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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://www.hauserwirth.com/?fbclid=IwAR2YXqr5-VDT2TwThnzWxVF2lzS4HXMVCV-l9166HQsVlTqqktF-QYsMTm4
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.