Sandy's Garden ... Off With Their Heads

In his wonderfully-imaginative book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865, the mathematician and author Lewis Carroll envisages a scene in which Alice is watching three playing cards painting white roses red.

By Sandy Simpson
Monday, 10th August 2020, 8:39 am

The cards prostrate themselves face down when the ill-tempered Queen of Hearts arrives, demanding that Alice reveal the identities of the cards.

Since the cards are lying face down and the backs of all the cards in the pack are identical, Alice cannot comply with this request. In Lewis Carroll’s own words, “The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. 'Off with her head!' she said, without even looking around.”

I had misremembered the original quotation as, “Off with their heads!”, a phrase which the Queen of Hearts does indeed use in the course of the story but not at this juncture. In fact, the Queen says little else apart from demanding the he/she/they be beheaded.

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Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

And the maxim, “Off with their heads!” is not the worst that the gardener can adopt at this season of the year, when this is what should be done to the fading flowers on summer bedding plants.

In the garden, this is called ‘dead-heading.’ It is a task which should be undertaken very regularly during the growing season, when most plants benefit from having spent flowers removed, a procedure which is also good for the appearance of the garden and for the gardener’s reputation among his/her neighbours.

There are two principal reasons for this. The first, and most visually obvious, is that the garden just looks better for being neat and tidy; few gardeners will willingly leave assorted wind-blown people-generated detritus littering their gardens, so why would one wish to leave naturally-generated rubbish hanging about? Of course, as well as tidying up the general appearance of the garden, this greatly improves the appearance of the individual plants.

The second reason is, in my opinion, by far the more important. For reasons which I really don’t understand, plants ‘know’ when their flower heads have been removed.

The sole purpose of the flowers is to attract pollinating insects to the plant to start the germination process for seeds; and the only reason that a plant produces seed is to ensure the continuing survival of its species. Remove the spent flowers before the seed-production process is properly under way and many plants will respond by having another attempt to achieve their purpose; in other words, they will produce another flourish of flowers.

This is not universally true, of course; most perennial plants don’t do this: but a great many annual plants do, including virtually all the varieties that are grown as summer bedding plants to brighten up the garden with their rainbow of colours.

But perennials will also benefit from having spent blooms removed, for this will stop the plant from producing seed which is usually of no interest to the gardener and the plant will redirect its energy into improving its own general health.

And then there are the vigorous plants which produce and scatter their seed in super-abundance to the point where they are weeds or, if planted deliberately, grow like weeds and become a nuisance; the gardener will indeed be happy to limit their seed production!

There are a thousand ‘rules’ about how to dead-head different varieties of plants. I know only a few of them but usually act on a single, simple rule-of-thumb.

For many plants, I just pluck off the spent flowers if this seems the right thing to do; where several flower-heads spring from a single stem, I snip off or snap off dead blooms, leaving other buds and flowers alone. Generally, this works well and I am more often right than wrong.

Happy snipping.