Feeling like a deadbeat? Deadhead

I am not ashamed to admit that I haven’t spent a lot of time in my garden in the last few weeks. No one should when it’s ninety-something humid degrees outside and the sun feels like it’s out for blood. If you’re like me, you have accomplished the bare minimum first thing in the morning before the sun can sink its teeth in, and last thing before it skulks away like a scoundrel. I have watered plants in containers and refilled the bird baths at least daily, and made occasional half-hearted stabs at weeding along the path to the compost. I have tried hard not to tally all the things left undone and tried not to recall how, in the middle of last winter’s power outage, I would have given up chocolate forever only to spend one sunny day in the garden, sweat dripping from every pore.
Lucky for us and all living things in the neighborhood, the heat wave broke. The sun feels a little less hostile and the humidity is low enough again (today at least) that my internal thermostat is able to function as nature intended. It’s relatively safe again to be outside. But because it is still high summer, I am inclined to cut myself some slack. Aside from the bare minimum I mentioned above, nothing—even weeding—needs doing desperately.
Despite feeling the bone-tired laziness of mid summer, I also know that I can usually find some energy, or at least momentum, out in the garden. So this evening, I resisted the call of the couch and waded chin deep into my front yard garden and deadheaded. For me, removing spent flowers teeters the line between mindless tedium and Zen-like tranquility. I don’t really mind deadheading whenever it prolongs a plant’s bloom time but even so, I noticed that I have filled my borders almost exclusively with plants whose blooms become attractive seedheads. No need to get rid of them. One exception to my semi-consciously self-imposed rule is Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum ‘Becky’). Lavender is another.
Shasta daisies look so wretched as the blooms fade that for years I have considered evicting them. Meanwhile my clumps have increased exponentially, consequently increasing the time required to tidy them up during summer’s hottest days. I have noticed that some gardeners simply pop the tattered brown flowers off their stems. But I can’t abide the appearance of decapitation especially as the stubs start to wither. I’d much rather the plant look as if I had never touched it, which means snipping each stem all the way down to the crotch of a new bud or a leaf. But I’m also tempted to cut entire stems all the way down to the ground because the plant will start putting on new growth at the base if it hasn’t already. The trouble with that option is that it leaves a gaping hole where there once was a 4-foot tall (and wide) mass of foliage and flowers. Perhaps this year I’ll let the daisy decide: she loves me (deadhead); she loves me not (cut down and dig out once and for all).
Deadheading lavender on the other hand is totally gratifying and meditative. Some years I remove each stem down to the branch of the plant’s second flush of flowers while the bees are still working the last open buds. It can take hours but as my fingers and snips become sticky with oil, the fragrance and repetition lull me into a blissed-out state of relaxation. July’s heat wave prevented that particular pleasure but allowed me another. After the first and second flowers have faded, it’s possible to grab handfuls of stems and shear the whole plant back hard into a tidy mound of roundness. It takes a fraction of the time but the camphor scent from the stems’ oil is still bliss-inducing.
Either way, no matter which plant or for whatever reason, deadheading is a task exactly taxing (and relaxing) enough on a hot day to justify the reward of a little lie-down on the couch.


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