Monday, July 8, 2013

Dead-Heading as Meditation

Lest anyone assume that the title of this week's post refers in some way to The Grateful Dead, let me begin by saying that the closest I've ever come to that band (let alone turning a version of their name into a verb) is eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream. I'm sorry to report that I did not find the ice cream very satisfying. Dead-heading flowers, on the other hand, provides infinite pleasures.

For those who do not like to garden because "it takes too much time," learning what dead-heading actually entails may cause you to consider it a special kind of self-inflicted torture. For those of you who, like me, find yourselves desperately wishing that you could cultivate more patience and a meditative mind, dead-heading could very well be the conduit to a great transformation.

For illustrative purposes, I offer you a photo of an egregious example from my garden this morning.

The Daisies are looking downright funky
The whole life purpose of a plant is to spread its seed and colonize the earth. In the case of the plants pictured above, they do this by flowering. Inside those flowers are seed heads. So they flower in order to set seed, and then they drop those seeds and generally head to the grave. As gardeners, we mostly just want them to flower again and again, so we sort of have to trick the plants into putting on more flowers. This is done by cutting off the spent flowers. It makes the plant look nicer, and it refocuses the plant's energy into producing more flowers. Once we get to the stage you see above, we really are pushing our luck. Having done the bulk of its required work, that daisy plant is really thinking about the long dirt nap. Removing those ugly flower heads is the act of dead-heading, and it should keep that plant producing for me. It is something I must do almost on a daily basis throughout the garden, and I am in love with it.

One of the reason I enjoy dead-heading is that it requires precise attention. If I am not completely focused on the task at hand, especially with Gallardia (the flowers in the foreground), I risk snipping off the wrong stem and sending a lovely flower to an early grave. Cutting off a healthy flower when I mean to cut off a spent flower head also doubles my workload, as I have to go back in and locate the right stem.  

I also have to be rather judicious about which heads I will remove. Some people prefer to strike at the first sign of fading petals, but I do like my plants to seed themselves. That way, I feel a bit more as if the plants and I are working together to keep the garden beautiful. So I need to leave some heads on in order to afford the plants an opportunity to let the seeds fall.

So dead-heading forces me to place all of my attention on one spot, and that has the strangest effect on me. I am suddenly aware of the tiny hairs on flower stems, running my fingers carefully down them to find where the stems begin. I can feel the blades of the secateurs sliding together and the slight crunch of the stem when they overlap one another and make the cut. I notice my breath moving slowly in and out, in a rhythm that seems to match the one my hands create in the process of clearing the plants. I sometimes count the cuts when the job seems daunting at first. I'll make a deal with myself to cut 100 and feel good about it, and then I'll notice that I'm at 187. Time slips by so easily.

Looking a little less disheveled

And the remarkable thing is that when I'm finished, I feel calm and the garden looks so much the better for it. The plants look refreshed, and the compost pile has some new additions. And sometimes, in dead-heading other plants, like my basil, I'm also rewarded with a little something extra for myself. 

The basil cuttings
From a good pruning, I end up with a pile of basil that I turn into pucks of pesto. I freeze the pucks for storage and later melt one as needed into a skillet and toss with hot pasta or spread over flatbread or pizza dough. Now that's my kind of meditation.

I see pesto in my future!


  1. Pesto pucks = genius!

    1. Thanks! They come in handy in a pinch, and that way, I don't have to worry about them turning that awful color when they've had too much air.

  2. Perfect! And I have an abundance of Thai basil - now I know exactly what to do with it. Now if it would only quit raining I might get a few blooms...

    1. Thai basil. Hmmm...where did you get that? ;) You poor Atlantans! You may consider building an ark. I'm just saying...