To dead head or not to dead head, that is the question

Phlomis and Stipa tenuissima in the morning light of autumn

I have never done so much dead heading in my life before. Not that I mind it, you understand, more that I am surprised to find it becoming part of my routine. The need was not anticipated. But neither have we ever had extensive areas of summer perennials before. This week, I achieved what was a milestone for me – the completion of the revamped Iolanthe Garden as a perennial meadow (I use the word ‘meadow’ loosely, here.) That gives us close to an acre (0.4 hectare) of new summer gardens finished.

It has been heavily influenced by the New Perennials movement, led by its uncrowned monarch, Dutch designer, plantsman and gardener, Piet Oudolf. Anything and everything you read about this modern approach to perennial gardening will refer to its lower maintenance requirements and leaving the plants and all the seed heads to stand well into winter, that there is beauty in that black and brown decay of autumn and winter until everything is cut down to the ground – usually in February, so very late northern winter. Besides, all those seed heads feed the birds and save them from starving when food supplies are desperately short. Oudolf has coined the term ‘fifth season’ to describe that period in late autumn when low light levels, frost, dew and sometimes snow light the blackened tips of plants to make them sparkle. There are many beautiful photographs on line capturing this phenomenon.

You can have too much of a good thing – Verbena bonariensis and fennel

It is different in New Zealand. Boy is it different. Only the coldest parts of the country have that winter hiatus. Most of us have flowers and seasonal interest all year round. A large proportion of the plants we use are evergreen so never die down to ground level. There is food for the birds all year round and they are not in danger of starving. Besides, most of those seed and grain eating birds are the introduced ones (sparrows!). Our native birds tend to favour fruit or partaking of nectar. Our light levels don’t drop in winter. A midwinter’s day can be as clear and bright as midsummer.

And we have a problem with garden escapes becoming weeds. That is the big issue that has me out there dead heading. Much and all as I love Verbena bonariensis, I don’t want mountains of it everywhere. The same goes for crocosmia be it yellow, orange or red, kniphofia (red hot pokers), some of the asters, tigridia (jockey caps), eryngium, dietes, fennel, nicotiana, verbascums and quite a few other plants we are growing. Even Gloriosa superba sets so much seed it is threatening to become a weed. There is nothing for it but to get out there with my snips and bucket to reduce the seed heads.

Amaranthus caudatus – not unwelcome in this situation but a surprise arrival in the compost

There is a slight problem with disposing of the seed heads. Even though we make hot compost, too many seeds come out the other end of the process and live to germinate and grow another day in another place around the garden. This unexpected display of amaranthus arrived in the compost I spread in this area. I have learned my lesson. Now I stow the seed heads in deep shade on the wilder margins of the property where few will germinate because they don’t see the sun.

A sampling of seeds that need removing. I contemplating setting it up as one of those quizzes for bored readers to identify but I would rather be out gardening. Top left tigridia and fennel, bottom left nicotiana, eryngium and dietes, centre crocosmia, top left aster, bottom right Lilium formasanu,. kniphofia and Verbena bonariensis.

The skills come in knowing which plants need total removal of seed heads (kniphofia and tigridias, for example), which plants need the removal of most seed heads to restrict their self-seeding (such as eryngiums, fennel, crocosmia, verbascums and Verbena bonariensis) and which plants don’t need to be dead headed because they are either welcome to seed down (I am not sure than I will ever have too many echinaceas) or because they don’t seem to cause a seeding problem (phlomis and the grasses). Then there are a few plants that I will dead head because that encourages them to flower again (roses, though I don’t grow many of those these days, and some of the daisies).

There is no substitution for observation and experience. We can not just take gardening practices from other climates and assume it will be the same here. If I have another 20 years, I may be able to come up with plant lists that are specifically designed for our conditions. For anyone thinking that maybe it would be better to concentrate on using our native plants, consider the fact that most of our sunny perennials are alpine. In our lowland conditions, native perennials are shade loving foliage plants with a heavy emphasis on ferns.

I want some eryngiums to self seed but not all of them

Two footnotes: the acclaimed film about Piet Oudolf, called ‘Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf’ is available free to stream this weekend only. We plan on watching it this evening, as long as I can work out again how to get Chromecast working. Where is a teenager or young person when you need one? It is being streamed from

And we are opening the garden and unveiling the new summer gardens for ten days this spring during the annual Taranaki Garden Festival, October 30 to November 8. As part of that, I am considering offering workshops on new directions with sunny perennials and managing meadows in our climate. Numbers will be strictly limited so look for details when the programme comes out.

May your lockdowns go well, or at least harmoniously. The end is in sight for us in NZ, with the strong possibility that we can eliminate the virus and return to some sort of Covid-free normality – as long as our border stays closed. Just don’t try injecting, drinking or otherwise consuming disinfectant – you may then be Covid-free but actual scientists tell us you will also be dead.

