Dying Well

There is a new philosophy about plant choices that is  part of the new design  ongoing here at the Faire Garden.  Our new guru in all things garden is Piet Oudolf and his book that we are inhaling, savoring and digesting is Designing With Plants.  He says to look for plants that *live well and die well*.  So out we bound with camera in hand into a garden that has begun its dying season.  What we found was a pleasant surprise.  Some colors shifting from brilliant to brown and as he says, * brown is a color too*.  Above, fading with grace is  Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Bressingham Doubloon’. 

This idea of paying attention to the last gasping breaths of flower, seed head and foliage is new and exciting to me.  As the camera was pointed at spent stalks we were thinking how never before has a shot been sized up to enhance the beauty of skeletal remains.  It was fun, in a macabre sort of way.  Above, the balloon like pods of Nigella damascena that self sow with wild abandon.

It fits the mood of the times, this search for structure over color.  Above are seedheads of Echinacea purpurea, with seeds still  left for now by the ravenous goldfinches. Mauve Phlox paniculata, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’  and Dixie wood fern round out the shot.

Gothic in coloration is the spent flower head of ornamental oregano , Origanum laevigatum ‘Rosenkuppel’, above.  This is a dark leaved evergreen groundcover during the winter that sends up spikes of dark pinkish blooms mid summer.  The distinguished  looking calyxes that remain after the petals fall to the ground certainly give the multi seasonal interest we are seeking.

Simple chocolate colored buttons perk up the fall and winter landscape after the black eyed susans, Rudbeckia fulgida  ‘Goldstrum’ lose their golden rays.  Sedum ‘Matrona’ is trying to hog the spotlight here.

Ahhh, spikey.  The black garden is home to upright narrow leaved plants, not intentionally but there it is in the photo.  Somehow I had missed that until viewing this picture for the post.  The lavender foliage and spent flower stalks, crocosmia fans, buddleia leaves and the object of the little green focus box on the camera, the Liatris spicata all share the same geometry.  These buff beauties are stand outs as examples of dying well.

Ghostly white are the old flower stalks of the lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina, that is so prolific it is considered a weed here.  The openings in the calyxes  are left empty as you can see for the seeds were dispursed long ago.  They are majestic sentinels in their coats of down fuzz against the evergreen Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Well’s Special’.


A favorite plant in all its forms is Eryngium alpinum.  In the past the seed heads were left all winter in hopes of seedlings emerging eons later.  That has finally happened and we now have a good supply of babies to spread in this area, some replacing their short lived elders.  Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’ has finished blooming but the newly purchased H. ‘Coppelia’ is showing burgundy brilliance without the need for staking.  The gray green fans of blackberry lilies, Belamcanda,  join their black seeded pods for fall amusement.

Japanese climbing fern, Lygodium japonicum was brought to this garden from our Houston yard where it was a naturally occuring verdant curtain hanging from the tall pines.  It is slow to emerge in the spring causing us to wonder each year if it has not survived.  But it has not only survived, it has spread throughout the property to the far reaches of the boundary lines.  We do not consider it invasive here for it is easily dug and the leaf form is exquisitely delicate, even as it browns.

Perhaps the gold standard of death with beauty is the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’, also known as the Pee Gee.  These pom pom heads will bleed to pale rose before becoming a duller khaki during the cold months.  Lovely in every phase this shrub meets the requirements and surpasses all expectations.


Prunella vulgaris which came with the property has the traits that define dying well. Backed by the Japanese blood grass, Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ and standing above the ever present weed-bane violets with another of the millions of self sown Perillas that are appreciated in small numbers adding leaf interest this lowly medicinal plant displays all the tenets of the Piet design philosophy. It require no deadheading, staking, dividing, pest control or even planting by the gardener.  It may be the perfect small statured member of the new dynamic. It has also been labeled a weed. Don’t you love irony? 

What have we here in this post about death and transcendence?  Not dying well, though black in hue, but very much living well in sweet revenge until the lack of daylight hours triggers these mystical leaves to dislocate from the dark stems is the one year old Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’.  Underplanted with Hosta ‘Guacamole’ and Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ for perfect contrast in color, form and texture this replacement from Home Depot for the failed to leaf out expensive one ordered from White Flower Farm has grown, flowered and even berried although the birds ate those.  Live well and die well, a criteria met.





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22 Responses to Dying Well

  1. Jan says:

    There is something about a garden going to sleep in the fall that I find appealing. I think it is the turning of the seasons, and each one is lovely in its own way. There is also the promise of spring and a new growing season to look forward to. I have to agree that the hydrangea is the best looking example of beauty in a dying flower.

    Always Growing

    Hi Jan, it seems we are very much on the same wavelength, and reading your posts, only confirms that. Glad you agree about the hydrangea, as it was written I wondered if anyone would dispute it. I really love all seasons, there is something magical in each one.

  2. Cameron says:

    Great view of the end of the growing season! Cameron

    Hi Cameron, thanks, glad you liked it.

