the plants down as they die, others do their garden cleanup in one fell swoop in the fall or early winter.

On the one hand, I can understand this compulsive cleanliness. On the other, I really feel that neat-as-a-pin gardeners may be missing out on a whole lot of winter interest. "A plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it is dead," says Piet Oudolf as quoted in Noel Kingsbury's recent book, Seedheads in the Garden. He was apparently half joking, but why not at least leave up those plants in your garden that don't turn to mush at the first sign of cold? Especially if you live in a climate where a quarter or so of every year is taken up by the monotonous grey/brown/white of winter.

Dead plants -- especially umbellifers, like bronze fennel, and those with sturdy skeletons like tall sedums, echinacea purpurea, and eryngium yuccafolium -- can collect interesting dabs of snow on their dried seedheads and other horizontal surfaces. Thin, brittle stems and bunched dried flowers on a background of soft white snow can give the effect of a lovely ink drawing right in your garden.

The worst plants to cut back too early, IMHO, are the grasses. Unlike the stick-straight architectural plants, the grasses contribute much-needed movement to the winter garden. They always remind me of the life hidden beneath the snow as the tips of their blades move to and fro in the winter winds.

(As Henry Mitchell noted, "I do say it takes very little to convince a a gardener he will make it right into spring." For me, all it takes is a few swaying grasses.)

Even those plants that are not much to look at during the winter... well, at least give you something to look at during the winter! I forget that I still have hollyhock foliage until the snow melts and the smallest of its rounded leaves pop jauntily back up into the air. I mentally tell the artemisia that it really needs a haircut when I walk past it, but I wouldn't want to cut it back in the fall and miss the way the melting snow falls through its fanned branches in small clumps.

Check out this picture of my back garden bed. Had I cut back everything I was supposed to at the "prescribed" time, here's what would be left in terms of plant life: The rhododendron in the back, the beginnings of an espaliered firethorn against the wall, and the clump of kniphofia foliage in the front.

Since nothing was cut back, the view includes little bluestem, 'Rotstrahlbusch' switchgrass, miscanthus zebrinus, and a rose bush whose upper leaves must be frozen onto the plant at this point. When there's not 4 inches of snow on the ground, you can also see groundcover sedums, the aforementioned hollyhocks, some young lady's mantle, dried Siberian iris foliage, some dead licorice plant clumps and the silvery stems of Russian sage (they disappear against the snow but show up aginst the mulch.)

As it is, I'm upset that I did cut back most of my bronze fennel, foxgloves, 'Hillside Black Beauty' bugbane, asclepias tuberosa, and verbena bonariensis. After checking out the gorgeous arrangements that Craig at Ellis Hollow put together this fall with the dead parts of such plants, I now have plans of my own. I can't wait to harvest dried material next October for a lush--but yes, very brown--Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Now that I think about it, maybe I need to plant some more Northern sea oats... and this may just give me the excuse that I was looking for to try out phlomis russeliana, too...


Carol Michel said...

It is hard for me to fight the temptation to cut back a lot in the fall. I do make sure to cut back plants that go to mush (like hostas) and those that self-sow wildly. The rest, depends on how much time I have. But you make a good case for less fall pruning.

Kristen said...

I, too like the sturdy brown stalks that catch the snow. Alas, I cut away most of what was in the front yard for fear of getting a citation or something. But, everything still stands in the back, and is a haven for birds. :)

Anonymous said...

You're quite right--your garden does look interesting (and like a garden!) even in winter since you leave your trimming for later. I do that too, although of course we don't get the snow, or even more than a few freezes, here in Austin. But I like the movement and foliage of plants, even when they are frost-bitten.

Still, spring isn't too far off for Austin, so it will be time to cut my plants back in a couple of weeks, if not sooner.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. How a plant looks in the winter is one of the things I consider when I pick something new.
You have given me lots of ideas!

Jennifer said...

Your garden looks so inviting, even in the middle of winter.

I don't cut back anything in the fall, even in the front where all the conservative neighbors can see :) My initial reason not to trim was reading somewhere that not cutting back in the fall can help some plants survive the winter. Especially here where we had a hard freeze in November and then December was like April.

