One of the most satisfying and rewarding of gardening routines for me and for many other gardeners is the process of deadheading — a tactile experience that allows you to wander about the perennial beds, exploring another time’s forgotten space, lost in a sunshine daydream. Is it too much of a stretch to believe that many Deadheads, inspired by the band’s rich natural imagery, love to garden and might enjoy putting together a Dead-icated garden? I went to my first Dead show in 1978; and, 50 concerts and countless post-Jerry Garcia iterations later, I never looked back.
Much like a Shakespeare garden, which includes many of the plants included in the Bard’s writings — a Grateful Dead garden would include as many of the plants referenced in the band’s lyrics as your climate or inclination allows (I’m gardening in Virginia, Zone 7a) However, instead of a formal layout that would seem antithetical to such a nonconformist group , I’d make it more of a journey of discovery with inspiration somewhere just around the next bend. You could use as your guiding principle this verse from “Scarlet Begonias” that every Deadhead knows by heart: Once in a while/you get shown the light/in the strangest of places/if you look at it right.
To get started, here are a few ideas for your very own Grateful Dead garden – and I welcome suggestions for plant references I’ve undoubtedly missed.
Dead-icated Plant: The Rose
The rose is by far the most important symbol in the band’s rich iconography. The Dead’s second live album from 1971 is untitled, but it’s commonly known as “Skull and Roses” thanks to the arresting cover art, a skeleton crowned with a garland of red roses, by artists Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelly, based on an illustration for a 1913 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The 1970 album, “American Beauty”, arguably the band’s best studio effort, has Mouse-Kelly’s stylized, electric-looking rose on the cover, a reference to the classic garden variety as well as the musical evocations of Americana from this quintessential American band.
Roses are mentioned in several songs, including “It Must’ve Been the Roses,” “Ramble On Rose,” “The Other One,” “Black Muddy River,” and notably, “Saint Stephen.” Saint Stephen with a rose/in and out of the garden he goes.
Let it Grow
A trellis of American Beauty climbing roses would look good in a Grateful Dead garden, but any cultivar will do.
Check out this incendiary “Saint Stephen>The Eleven” recorded at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on August 24, 1968. The so-called “William Tell Bridge” linking the two songs has its own vibrant garden imagery and also references lavender, ivy, and manzanita. The latter would look great in a Grateful Dead garden if it’s located in Northern California or a chapparal plant community.
Dead-icated Plant: The Begonia
The mid-period “Scarlet Begonias” is one of the Dead’s best-loved songs, and rightfully so. It has a bouncy, irrepressible energy that invariably elicits ear-to-ear grins and wild gyrations from Deadheads. She wore scarlet begonias/tucked into her curls/I knew right away/she was not like other girls.
Let it Grow
Begonias make good container plants, and a few strategically placed planters will enhance your Grateful Dead garden. The aptly named Funky Scarlet from Proven Winners would do rather nicely. When it comes to scarlet begonias, the funkier the better.
No one will ever mistake 1985 as one of the Dead’s best years, but this version of “Scarlet Begonias” from Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 1, 1985 is a keeper. I’m also partial to it because I was there. Listening to it instantly takes me back to what it felt like to be in my mid-twenties, packed into the hot and sweaty lawn at Merriweather, on a summer day at a freakin’ Dead show.
Dead-icated Plant: The Magnolia
Well, a “Sugar Magnolia” of course. Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming/Head’s all empty and I don’t care. This Bob Weir tune is one of the band’s downright happiest songs and it’s fairly suffused with plant and nature imagery: sweet blossom come on under the willow, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside, a breeze in the pines in the summer night moonlight.
Let it Grow
The Southern magnolia may seem like the obvious choice here, given the heady perfume of its platter-sized blooms, but it can be a messy tree, prone to storm damage, with a greedy root zone. I’d choose another native species, sweetbay magnolia, for its more delicate nature and fragrance.
Dead-icated Plant: The Weeping Willow
References to willows turn up in several Dead songs (“Sugar Magnolia,” “Crazy Fingers”), but the imagery is at its most resonant in “Brokedown Palace.” Going to plant a weeping willow/On the bank’s green edge it will grow, grow, grow. This bone-weary, elegiac song usually occupied the encore slot throughout the band’s career. Rightfully so—its soothing, lullaby-like quality unfailingly sent tired but happy Heads home with a gentle fare thee well.
