Death Enhances a Garden

Death Enhances a Garden
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Death plays a significant role in my garden, and in so many ways, it makes the garden more interesting.

Death provides comfort. I don’t routinely snip or snap off dead flower heads, not even the large dahlia blooms that stand on their stems brown and bedraggled for weeks. I like seeing different life stages on the plants all at once — buds, fully opened blossoms, and dead ones. It is thought-provoking and even reassuring to confront their message that life and death are stages in an ever-repeating cycle.

The cycle of life in a snapshot of one plant.

Death promotes diversity. For mulch, I prefer half-rotted leaves with pieces of sticks and pine cones to an unvarying swath of “wood chips” or uniformly sized pebbles. Not only does it add an appealing, earthy aroma to the garden, but that diverse and nutritionally rich mulch also supports diverse soil life.

Death provokes thought. A simple plane of one color/texture (like a lawn or a bagged mulch) does set off the plants better and make a scene easier to “read,” and such a visually simple scene may evoke feelings of serenity. However, the complexity of a diverse scene holds my attention longer and provides more grist for contemplation.

Death increases fascination. Not to say that I celebrate death, but I do find it fascinating. Yesterday I discovered an enormous dead spider on the path. Today its body is being dismantled by ants. I keep visiting to check their progress. A few weeks ago, I was oddly intrigued watching one of my pond fish eat a worm. The worm trailed from the fish’s mouth, getting shorter and shorter very slowly as it was digested over the course of several hours.

Midway through the meal, half a worm remains to be digested.

Death adds beauty. Yes, dying leaves signal the approaching winter, but I rejoice in their vivid display. Fallen leaves and flowers paint pictures on the garden floor and—like chalk drawings on a sidewalk—their ephemeral nature contributes to their beauty.

Am I alone in my appreciation for death, or does it also enhance your garden?

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on September 17, 2014 at 2:03 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Real Gardens.


    • Corner Garden Sue
    • 25th April 2016

    I have never thought of it that way, but do like to let nature take its course as much as possible. I do watch insects that are eating other insects for a few minutes, and took lots of photos of a spider wrapping its bee up. There was a time, though, when there was no spider in site, and a bee was struggling to get free from a web. I thought about it a minute, and decided to give it a little flick, which then enabled it to fly off. I felt a little guilty toward the spider, but hoped it would catch something less beneficial to the garden.

    • bittenbyknittin
    • 11th July 2016

    I don’t think of the natural cycle of life and the interdependence of species as death per se. Like you, I’m not much for deadheading, but that’s because I see the birds feeding on the seed heads, birds that will later feed the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk. I used to cut the yucca stalks at the end of summer, until one year I didn’t and witnessed a woodpecker feeding on one that winter. Then there is the magic of the compost pile. Visually, the dead plants provide interest in winter, especially when capped with snow; they also provide me with something to do in March, when it is too early here to do much of anything else outside besides yard cleanup.

    • Bill
    • 30th July 2016

    I guess that in gardening we are all involved, in a basic way, with the cycle of life. I love the idea of this cycle and what it means to have the (hopefully) healthy system of life that is my garden. I’m not even sure how I relate to my garden in relation to the idea of death, and I do like it that you have framed your post in the way you have.

    • Anne Wareham
    • 17th August 2016

    The very nature of the garden does make me contemplate time’s rapid passing, and death.

    • Amanda Morris
    • 30th August 2016

    Beautifully written. I appreciate death in my garden, too. I don’t cut anything back in the fall – I let flowers droop and die, I leave the ornamental grasses go brown, and let everything just fall over and melt away over winter. I read somewhere long ago that this is healthier for the garden, plus it adds interest into the winter. My garden seems pretty healthy this year, so I’ll be taking this approach again. Death may seem scary or intimidating in other situations, but I enjoy watching the cycle of life and death play out in my back yard.

    • Alison Gillespie
    • 17th September 2016

    I never quite thought of it the way you do. But I do think that in order to be an organic gardener, especially in a garden devoted to building wildlife habitat, you have to acknowledge death in a way that not every one is comfortable doing.

    • admin
    • 11th November 2016

    Similar to the commenter Sue, above, I once took tiny scissors and carefully cut a baby praying mantis out of a spider’s web. Like Sue, I was well aware that I was depriving a spider of a meal, but I just could not let this little guy struggle, seeing that I had watched it hatch from its cocoon (along with hundreds of brothers and sisters) just a couple weeks earlier. I do appreciate dying things: I think I never liked my Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick better than I do now: dead, bare, and its twisted branches spray painted purple, now an interesting statue in my front garden.

    • Pat
    • 13th November 2016

    Although I love to visit show gardens to see exotic and rare plants, I have always found them wanting. Only in the past few years have I figured out why. They are often “perfect:” no brown leaves, no sagging stems, no flawed blossoms, no exposed soil, no sign of death. Seeing death puts life into perspective. This reality has moved me to slow my clean-it-up impulse.

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