Seed Heads: To Tidy or Not to Tidy: That is the Question.

Eryngium giganteum 'Silver Ghost' 1

Every autumn I aim to give my, admittedly tiny, garden a good tidy. Often this doesn’t happen till after Christmas, but by the New Year I have always cut back most of the straggling growth from the previous summer. Seed heads always seem to look sad and soggy in my garden, rather than stately and statuesque. I know one should leave a certain amount of cover for wildlife, but with a surrounding wall of ivy and unkempt jasmine I feel there is enough wildness left. Looking round the garden this week made me wonder whether it would look better if I had left the stems, rather than imposed a rather fierce order on the now slightly flat-looking beds. A recent visit to Wisley and a walk past the Piet Oudolf borders had almost convinced me I’d done the right thing as there were one or two interesting patches there, but most of the plants looked dismal, damp and in need of a good chop. Possibly these borders might look good at this time of year on a bright, frosty morning but I doubt it.

I decided to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, where they make a point of not cutting stems down. The garden covers a relatively small area of space, but they have an impressive collection of plants and I should be able to see a good selection of stems and seed heads. It was a reasonably sunny day, I can get in free on certain days with my RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) card and the cafe is open this week (an important consideration) as there is a snowdrop festival, not actually what I was after, but an added bonus nonetheless. All seemed well.

Horror of horrors; RHS membership no longer gets one into the garden. I may take out membership again, but I didn’t feel like doing it then and I certainly didn’t feel like paying nearly £10 to see a collection of potentially soggy seed heads.

Instead I went to Fulham Palace, which has a delightful Walled Garden, and is free. The cafe there is charming and, even though the main room may sometimes seem like a meeting place for mothers and toddlers, the cafe spreads into a side room and happily accommodates everyone. It is always possible to find a quiet corner to enjoy one’s coffee and cake.    

First though, I went to the Walled Garden where I thought I would find a reasonable selection of seed heads in the knot garden. Here there are tall grasses, silvery skeletons of perovskia and a lot of plants left over from last summer. The clumps of Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii resembled a swarm of fat, black bees and the individual heads of Agapanthus ‘Torbay’ looked pretty enough when closely inspected. Overall these beds do look good but, mostly I think, because they had tall, upright grasses and neat box surrounds to give structure. The seed heads and summer stems worked because they were supported by other plants.

The conclusion I came to is that seed heads can look good throughout winter, but only if they are surrounded by strongly-structured or upright plants. They are also best viewed either very close-up, or at a distance where they can form part of a wider picture. My garden is too small for this sort of view and the flower beds insufficiently spacious for enough plants to provide the necessary structure. On balance, I think I’m right to tidy.


Palace Walld Garden Feb 2015 2

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