By Margaret Oakley Otto, Houzz
In late summer and early fall, many gardeners are faced with the quandary of what to clean up and what to leave. Deadheading, a horticultural term for trimming off spent flower stalks, can sometimes encourage more blooms on your flowering shrubs and is generally used to remove the “brown stuff” in a garden.
I advocate taking a closer look at the brown seed heads and spent flower stalks in your landscape and thinking twice before snipping them off. The spent flowers of your native shrubs and subshrubs often contain nutritious seeds that are a critical food source for many species of birds. You may also be able to use some of these seeds to propagate new native plants for your garden — or your neighbor’s. And there is an impressive geometry to many seed heads that often goes unnoticed.
Food for the birds. Many dried flower stalks, especially those of native plants, contain nutritious seeds that feed numerous species of birds. Trimming these stalks too soon can reduce the habitat benefits of your garden. One of the great boons of a native garden is that your plants have coevolved with the local fauna (birds, caterpillars and native bees) for thousands of years, if not more. There are species of birds that are native to your area, or are historical migrators through your area, and they are counting on those native seeds to get them through winter.
For Californians with native gardens who would like more information about feeding birds, I recommend Las Pilitas Nursery’s chart of native plants that attract birds.
Related: Install a Bird Bath Too
Oakley Gardens, original photo on Houzz
The umber tones of dried California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) flowers signal the end of summer and feed seed-loving birds, including brown towhees, finches and dark-eyed juncos.
Theodore Payne Foundation, original photo on Houzz
The owners of this garden left the spent flowers of their California brittlebush (Encelia californica). Though from afar these look like dead flowers, on closer inspection you would see they are full of seeds. These seeds are a particular favorite of finches and sparrows.
Las Pilitas Nursery, original photo on Houzz
California quail are another great example of a seed gleaner that loves to feast in native gardens. They particularly love the seeds of the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
Free plants. Recently I heard from a Southern California gardener that their five-year-old island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) had perished, but that a baby bush poppy was thriving in a nearby spot in the garden. They rarely, if ever, trimmed off spent flowers from this plant, so I was not surprised that it had reseeded in the landscape.This is the kind of happy accident that occurs in healthy native ecosystems and is a source of great joy for most gardeners.
If you feel like your garden is getting too wild-looking with plants reseeding all over the place, try viewing it with an editorial eye: Make decisions about which seedlings to keep and which seedlings to remove based on the rules of massing and repetition in the garden.
You can also take a more active role by collecting seeds from your garden and then storing or sowing them in pots or in the ground to create the next generation of plants. In fact, getting acquainted with specific methods of seed collection and sowing is a wonderful way to deepen your native-gardening knowledge.
Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens, original photo on Houzz
Wildflower seed bombs make a fun holiday gift. Mix your annual native wildflower seeds with a soil-compost mix, roll into a ball and let the recipient know the appropriate time to sow. Use seed bombs only in your own garden, or give them as a gift to friends and family. Never throw seeds into wilderness areas, as they can cause harm to the established native ecosystem.
Anna Laurent, original photo on Houzz
Matilija poppy seed heads
Impressive geometry. When I take a moment to look closely at dried flower stalks and seeds, I am often blown away by their intricate beauty and geometry. After the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) flower is pollinated, a fruit develops, which becomes dry and brittle at maturity. The capsule begins to split open, and the seeds — which are a favorite food of many Southern California bird species — pour out (dehisce). Note the regal architecture of the poppy capsule, which happens to look a lot like a royal scepter.
Oakley Gardens, original photo on Houzz
Dried whorls of Cleveland sage and yarrow make a combination door decoration and bird feeder.
Another way to enjoy the geometry of seed heads from the garden is to trim off seed stalks and hang them as arrangements on garden walls, fences and doors. If there are still seeds left, don’t be surprised to see birds coming to dine on your decoration.
As summer winds down, be sure to take a moment to enjoy the muted tones of late summer and autumn in your garden, and look closely at those dried flower stalks and seeds.