After a season of hot, dry summer weather, the garden often looks like Tobacco Rd. — worn out and ready for a cleanup. I start to cut back spent perennials and remove exhausted annuals slowly and in phases, trying to neaten plants that are truly finished for the year, while leaving anything still green and vigorous to prolong the season through fall. While some of these plants are no longer useful to me, they’re still important to birds in the garden.
Goldfinches often remind me that birds depend on seedheads for their autumn diet. Often, they fly back and forth between the birdbath and a neighbouring clump of tall autumn coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’) entirely past its glory days. The reflexed golden petals have dropped, and the tall brown seedheads are ripe and alluring for the little finches. They grab on and cause the stems to bob and dip like a roller coaster as they rip out seeds for their meal. This is one plant I won’t tidy up until the seedheads have been picked clean.
The dozens of hosta clumps with spent flower stems look dried and tatty (except for Hosta plantaginea, often still fresh with scented blooms). I have to be careful about removing these flower stems, too. Species hostas and some of the hybrid selections will produce seeds, while others don’t, and the seed cases require several more weeks of drying before they’re ready to split open. Hosta seeds are relished by cardinals in late September through October. It’s quite an event when the seed cases split, with cardinals riding the stems to help spill the seeds. Cardinals are accomplished at gleaning seeds from the ground, and spend a month working the hosta beds just before freezeup. I usually wait to cut down hosta flower stems until late November.
The huge white cedar that forms a wind barrier in the front garden usually carries heavy seed clusters on branch tips. I know cedar waxwings will come for these seeds in late autumn, so any remedial pruning will be put off, perhaps until next spring. Species cedar produces brown seed clusters that look like dead foliage and that just inspires me to get out and cut them off. But there’s nothing more beautiful than cedar waxwings, and if I want to have their company in the garden, I’ll let those cedar seed cases stay where they are. Learning restraint is sometimes the greater part of gardening.