Let it Grow
I’d stay away from the non-native weeping willow (Salix babylonica) unless you have a huge yard and a lake to plant it beside. It’s considered invasive in many places and its root system shows little respect for building foundations and septic systems. Better to pick a wet part of the garden and plant a native species such as black willow or silky willow.
I saw the Dead perform what turned out to be the final “Brokedown Palace” at RFK Stadium on 6/25/95. It was the last song I heard Garcia play before his untimely death, and for that reason, I’ve found it difficult to listen to ever since.
Dead-icated Plant: The Sunflower
Sunflowers are perennial mainstays of Grateful Dead iconography, and “China Cat Sunflower” is one of the more psychedelic jams in the band’s canon. In typical Dead fashion, it was paired in concert with “I Know You Rider”, a cover of a traditional folk tune.
Let it Grow
The Dead were known for never playing a song the same way twice. Likewise, there are countless varieties of annual and perennial sunflowers. Might as well try something sizable in the sunniest side of the garden. The heirloom variety “Mammoth” or “American Giant” are both big enough to be a little bit frightening—it’s as if they’re just moments away from achieving sentience.
There are so many versions of “China>Rider” out there it’s impossible for me to pick the best one. When in doubt, I head here for inspiration.
Dead-icated Plants: Rosemary & Sage
The song “Rosemary” is an odd little number. I probably haven’t listened to it in 40 years, but I gave it a spin while researching this article and was surprised to find that it’s actually pretty good. It has a delicate melody and haunting lyrics about a secret garden that sound to me like a lost Edgar Allan Poe poem. Similarly, “Sage and Spirit” is a later period oddball acoustic guitar and flute instrumental from Bob Weir. It was performed just twice.
Let it Grow
Every garden needs herbs in the sunny places. Maybe some inventive Deadhead could create a stealie-shaped rosemary topiary.
“Rosemary” was performed live only once.
Dead-icated Plant: Clover
Garcia’s first solo album is chock full of songs that would become staples of the full band’s repertoire. “To Lay Me Down” wasn’t performed as frequently, as, say, “Sugaree” but it’s a keeper. With words by lyricist Robert Hunter, and a dreamy, wistful melody courtesy of Garcia, it sounds for all the world like it sprang to life from a hidden Appalachian cove, part of the Great American songbook. To lay me down/with my head/in sparkling clover/Let the world go by/all lost in dreaming.
Let it Grow
All gardens should try to incorporate discrete areas of lawn, and clover belongs in the mix. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing better than lying on a clover-strewn lawn, watching the clouds a-streaming on a warm spring day.
You can’t go wrong with the studio version. Added bonus: Garcia on the pedal steel.
Dead-icated Plant: Wildflowers
What’s the song “Franklin’s Tower” about? I’m still not sure, after all these years and witnessing it more times than I can count. No matter. I love this image: Wildflower seed on the sand and stone/may the four winds blow you safely home.
Let it Grow
For some reason I always think of columbine when I hear this song. Instead of attempting (and failing) at a wildflower meadow, I’d suggest planting a few Eastern red columbines and then let them self-sow. They do particularly well in rock gardens or between paving stones.
Again, too many versions to pick just one.
Encore: Water Feature
I’ve saved one of the best for last. “Ripple” is perhaps the Dead’s best-known—and most cherished—song. It manages to capture the band’s ethos in five verses and a chorus: Ripple in still water/when there is no pebble tossed/nor wind to blow. It’s a riddle and a road map, a path forward into an uncertain future. It lends itself naturally to an encore, and by now, more than 50 years after it was written, it may just be an American standard. I’ve heard it played at weddings and funerals and I’ve been one of 70,000 Deadheads to sing its final line in unison. If I knew the way/I would take you home.
Let it Grow
Gardens should have a water feature if possible. How about placing a fountain at the end of a winding path in a grotto or some other tucked-away place? Something that looks like it’s always been there. Let it be known/there is a fountain/that was not made/by the hands of men.
The studio version is still the one to beat.