  3. Gail says:

    Excellent Frances! I love this post and can now add ‘dying well’ and ‘gold standard of death with beauty’ to my gardening vocabulary. It is a good way to think about plants and gardens and really necessary to gardens that take winter breaks. Earlier this year I planted a Stokesia…Peachie’s Pick; it is supposed to have colorful seed heads that would fit with your dying well theme. So far it is standard brown! I remain patient;) Gail

    I like your new guru, he seems wise…oh to have the sun to create what he has created.

    Hi Gail, thanks. I am wondering what is meant by colorful seed heads? What color are they supposed to be? Remember, brown is a color too. ;-> Piet has created gardens with very big budgets in public areas in many countries. He can order 500 full grown echinaceas to be planted in a drift with 500 calamagrostis and another 500 full size boxwoods trimmed into an undulating dragon. Oh to have those kinds of resources to play with. I believe I could come up with an attractive design if I didn’t have to buy one plant at a time and try and divide it!

  4. walk2write says:

    When I saw your title on my sidebar, I cringed because I thought you were dealing with contaminated water! I guess that reaction was normal since we used to own a drilling company. Oh, to go out as gracefully as the plants you have so lovingly depicted.

    Hi Walk2write, I was hesitant to inclue dying or death in the title, for fear of causing pain to someone, but never in a million years thought of wells in the ground, just a city girl I guess. Yes, those are the best of the lot right now, well the best of the photos of the best of the lot;-> There will be more, and we’ll see what they look like mid winter, the true test. I do know the hydrangea is a beauty during that time anyway.

  5. rstair says:

    I never thought about it but most plants to have interesting seed heads that create some architectural interest in the garden into the fall & winter months. I usually leave my Blackeyed Susans & Coneflowers & Hydrangeas to dry on the plant. Maybe I will have to start letting some of the others too. Great post today Frances!

    Hi PGL, thanks. I always leave the Autumn Joy, and just recently let the echinaceas stay until the seeds were all gone, and the grasses and hydrangeas, but cut most of the other stuff. A different eye will be used now, leaning toward leaving it all, as Piet says to do. Same garden, different perspective!

  6. ourfriendben says:

    Live well and wake up dead, that’s my philosophy. But I love your photos and commentary, Frances! the lamb’s-ears was a special revelation. I love the fuzzy leaves, but ruthlessly cut off the flower spikes as ungainly and unattractive. It never occurred to me to think of their autumn contribution!

    Hi OFB, you are a riot! Thanks, I have been lazy this year due to BLOGGING and didn’t get around to dealing with the lamb’s ear in front by the driveway since it wasn’t in my sight range in the lazyboy. LOL Now it can be claimed as part of the design philosophy, not lazyiness in the lazyboy.

  7. tina says:

    Very nice post. And the narration with each plant ‘dying well’ is superb. I am amazed at you. I meant to talk to you on my blog when you mentioned it, but here is fine too. You rewrote all the html of your old blog to transfer the archives!? I was wondering how you did it. When I switched from the FTP I wrung my hands to figure out how to save the blog but could’nt get it. I am SO impressed! It is important to save it all and congrats! Can I email you next time I need some computer info?;)

    Hi Tina, goodness gracious no, I did not rewrite the archives, just the daylily hill post that would not give the spacing. I haven’t even checked the old blogger posts for font size and don’t have time to do anything about them anyway. Must look forward, not back. The transfer of the old blog to the new was just a click on *the magic button* and presto, it was done. It took a couple of minutes to load and I walked around the garden to pass the time. It could not have been easier. Nan also told me about a feature here at wordpress that let’s you see all the comments you have left on other’s wordpress blogs and their replies, pretty neat. And thanks for the nice words about the post.

  8. Siria says:

    Oh Frances…you never cease to amaze me with information and content material! What an interesting post. I just love your gardens and they are gorgeous in each season.

    I wanted to run something by you…would you mind emailing me? Thanks.

    Hi Siria, thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I deleted your private info, BTW.

  9. Skeeter says:

    All I can say is Death never looked so beautiful! What a great way to show us a garden heading off for a long winters nap! Now time to go stack firewood!

    The Font was eye friendly today! lol…

    Hi Skeeter, thanks. I was hoping this font and size would work, I really spent a lot of time getting it working, the daylily hill post was a bugger, I had to rewrite each photo and caption seperately for some reason. You should be able to read from now on, I kind of know what to do to ensure that and will be on the lookout for mess ups that are bound to crop up, because as you know, it’s always something.

  10. greenwalks says:

    I think dignity in death is a good goal for plants as well as pets and humans. It takes a bit of a perspective shift sometimes to appreciate the end, or at least dormant phase, of the life cycle, but you seem to be doing this so astutely!
    – Karen

    Hi Karen, thanks so much and welcome. A perspective shift if a good way to put the new mindset that one needs to see their gardens differently. I cannot translate this to the life and death of pets and humans, each of us needs to see that through their own eyes.


