deadheading

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium on Pond Bench, dead flowers

Beauty in Death

A macabre title for something innocuous. The other day, I cut down flowering stalks of perennials that were past their best, as part of ongoing garden maintenance and cleanup. There were lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina), delphinium, mullein (Verbascum olympicum), blue fescue grass, achillea.

Bundling them together, I noticed how beautiful the textures and colours still were, in these technically dead flowers. I laid them on the cedar trunk bench, which contributed to the photos with its own colours and textures — the grain of the weathered wood, the dry moss and lichen growing on it.

Cut-down bloom stalks of lambs' ears, mullein, delphinium, achillea, blue fescue on Pond Bench. Dead flowers.

This seems a fitting entry into August, a month when the garden becomes dry and rattling, brown around the edges, but still with its beauties.

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Linaria purpurea flowers

My Tough Plants #1: Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea)

My garden, as I’ve said many times, is a 50-by-120-foot suburban lot with the usual house, driveway, garage and paved walks. Among those elements are half a dozen beds or borders containing combinations of shrubs, perennials, and self-sown annuals. There are also small areas of grass (sometimes called “the lawns,” although that sounds rather grand).

The soil is a light sandy loam, with good drainage. The climate is semi-Mediterranean, which means mild wet winters and dry summers. Recent summers have been drier and warmer than normal. Most of the plantings are affected to some extent by four large Norway maples, a big birch and a medium-sized Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

In this difficult situation — dry, rooty shade — a few reliable tough plants perform quite well, because they are tough and almost weedy. Properly managed, they can be quite ornamental. I plan to write several posts this summer about how I use these plants in my garden.

First up is Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Apparently, the leaves resemble those of the flax plant, which explains the “flax” part of the common name and the “lin” (linum is Latin for “flax”) in the genus name. I’m not sure where the toad comes in.

The plant grows between 1 and 3 feet  (30 cm  to 1 metre) tall. In shade, it can reach 4 feet. It’s somewhat slender, so inserts itself easily among other plants without crowding. Most plants have between 4 and 10 stems. The stems are stiff and never need staking.

Linaria purpurea foliage and flowersThe individual flowers are like tiny snapdragons. They cluster in spiky racemes at the tops of the stems. The standard colour is medium to dark purple. I’ve had a few plants whose flowers are purple and white, but they’re rare. Pink flowers are more common than the bicolours. They’re a fairly pale pink, though; their main interest comes from being different from the norm. The standard purple is a fine colour, contrasting well with the grey-blue-green of the slender leaves.

Linaria purpurea flowers with bumblebeePurple toadflax is of no interest to deer. It grows well and blooms reliably in dry, rooty soil and shade. It thrives in sunny spots. Bumblebees love it.

What’s not to like? Well, I did say it’s a quasi-weed. Left to its own devices, it blooms in May and June. The flowers are succeeded by seed pods that look like tiny green beads. At this point flowering stops. Seeds ripen by summer’s end and scatter when the plants are disturbed. The following spring hundreds of seedlings emerge, producing more toadflaxes than anyone wants. An untended patch of toadflax is reminiscent of gravel parking lots, not garden borders.

Linaria purpurea fall foliageRigorous deadheading is the way to curb the plant’s weedy tendencies. Clip off the spikes of bead-like seed pods as soon as they form. You can either cut each thin side-stem or wait until the whole raceme has pretty much finished flowering and cut the main stem just beneath the flower cluster. The plant will put out new flowering side-stems and keep blooming all summer. A bonus of this process is that the foliage of plants growing in sunny spots turns interesting shades of pink in autumn.

The trick is to deadhead before the seeds ripen. Inevitably, a few plants escape my notice. I discover them when I’m doing fall cleanup, by which time the tiny seeds scatter far and wide. A desperation measure for this situation is to carefully clip the seed-bearing top of each stem and transfer it into a pail or similar container, preventing seed scatter. I suspect semi-ripened seeds are able to finish maturing in the compost pile, so it’s best not to compost them unless you’re sure your heap achieves temperatures high enough to kill seeds. Mine doesn’t.

This is why I know how well toadflax blends into plantings. I don’t remember ever actually planting it. I go through the beds in spring and remove excessive seedlings and badly-positioned plants.

Toadflax is a short-lived perennial. Individual plants persist for two or three seasons. Eventually, they get woody at the base and perform poorly. By that time, though, there are more than enough young plants to replace them.

I wouldn’t recommend purple toadflax for mass plantings. The skinny, diagonally placed leaves produce a visually tedious herringbone tweed effect. Besides, this mass planting effect is what you get when you let toadflax self-sow with abandon. I like them best among other plants with contrasting leaf shapes.

More info about Purple Toadflax is available at the Missouri Botanical Garden site and Wikipedia.

 

Deadhead!

This spring I decided to be a better deadheader. Now it’s summer and all the tough, self-sufficient plants that do so well on my dry soil are in bloom.  The garden is full of colour and buzzing bees busy pollinating. Before you can say “Go forth and multiply,” there will be seeds.

Bee on Mullein

Many of those tough, self-sufficient plants are prolific seeders.  They share this quality with weeds; in fact, some wouldn’t hesitate to call plants such as toadflax (Linaria), lamb’s ears (Stachys) and campion (Lychnis) weeds and treat them accordingly.

For me it’s too late.  I welcomed these and others of their type into my dry garden with open arms and discovered their seedy tendencies by experience. Since about mid-June I have made weekly rounds of my garden, secateurs in hand, snipping and clipping any blooms that are past their best, before the seeds can ripen and scatter.

Toadflax

Campion

Many years I wasn’t persistent enough.  Seeds develop with astonishing speed, and in late August or September I would find myself creeping up to certain plants and shaking the stalks gently to hear if they rattled (which they inevitably did), then trying to cut and trap them in a bucket before they showered seeds all over.  Almost always the snip of the blades was followed by the peppering sound of seeds bouncing off neighbouring foliage as they fell earthward.  At this point I would tell myself that a certain amount of seeding is necessary for continuity, and that the seedlings won’t be that hard to remove next spring. Not strictly true, which is why this year I resolve to keep up with deadheading.

Deadheading need not be viewed as a tedious chore.  There is another aspect to it.  Think of it as perennial pruning.  There is a whole book about this — The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  The author discusses different techniques for removing spent blooms from plants, or cutting plants back to delay bloom and reduce size for better appearance.  The book includes many before and after photos illustrating the techniques, as well as a plant-by-plant section.

It’s all a matter of attitude — think of shaping and managing your plants throughout their season, rather than frantically trying to keep up with their fiendish seed-producing tendencies.  Think of deadheading as sculpture rather than housecleaning. Consider that removing the first flush of blooms often leads to another round of bloom rather than seediness.

Be brutal. Don’t fuss with snipping off individual dead flowers, even though that may be optimal for some plants, Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia, to name two. But if you have a lot of plants, trying to do it right soon means you won’t do it at all. Once most of the blooms on a stalk are past their best, cut off the whole thing. The tough plants will cheerfully send up new bloom stalks, and if they don’t at least you will avoid excessive seeding. You can experiment, in the spirit of Ms. DiSabato-Aust. Do the flower-by-flower thing on one plant and the crude but effective cut-the-whole-stalk treatment on others, leaving a few alone as a control. That’s the beauty of these slightly weedy plants — having so many, you can treat them harshly without fear of losing them.