Dead Heading

November 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm (Uncategorized)

We raked up the rest of the leaves this weekend. We ended up with seven huge garbage bags of golden, russet, and red leaves. The trees are down to their bare branches now. We also shuffled out to the trash the skeletons of my tomato and pepper plants. The soil left in the pots is desiccated. And today, I finally began to deal with the remnants of my first ever flowers—two giant planters of marigold and dianthus, which I chose with my mother because they were deer resistant and promised to be hardy.

When I bought the two dozen small cartons of flowers, I quizzed the nursery owner about how to take care of them. As a novice gardener, I was anxious to do everything I could to keep these pink and orange plants alive and well.

“I usually kill plants,” I told him. “But I’m trying to do better. Last year I kept a bunch of tomato plants alive, so now I want to grow something beautiful. But I don’t know how to do flowers.”

“Doing flowers isn’t too hard,” the weathered man told me, with a smile just on the other side of sly. “Providing you water them, give them access to sunshine, and deadhead them.”

“Deadhead them?” I asked, feeling instantly overwhelmed. I conjured the image of some complex and toxic fertilizer, branded Deadhead (maybe it would have a nice, humanistic tie-dyed label). I would need some serious gloves and protective eyewear and, and and …and maybe I wasn’t quite ready for flowers.

“It means you pull of the blossoms when they’re dead, young lady,” he said.

The “young lady” bone he’d tossed me on a day when I was feeling every one of my forty years helped me get over feeling stupid.

“Oh,” I said. “And how do I know when the blossoms are dead?”

“You’ll know,” he said. “And if you’re careful to deadhead them regularly, they’ll blossom for you until the snow flies.”

Back home, I followed his directions and planted the dianthus close to one another, around the perimeter of the half barrel. I clustered the marigolds in a tight ball in the center. Since marigolds stink, both to humans and to deer, they should keep our neighborhood herd (of deer) clear of my flowers. The deadheading lesson went to the back of my brain. I didn’t remember it until a few days later, when quite a few of the once-perky pink dianthus sagged, dried up, and looked like miniature dried corn silk. The flower man was right – I did know. I tentatively plucked off a defunct blossom. Then another, and another.

“What are you doing?” Jay asked me later in the week, when he found me hunched over the plants, furiously picking off dead blossoms.

“I’m dead heading,” I said.

“Oh,” Jay said, and snuck in the front door behind me. He claims to still be traumatized by forced childhood weeding. Any time I do anything with a plant, Jay makes himself scarce, in case I decide it’s time to weed ourselves into a frenzy.

Contrary to my early doubts, I loved deadheading. I couldn’t walk by the planter without plucking off the shriveled blossoms. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. The activity tapped into the same OCD behavior I display when I start cleaning a shower, or sorting through the papers on my desk, or scouring the stove. But with deadheading, I was laboring in the service of beauty. And it really worked.

A handful of dead blossoms

If I consistently cleaned away the used-up blossoms, the plants kept flowering. When we went away on short vacations and the plants were left untended, I’d come home to find fewer new blossoms—and an hour’s worth of curiously satisfying deadheading to get them back on track.

One summer evening, when dusk was first slipping into the sky, I had a moment of clarity. I glanced down at my handful of dead blossoms, and then at the new blossoms that were nearly bursting into bloom. And it hit me. We are not so different from flowering plants. We need to clear away the used-up bits of our lives before we can allow new growth. If we hang onto dead blossoms—in our souls, in our hearts, in our minds—we make it impossible for new ideas, new inspirations, new loves to find us. To put it another way, we have to close a door for another to open, or shed old skins to weave new ones.

All through my years in Chronic Town, I’ve been holding on—desperately—to the “old” me—the woman I was before I became ill. I know why I was holding onto her. I didn’t want to let her go. I wasn’t ready. For years I told myself that if I just kept a firm enough grip on her, I could slide back into that old life when I was well again. I could pick up where I left off. But it doesn’t work that way. I don’t have the same body, soul, mind, or life anymore. Those expectations, past dreams, lost visions have become dead weight. They’ve prevented me from moving on, and moving into the new person I am becoming every day. It’s time to let the new blossoms flower.

Have you ever gone through a process of internal deadheading? Was new growth more possible after you cleared away the old stuff? Or am I wrong? Is it important to keep our old dreams alive too?

New Growth


  1. Danna Jackson said,

    I’m an obsessive dead header — particuarly of petunias. It’s cathartic. In regard to your analogy here, I can’t say. I only have known the “new” you — which is pretty awesome. My guess is your soul is the same and that many of your dreams can also be the same regardless of your current circumstances. My second guess (related to the first) is that you truly aren’t THAT different. You may have physical limitations but you still are able to contribute in very meaningful ways. In my own life, I find that the biggest impediment to a deep cleansing if being able to forgive myself for stupid mistakes. In that regard I need to realize that I am my own greatest critique. I can’t imagine the frustration you have related to a remarkable set of new circumstances — I’m not pretending to have the context to make any type of truly relevant comment. However here I go — I say quit comparing yourself to an ideal that isn’t that important anymore. Cleanse yourself of the old ideal and embrace the important role you now play? Be less hard on yourself? I state these with question marks because I don’t know the answers or even the right answers but I do know that you are a wonderful human — always have been (i’m guessing!) and always will be.

  2. Barbara Barnes said,

    Umm.. I will have to stop crying before I comment too much. Yup, let go of that deadhead to blossom. I am ocd about deadheading. Also, growing is one of my favorite things but I never thought about being a new flower! Thank you Rebecca! I laughed and cried with this entry… sorry to Jay, he was the source of my laughter. When I was a kid and the property strip next door had to be weeded we played “war”. The POW’s had to weed. I always was in charge of the POW’s because proper weeding is important and rewarding. Plus the koolaid was colder in the shade of the tree by the weeding prisoners. I am looking forward to knowing the Rebecca who is reincarnating her beauty and becoming the organic reflection of Who She Is.

  3. Marianne said,

    I need to dead head my life. I think I need to start with uncluttering. or decluttering. I’m missing the correct word.

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