Some are ephemeral, shattered by the slightest breeze into a thousand tiny parachutes. Others hang on all winter, beautifying the garden like subdued flowers. At this time of year, with most flowers past their prime, seedheads come into their own.
When creating a landscape, designers usually consider shape and form, colors, texture, flowers and leaves. Rarely are seedheads part of the equation. But in a climate such as ours here in Colorado, many plants are dormant at least as long as they are in active growth. Their winter appearance matters.
Plants with persistent seedheads abound. Just as when we combine flowers of differing shapes and colors to produce a pleasing synergy, we need to consider the color, shape, and texture of seed heads.
Many flowers don’t change that much as they go to seed. Yarrow keeps its flat top, merely fading from gold or paprika to a warm tan color. Liatris spikes turn to silver, but also keep their shape. Grasses often look better dried than when they are in active growth. In these cases, combinations what work well when the blossoms are fresh often continue to look good months later.
On the other hand, the pinwheel seedheads of clematis add a note of whimsy to a trellis, but their effect is totally different from the showy flowers that preceded them. Poppies transform from eye-arresting focal points into intricate “lanterns” that, with their payload of tiny black spheres, remind me of salt shakers. Love-in-a-mist (right) produces seedheads that look like they came from outer space.
Leaving dried seedheads to overwinter has several advantages. My perennial bed separates a patio from our driveway. If I remove dead foliage in the fall, our guests feel free to take a shortcut through my planting, compacting the soil and damaging delicate roots. Leaving the dead top growth in place until spring solves the problem. Of course, I want that bed to stay attractive, so I specifically choose plants that look nice even when dried.
The desiccated stems and leaves serve another purpose—they trap blowing snow. A persistent snow cover is unusual in our dry climate. Snow acts as an insulator, keeping the soil from getting as cold as the air above it. It also keeps the ground evenly frozen. In turn, this prevents frost heave, when alternating cycles of freezing and thawing dislodge roots, ejecting them from the soil and killing the plant.
Finally, I’m usually much more motivated to go out and “play in the dirt” on the first warm days in March than I am in October, after a season of hard work. It’s too early to plant, but just the right month to trim back my perennials. Often I’m surprised by a few green shoots, welcome signs of life after a long brown winter.
A lot of factors go into planning a garden that provides four seasons of enjoyment, but the end result is more than worth the effort.
Photos, top to bottom: Western Salsify (Tragopogon dubius), Gayfeather (Liatris ), Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), Clematis, Oriental Poppies (Papaver orientale).