  11. joey says:

    Do hope you are happy in your new home, Frances. I welcome visiting and sharing your journey. 🙂

    Hi Joey, why thank you for that nice sentiment. I am getting more comfortable here, two steps forward, one step back, at least it seems that way. I appreciate your reading me.

  12. nancybond says:

    There is certain beauty in all stages of the garden. 🙂

    Hi Nancy, you are so right. With your artistic eye, you already knew that.

  13. Benjamin says:

    Might as well find beauty in the garden at all times of the year. Actually, why shouldn’t we? I am certainly, in a way, looking forward to see how the first winter goes for the majority of my plants–how they look, how they catch snow, what creatures they shelter… will the come back…. Argh. Nice new look here, is it permanent?

    Hi Benjamin, thanks and welcome. The question of whether a plant will come back is always hovering, we must be prepared for the answer of no and have another plant in mind. It’s not like there aren’t enought plants to fulfill our visions. As for the new look, this theme is working for me at the moment, but the header photo will be changed out frequently, part of the fun.

  14. Dave says:

    That’s an interesting idea, to think about the seedheads as well as the flower. On many plants they can be just as interesting. That’s why people like ornamental grasses so much. I think the coneflower seed heads are pretty interesting as well.

    Hi Dave, thanks. I really hadn’t thought about it as a design feature before studying Piet’s writings and photos. It is another dimension to gardening. I love it.

  15. Gorgeous… I love the last picture especially, with all of those colors. But I know what you mean about the browns, and the delicate beauty of leaves and flower stems drained of their lifeblood.

    Hi Kim, thanks and welcome, so nice to see you here. There was a link to you blog in the daylily hill post in case you missed it. ;-> I knew you would appreciate the theme of this one as well. ;->

  16. Violet says:

    Only a true gardener can find overwhelming beauty in their ‘fallen’ garden babies. My compliments on all of your wonderful photos, and of course, an outstanding post.

    Hi Violet, thanks so much and welcome. Beauty is everywhere in a garden, you just need to open your eyes to it. Piet Oudolf has opened my eyes, I hope to have opened the eyes of others as well.

  17. Anna says:

    What a great idea. I have noticed how well things die and yours do look nice. I love Autumn and enjoy the process of winding down. It is so hot and humid in our area that I sometimes think I’m with the plants during their September moments than at any other time of the year. It’s more comfortable so it makes sense to plant things that are still interesting.

    Hi Anna, thanks and welcome. Noticing how things wind down is new to me and looking for attractive spent stalks and blooms was educational. I love the fall too.


  18. Amy says:

    I’ll have to look this book up – love the concept of plants that both live well AND die well. Your photos are just lovely.

    Hi Amy, I’m so glad to see you here. Thanks for finding me. Do look for Designing With Plants, the photos are fantastic and there are lots of great ideas for all types of gardens.

  19. linda says:

    Excellent examples of plants that both live and die well Frances.

    Hi Linda, thanks. It was the best of the lot here, the best photos of the best of the group, I should add. ;->

  20. Brenda Kula says:

    Beautiful words! Can I also add that I love the fact that you enlarged your type in your blog? It is so much easier to read. I guess I’m getting old at 51 when I can’t read with my glasses on.

    Hi Brenda, thanks and welcome. The theme I have chosen seemed to have very tiny print for some reason and I have to rewrite the html code for each caption. It is a hassle but worth it. My eyes need the larger and spaced font too. I thought the color was fun and may fool around with that as well as the header photo.

  21. Sunita says:

    What a great view of gardening! I love those seed pods of Nigella damascena. That would look so dramatic in a dry arrangement. Or even mixed in with fresh flowers.
    We dont have Autumn here in Mumbai so there arent many plants that ‘die’ in the fall season (except those that succumb to all the usual pesky reasons) but your plants do look good even in their dying stages.
    Er, Frances, I echo Brenda’s thoughts about the larger font. I’m still in my 40’s but too vain (and too lazy) to get glasses : )

    Hi Sunita, thanks so much. Nigella is one of those plants that is sold in flower shops not in flower, but with the seed heads still green with a purple cast. They do make a stunning arrangement and some people grow them just for that use. I have a cat that eats all plant material, dry or fresh so cannot have bouquets inside but enjoy them in the garden.

    I do think the new larger font and spacing is worth the effort of inserting the html code. Thanks for reinforcing that belief. Why should you have to strain to read a blog? Why does wordpress think small font is okay? ;->


  22. patientgardener says:

    Hi – I was wondering if you came across anything that didnt die well? I cant think of any plants in my garden that I rush to remove the dead flowers from unless it is to prompt more flowers. I do agree with Piet that many flowers are just as beautiful when they are dieing as when they are alive

    Hi Helen, I had to think about that. The daylilies, which are numerous here, die back into a pile of mush, home to millions of snails and slugs. I do remove that mess and toss it in the compost pile. Anything else that becomes a slimy slug secret hiding place needs to be tossed as well. Most will stay this year to see how they stand up during the winter rains and wind, I think it will be as you say, most are still beautiful.

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