Herbaceous perennials

This is a good time of the year
to work on the herbaceous perennials
summer is coming to an end
food has been made and stored
flowers are spent

What is an herbaceous perennial?
well for one it is herbaceous
herbaceous in botany horticulture speak
means the plant stays bendy and squishy,
soft tissues that do not harden and become stiff and rigid
herbaceous, not woody
shrubs and trees – they are woody, not herbaceous
most grasses and rushes – herbaceous
bulbs and corms – herbaceous
blue bells, columbines, delphiniums, coneflowers and poppies
all herbaceous

Herbaceous is different from an herb, like a kitchen herb
herbaceous is different from herb, like street corner slang for cannabis
herbaceous is not a particular plant, it is a description for a plant tissue type and structure

Perennial means it lives for more than a a couple of years
could be five
could be one hundred
so relatively long lived

Some herbaceous perennials
come from a place with cold winters
so they are accustomed to tucking themselves back into the earth
underground, for a spell
hanging low during the cold period when the sun is low in the sky
and there is ice and snow cover

Other herbaceous perennials
come from a place with hot hot summers
in order to survive
they die back, go dormant, and take a rest from photosynthesis
when the sun is hitting hard, and there is hardly any water
be still and quiet

There are also herbaceous perennials
that are evergreen in foliage
they are green and persistent year round
happy in our mild coastal climate
getting by just fine with the occasional winter rains

As maintenance gardeners and plant lovers
working on the herbaceous perennials
you may –
(1) deadhead old flowers
(2) remove the brown and spent foliage
(3) rejuvenate the plant by cutting it all back to the ground
(4) collect seed and store it in an envelope to grow later
let’s go to the field and give it a go

Deadheading is removing the faded spent browning flowers
with the hope that by removing them, the plant will send up more flowers
for us to enjoy
this works because the plant wants to make seeds and reproduce
by taking away the faded flowers with the just-beginning-to-form fruits
you have frustrated the plant in its reproductive endeavor
so it will try again, provided there is sufficient water light and warmth
to keep going

Here is Digiplexis in action
you can see some cut flower stalks of past deadheading
you can also see that the plant sent up more flowers to achieve its end goals

This one is Agapanthus
watch the flowers drop off one by one
observe the fruits start to swell up with seeds
seeds that start off white, then turn black with age
okay here’s plenty of work
deadhead em anytime!

Now when you see a shasta daisy, or a coreopsis
or a california buckwheat, or an osteospermum
you know what to do
to keep the flowers comin’

When you remove the brown and spent foliage
it just looks cleaner and taken care of
like a gardener has been through there
this patch of Chasmanthe is all finished for the year, the corms have retired
these little colonies have been shrouded for most of the summer
would be good to take a pair of pruners to em
or snip them with a pair of really sharp shears at the right angle

This swathe of grasses is also all done, dropped its seed, just a fiber skeleton left
but these grasses dont actually belong in this lecture
cause they are not perennials, they are annuals – mostly oats Avena

Like with this daylily
you just reach in and pull out all that brown dead stuff
and the plant perks up a bit

Like with this clump of Scilla bulbs
see the gardener’s touch?

Only thing is, sometimes you gotta wait it out
ideally, if nobody is complaining, you wait until the plants’ leaves go all brown by themselves before you dive in with pruners
that way the plant pulls all the green goodness back down into its underground parts
and stores it for next year
if you cut them prematurely, that is – interrupting its natural cycle
it is kinda like dropping a couple of hundred dollar bills on the ground as you walk away from the bank, having just made a withdraw
if you are able to, follow nature’s rhythm, don’t force it

That said, in nature, even the dead brown leaves serve a purpose

they act like a blanket of insulation

shielding and protecting the parts below

during hard times

As it dries up, down into the ground go the irises:

When the plant is all done
then you go in
for example, this Alstroemeria, see the difference a few minutes of gardening makes?

Sometimes though, you came a little too late, and the plant already started its next growth cycle
like this other patch of Alstroemeria around the corner –

you can still work on it, just try not to yank and cut all the fresh growth

These Amaryllis belladonna are still blooming:

This Amaryllis has that look that says
“That’s it, I’m all done. Lemme rest”
unless you want to save the seed, this is when you can go in and cut it all down


So that next August September it will look like this again

Maybe you are a maintenance gardener
who is secretly harboring wishes
to be a nursery person or a master propagator
well then you want to keep an eye out on the fruits
and start to collect seeds
while you are in the garden

Collecting seeds is almost the total opposite of deadheading
if you want to have germinating plant babies
you have to leave the maturing fruits
the fruits will tell you when they are ready to be harvested
usually when they turn brown
you will have to put up with people saying things like
“Why you leave that? Its so ugly?”
or “Cut it down already, theres no more flowers, are you lazy or what?”
usually, I just shrug, smile, and wait, and wait some more

Wait until I can get a handful of the fairy’s fishing wand Dierama seeds:

Until I can fill an envelope with nutka reed grass Calamagrostis seed

Until my pouch is chock full of four o’clocks MIrabilis

Until Canna edulis’ perfect spherical seeds literally drop from the open capsules

This then completes the life cycle of the plant
and your training as a gardener
if you understand how all this works

Once in a while its challenging to resist
the urge to cut the plant all the way down to the ground
especially when –
the plant’s leaves are full of mildew
its leaves are tattered and bug eaten
rust is pervasive
and frankly, the plant is making you look like a terrible gardener
but then you open a seed pod or two
and discover the reward for all that hard work and patience and tolerance
well there it is! Red runner beans in purple and black

Hold up! I know that it’s not looking so good, but please don’t cut it down yet! what are those things at the axils of the leopard lily?! look like teeny baby bulbs with roots?! do you think I might be able to grow them?!!!!?