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!)