Once I got my mind around the assumption that my plants must be green and flowering to be beautiful, I found leaving them up to turn brown and catch the snow was a new dimension to gardening. I like to watch new green shoots emerging in early spring amidst the dried stems of last fall.

Entangled said...

I was going to toss in my 2 cents about a better winter survival rate on plants not cut back in the fall, but Jennifer beat me to it. I think it makes a big difference with the semi-woody plants, such as Caryopteris, Buddleia, Perovskia, and some of the woodier herbs. I now wait a good long time in the spring before cutting these back.

Calamintha nepetoides is another one that looks good in snow - very lacy remants of flowerstalks.

Kerri said...

I used to cut everything off but I've been leaving most of mine these past 2 winters...seeds for the birds, plus winter interest...makes sense to me. There'll be time to tidy up when the warmer days come.
The tray feeder you asked about has 2 quarter inch drainage holes drilled into it. Ross added them after the tray filled up with rain for the first time. Sometimes the holes get plugged with seeds, but the water eventually drains. I'm loving having the birds so close for observation. They're no end of entertainment!

Unknown said...

Carol, you're right about the hostas--the turn from blazing yellow fall beauty to mush in seconds, I swear. :)

Kristen, I never really thought about the rules of various neighborhood associations and their affect on keeping dead plants around through the winter. Interesting...

pam, don't worry. With all of the rest of that gorgeousness you have in your garden, I don't think that you'll look bare at all come the spring cutback! *grin*

Sandy, I'm starting to try to think of those things as well. I'm glad that I gave you some ideas, as I admit to having soaked up plenty of inspiration from your beautiful photos!

Jennifer, good point about some plants taking a measure of protection from the dead crown... I had forgotten about that. Do your conservative neighbors ever say much about your front yard?

Entangled, I keep flirting with buying a calamintha or two, but somehow I still haven't! Don't know why. Maybe I will finally get around to it for the sake of the winter garden. :)

Kerri, do your birds eat the seedheads even though you have that wonderful 24-hour buffet set up for them, too? *grin* Thanks for the info about the tray feeder. I just showed it to my boyfriend and mentioned the drainage holes, etc. He's promised to build me one!

Anonymous said...

Carol: I've got some hostas (don't have a variety name) that throw up 5 foot flower stalks that I leave up all winter. The mushy leaves don't bother me.

Kim: Thanks for the kind words and the link. I took some pix this weekend of a larger arrangement I did that I'll post when I find time to pull them off the camera and deal with them.

I've got some phlomis (unsure of species) that would work well in these arrangements, but it hasn't really thrived. I think that my heavy, wet soil might not what it likes. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is similar, though finer (see here), and it thrives around here. I couldn't get rid of it if I tried.

BTW: I'm Craig Cramer. I've just been posting under Ellis Hollow, the name of my blog and where I live.

Ki said...

Birds love a messy yard. We went to a Mastergardener lecture on attracting birds to your yard and one of the first things mentioned was to leave all the dead flowers and plants as shelter and food for overwintering birds. Being a lazy so and so, that was great news to me! No Fall cleanup - music to my ears!

Unknown said...

Craig, thanks for setting me straight! I don't know how I put your first name and blog name together to make up a new name for you... must be the lack of sleep lately. (I've been crazy busy at work.) Sorry about that.

I think that I could grow the phlomis here because my soil is so sandy--but I admit that I wonder if it will take over in these conditions. I guess I'll find out!

ki, thanks! It's nice to have another good reason to avoid the fall cleanup... I'm like you in that regard. :)

Jennifer said...

Kim: No one has complained (to my face) about my yard. I did read through our village "rules" and noted the only thing pertaining to yards was that the grass must be kept short. Since I hate mowing and generally remove grass for more gardening space as time allows and my body is willing, I have been close to violating this more than once :)

Jackie said...

Great commentary on clean yards. I too allow spent plants to remain as I love watching assorted birds come and eat the seeds, or hunt for overwintering insects. I consider dry, brown plants a part of the landscape too, and I put off removing those as long as possible so my garden still looks interesting.

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