Guardian | the lovely bones

This feature was written for the Guardian

“Every garden should include some plants that die beautifully.” An odd sounding assertion perhaps, but landscape designer Tom Stuart Smith believes death should be designed into our gardens – plant deaths that are graceful and heroic. Gardeners’ idea of what is good looking varies wildly but one thing on which they likely can agree is that a growing space should feel alive. But the dead and the dying have a lot to offer – both aesthetically and practically.

As summer shifts to autumn, and autumn withers to winter, green spaces bleach into metallic pale straw colours while also deepening into rich tawny coppers and rusts. Amid this complex palette of browns, sculptural features stand out. That star burst of a seed head studded with dew balls. The skeletal tree silhouetted against a bright grey sky.  Fading sweeps of long grass stiffened by frost.

It’s not all charming – a gathering slush pile of leaves on your patio or lawn is no thing of beauty. Rot and ruin has a purpose though. Gathered into black bags and left to break down, fallen leaves will slowly transform into a rich, soil enhancing mulch. The dead and dying also provide food and shelter for wildlife. A pile of old wood can be a palace for small mammals and seed heads offer substantial meals to birds. Put simply, wildlife relies on decaying matter and it’s an essential part of the lifecycle of any healthy garden.

So how does one do death well in the garden, and is it ever acceptable not to deadhead and cut back? “We used to have a very tidy attitude to gardens but that’s gradually changed” says Stuart Smith.  He singles out Piet Oudolf as the person who has made people look at dead plants afresh, and suggests a more elegiac approach to planting is an inevitable part of a shift from completely controlled gardens to something more natural. “People always ask me when they should cut things back. You should trust your instincts and just do it when you don’t like the look of something anymore.”

The key to making death becoming is to combine attractive foliage, seed heads and colour. Blend grasses like rich brown Hakonechloa macra, straw coloured Miscanthus and pale Pennisetums with the striking seed heads of teasel, Phlomis russeliana, monarda, cardoon and sedums. Stuart Smith has a special mention for tall growing Inula magnifica. He revels in its death, explaining that it ends up like a charred thing with a look of bent metal. Dramatic deaths should feature, as well as elegant ones.

“It’s about a shift in perception of what is and isn’t valuable and beautiful in the garden,” says Elaine Hughes, a wildlife garden designer who openly appreciates the decline and fall of plants. Thinking about death is a way of broaching wider questions about the point of gardens. Far from macabre, for her the vegetal die-back is actually a life affirming process and certainly doesn’t have to be ugly.

Hughes celebrates the explosive form of the alium seed head and the gobstopper like seedpods of the opium poppy, which provide a framework for spiders to weave their webs. She delights in the fact she recently found a caterpillar curled up inside a red campion seed capsule. And Hughes argues that a dead hedge – a barrier built from cut branches and foliage – is architecturally interesting as well as a useful habitat. “Wood, as it decays, can also take on all kinds of chestnut tones,” she says.

Upright trees – dormant, not dead – dominate winter landscapes and can look magnificent in their undressed states. An oak might look like a big brain, while birch can be gentle and feathery. Coppiced street trees look like huge knuckles, and deciduous shrubs and climbers can take on sinuous forms. Old bird nests stand out in bare trees like giant punctuation marks.

One thing to consider when planning your planting is how long something will look good dead for. Molinia moor grass looks lovely in winter but starts to fall apart in January, while spiky Echinacea seed heads often break apart after the first frost. Large gardens can get away with lots of death but such blankets of decay could feel oppressive in a small space. Browning highlights amid an evergreen base would work better.

Designing death into your garden is a subject often neglected by how-to books, although Piet Oudolf is the writer to seek out on such matters. Places to visit for inspiration include Pensthorpe Gardens in north Norfolk and Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire – both boast prairie style landscapes that look stunning in winter.

Spectacular seed heads
Allium Cristophii and Hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Globemaster’
Echinacea
Teasel
Papaver somniferum
Giant sunflower
Nigella
Wild carrot
Clematis vitalba
Sea holly
Corncockle
Cosmos
Artichokes
Verbena bonariensis
Phlomis russeliana
Monarda
Cardoon
Sedums

Vibrant leaves
Euonymus alatus
Eleagnus
Gingko
Hornbeam

Grasses
Stipa arundinacea
Miscanthus sp.
Hakonechloa macra
Pennisetums
Milinia

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