Ministry of Controversy, Real Gardens

Death Enhances a Garden

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.

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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.

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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 on September 17, 2014 at 2:03 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Real Gardens.
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18 responses to “Death Enhances a Garden”

  1. 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.

    I deadhead flowers that I know will bloom more as a result, but once they die from the cold weather, I wait until spring to clean up the dead stuff.

    • Joe Schmitt says:

      You altered the bee’s fate that day, a huge deal since you did so consciously. But what of all the unconscious, unintended acts we perform daily on a whole host of critters from the microscopic to the downright chunky? The consequences of our blundering around in their habitat are to them no less life-altering than your act of kindness to the bee. At this time of the year I roust hundreds of bumblebees every day from the sunflowers I cut, where they hunkered down against the chilly nights. I create vast wonderlands of nectar and pollen that spur a feeding frenzy – until I suddenly mow them down. And we think we have issues with job security? I really hope the rest of critterdom isn’t prone to reflections like these.

      • Joe, I know just what you mean; it can be disturbing (even depressing) to consider our own power to wipe out or otherwise affect the lives of other species. However, I do find it hopeful and important when we contemplate these issues, rather than just going about our lives with no sense of our impact. And I think our small acts of kindness toward other species, like Sue’s bee rescue, do make a difference, if only to our own psyches.

        • Joe Schmitt says:

          Absolutely. We’re offering contrition, asking forgiveness. It’s the basis for the ritual slaughter employed by observant Muslims and Jews, for families saying grace before meals, for the Native American apologies to the animals they take as food. What would be completely overwhelming, however, would be feeling that the rest of nature judged us in the way that we judge ourselves. It’s the reason, I’m sure, that we’re so reluctant to admit of sentience in other species.

          • I was just thinking about how different we are from other animals. For many of us, the default is to eradicate most other species from our personal territory, whereas in natural communities, animals share space and resources with other species. Do you think we don’t want to assign more value to their lives because then we would need to reconsider our actions?

  2. Joe Schmitt says:

    I’m not a huge fan of death, being of a certain age, but the alternative just wouldn’t work. Death makes room for new life, makes food for new life, makes habitat for new life, and in the garden grants a bit of respite to the gardener. If only it wasn’t so . . . permanent.

  3. 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.

    • I agree, bitten, we can look at some of these cycles as simply materials being transformed, or wastes from one process being used as inputs to a new process. Then they aren’t so emotionally laden. Maybe it is helpful when we can jump back and forth between thinking of it more in this way and thinking of it in terms of life and death. Maybe that can help us put death into a broader perspective that isn’t wholly negative.

  4. Bill says:

    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.

  5. Anne Wareham says:

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

    Regrettably I am horribly attached to life and unresigned to change and death so that that aspect of the garden is poignant and even painful to me. I wish I were able to be more full of wisdom and acceptance.

  6. Amanda Morris says:

    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. :)

  7. 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.

    I find, for instance, that I enjoy watching praying mantids. I’ve had friends stop by and be alarmed when they see one eating a butterfly. (I should note that I seem to have a fair number of the native mantids in my garden.) I find myself referencing that movie the Lion King a lot at those moments. “Circle of life and all that.” Then I shrug.

    To really teach kids about nature, you almost have to start with death, especially when it comes to insects. (“Why should I like bats mommy? Because they eat mosquitoes and things that eat our crops, dear.”) That seems strange, but kids often get the whole “she swallowed a spider to catch a fly” thing way before we think they are ready to take on food web issues.

    • Alison, I love your phrase “food web issues.” Brings up the difficulties of fitting ourselves into this cycle of life and death, acknowledging that we kill to live while at the same time feeling empathy and attachment to other creatures.

  8. susan says:

    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.

  9. Pat says:

    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.

  10. jw says:

    i wish i could apply this mentality to my tomatoes and let them die a slow death. but at some point–soon–they will have to get pulled out to make room for a low tunnel.

  11. Catherine says:

    I guess it depends on what’s dying. Annuals, yes, that’s a good sort of dying as it’s part of seasonal change. Flowers on perennials, yes, as they droop their heads and add a colour variation. But when it comes to larger things, plants that have grown and developed over years like big trees and shrubs, I rail against it and have to fight back. Inevitably in my dry part of the world it is drought and too many hot days slowly debilitating a shrub or tree until it cannot go on. The first time I saw a large tree wilting I was so shocked and angry I had tears in my eyes. No zen-like acceptance possible!

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