Dead or Alive?

This is the time of year where the diligent native plant gardener starts pruning away the dead stuff and make the garden, which looks a bit disheveled. Montana Wildlife Gardener's Even Native Gardens Need Maintenance post makes the point well: A garden is cultivated and differs from landscape by the care we lavish on it.

But here's my big problem: When is it time to take out the pruners? The Dichelostema ida-maia looked great in bloom in April. Red and lime green, who can resist? But even now, the rust and beige doesn't look too bad.

Pomona at Tulips in the Woods has an enchanting post about beauty in death. So here's a walk through my late summer garden with my question. Is it dead? Is it ugly? When is it time?

Schizopragma hydrangiosis "Moonlight" has long finished blooming. But do I really want to remove the spent flower stalks?

The petals on Carpentaria Californica have dropped long ago. But aren't the light green seedhead still beautiful?

The ceanothus thysiflorus does look a bit ratty, with orange and brown leaves, and dry twigs that have long forgotten about the blossoms. But really it's quite a delightful color combination .

I had hoped for multiple flower stalks on this hummingbird sage, but got only one. It's long finished blooming, but I do love the spent stalk against the grasses.

Even the leaves of that sage are a conundrum. Some of them are dead and brown (to be removed this weekend). Others are fresh and green. But then we have this.

Really quite pretty. Of course, it means the plant is being attacked by a fungus or something like it, but they seem to recover when the weather cools.

Many of the other salvias have gone through a complete change of leaves, from largish green leaves to rather small, hairy gray leaves for the summer. Yes, it is theoretically possible to pull off the dry remnant of the green. But it would take a lot of time. And really, don't the colors and shapes harmonize in an interesting way?

About Mimulus (monkeyflower) it's better to be quiet this time of year. Yes, we can see some green, but brown seems to dominate. Nothing like the plant that everyone wanted to see during the garden tour.

I actually moved my Native Garden sign from the Mimulus corner to the Eriogonum arborescens corner. This time of year, Mimulus is not winning converts to native plant gardening. In September or October, I'll prune away a good bit, but right now, the plant is stressed enough, and I look the other way.

So here we are, after out tour of the late summer garden. And the question remains: Why do some things seem so beautiful (like the Star of Persia seedhead above) and others make us cringe, and hope noone comes to see the garden for the next few months? When is it time to take out the pruning shears, and when is it better to wait?


Country Mouse said…
What a wonderful and informative post. I was just thinking myself about when to do what as the year turns - I was looking at my Douglas iris bed that needs dividing and wondering when to do that. I forget and I think I've read different things.
We could tag posts like this "yearly tasks" or something so they could be viewed as a set. Mr Rat and I were out in the chaparral doing the country mouse equivalent. I'll definitely post about that - who knows maybe even tomorrow.
Very nice, Town Mouse! As you, I don't remove hydrangea Moonlight flower stalks. It's interesting, I was also thinking about writing about plants after their death. I guess, it's that time of the year...
Brad B said…
Great post. I've been thinking about this as well because I often find the finished flowers, seed heads, etc. very beautiful in their own way. Or I see birds eating seeds, or bugs buzzing around the last flowers and it pains me to take away a food source from the little guys. Other times things bug me alot until I cut them back. The difference is completely illogical.

I think we need at least some change in our aesthetic. A perfectly manicured and orderly garden never did it for me and is generally destructive or wasteful for the environment. But totally ratty isn't so pretty either. Perhaps all of us that use native plants are striving to find that new aesthetic. It'll take some time. My housemate pulled out my monkeyflower thinking it was dying. Ouch.
I usually start dead-heading when things start blooming, and then get to busy to continue. Then I get into the whole progression to dry and seedheads and let things go. The worst mistake I made this way was to fall in love with the seed heads of the goldenrod, all fluffy and the bracts looked like tiny stars. I cussed myself for two years as I pulled those volunteer seedlings out of my garden beds!