My favourite job in the garden is deadheading.
Not only do you feel you are having a good tidy up, getting rid of the shrivelling flower heads to make way for fresh new growth, but you also get to examine a plant close up.
You get to appreciate a flower in its many stages, from magical little bud where you can’t imagine how all those petals can be arranged to fit inside, to the unfurled majestic glory of the opened bloom, to the blowsy, rumpled, slightly bedraggled flower just going over.
You can also appreciate the myriad ways nature has of producing seed, be it in a pod, pepper-pot, or exploding shell.
I tend to deadhead in the early morning or evening, when I have time to wander and see what’s happening in the garden. I take my snippers and a bucket, and just meander, snipping and snapping as I go.
The texture and the colour of petals change as a flower starts to go over. Petals often take on a sheeny shine as they age. This is particularly true of tulips, which start to become almost metallic.
Peonies wilt and get heavy. It is like they are giving a huge sigh as you drop them into the bucket. Peonies are made of silk or satin. Roses become plush velvet just before the petals drop. Their anthers are like threads of cotton.
Lupins are the softest of flowers to deadhead. I run my fingers down the whole stem, to the rabbit-fur mittens of seedpods at the base. If anyone happens to pass by I can’t help but tickle them with a feather-duster bloom.
Perennials which produce flowers over a long period will have flowers in every stage on the plant at the same time, giving lovely colour and texture variations. Lychnis has magenta flowers which range from purplish to bright crimson. Gladioli will have unopened buds at the top of a flower spike at the same time as dark shrivelled petals at the base. It reminds me of a dip-dyed skirt.
Dahlias are fun to deadhead. The variations in tone in one bloom are incredible. There might be bleeding or bleaching of colour from the base of each petal to the tip. There are weird striations. Some dahlias have a glittery sheen. Depending on the flower shape, the petals might curl inwards or outwards. The reverse of the petals are often a contrasting colour. I love tossing the deadheads into a bucket and observing the completely different colour effect of the upside down heads. If you have several different varieties of dahlias, you get a new splash painting every time you toss in a new bloom.
And then there’s the scent. This month I am enjoying the combined cocktail of rose and peony. Peonies add a spicy note to balance the sweet fruity roses. Cut stems smell green. Lupins are peppery. Dahlias too.
Another sensory pleasure of deadheading are those blooms that you get to a moment too late: you knock their head and all their petals detach. There is a delicious sound at the moment the petals decide to let go: It is like the flower is letting out a sigh.
And then there is the final satisfaction of upending your bucket into the compost heap, and admiring the new combination of flower heads and petals. It is a Holi festival of colours. Every bucketful is a work of art.