13 thoughts on “To dead head or not to dead head, that is the question

  1. tonytomeo

    I never get this deadheading business straight. There are very few that I am pretty certain about. I do deadhead agapanthus because they look bad, and no one eats the seeds anyway. I leave New Zealand flax because a neighbor likes the dried floral stalks, and has me cut them when they are ready for dried floral design. Every one is different.

  2. Patricia Deveraux

    OMG, the Five Seasons movie of Piet Oudolf’s gardens is …is…I’m speechless!
    I’ve watched it mesmerised when I “should” have been outdoors on this glorious
    Anzac weekend, but no way was I going to stop. I shall watch again tonight, maybe even again tomorrow while it’s still available. Bless you for including the link xxx
    I look forward to a similar movie of your southern hemisphere version, lol

  3. Sue Kopetko

    Hi Abbie. I only started subscribing to your emails about a fortnight ago.  I had no idea beforehand that they would be so frequent and that I would look forward to receiving them so much. Apart from just generally thanking you for your enjoyable writings and photos, I would particularly like to thank you for letting me know – along with all your other readers, of course – of the free streaming of the Piet Oudolf documentary.  It was lovely to see, particularly with it covering the only garden of his that I have ever seen, the Hauser & Wirth one in Somerset in 2016. Warm regards, Sue Kopetko(a Canberra resident, planning to include some Jury magnolias in the new garden to go with the new house currently being built for us)

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Dear Sue, thanks for your kind words. I don’t usually post so frequently – that is a reaction to the strange times of lockdown that we are sharing across the world. It is usually once a week at the most. Canberra and magnolias – Hmmm. Our elder daughter lives there and it is certainly not an easy gardening climate. I have been there in spring and seen the frost damage to the magnolia buds. Could I suggest that you take particular note of which ones are performing well around your area? And avoid anything that says ‘early’.
      We were planning to see the Hauser and Wirth this July – I wrote about the trip that we are no longer doing a couple of weeks ago. Kind regards, Abbie

  4. Sue Londesborough

    I’ve seen the Piet Oudolf film (before lockdown) and found it mesmerising and inspirational!
    I was interested to note that many of your self seeders are also a problem for me in my garden!
    Thanks so much for your blog. Please keep it coming!

  5. Paddy Tobin

    The book “Planting the Oudolf Garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset” is the one place where I have read it stated ever so perfectly clearly that maintenance of such plantings is not only necessary but absolutely essential and that without it the garden would not develop as envisioned.
    I enjoyed Piet Oudolf’s planting at Trentham and this surprised me but the weather there is quite different to ours in Ireland. For the winter display, those crisp frosty photographs of plant skeletons, one needs a dry and harsh winter something we do not experience here in Ireland. Here, we have wet, muggy conditions and any hope of such a winter scene collapse to a muddy, mucky brown mess. By the way, we deadhead almost everything very thoroughly. Off with their heads!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Your Irish conditions sound like ours! I also realised, looking at the film, that those photos all rely on lowered light levels and the light coming in from low winter angles. With our latitude here, we just don’t get that type of light at all, unless in the farthest south of the country. But I would rather live with the clarity of our bright winter light and forgo those haunting scenes.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks for that. As I have learned, intensive management is needed to get these gardens established. Another difference is that I think we expect our gardens to work harder for a much longer time – all year, pretty much. And when we went to see Oudolf at Pensthorpe, we were about three weeks too early to see it at is glory. There isn’t a whole lot to carry these gardens outside of summer and autumn.

  6. Tim Dutton

    Apart from dead-heading dahlias to get repeat flowering we try to dead-head every scrap of Agapanthus and Crocosmia, as although we love the flowers we have learnt just how prolific they are as self-seeders in our garden. Verbena bonariensis is forgiven for seeding everywhere as it looks so good and is easy to pull out at any stage.
    Thanks for sharing the Piet Oudolf link: we’d never have seen the film otherwise. We were amazed at the way his garden was cut down and then mowed at the end of the winter. We certainly couldn’t do that here: no real winter (-3C is a heavy frost), so things grow pretty much all year round. By late winter the new season Miscanthus shoots would already be 15 cms tall and we can never cut it to ground level. And I noticed yesterday I already have some Allium sphaerocephalon green shoots coming up when I was finally pulling off the old flower stems that were looking a bit the worse for wear, leaning drunkenly every which way.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We are very much on the same page, Tim. I see the first of our narcissi are through already. And other spring bulbs have fresh roots. When they know down, they really do start with a blank slate for the season.

  7. Pingback: Seven days from the winter solstice – Tikorangi this week | Tikorangi The Jury Garden

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