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The Barren Charms of a Winter Garden

By Ligaya Mishan

William Farr. Styled by Steven Edney.Allium, achillea, iris, sorghum, miscanthus, dipsacus, eryngium and other seed heads were plucked from the garden of the Salutation, a hotel in Kent, England, and arranged in one of its lounges by the head gardener, Steven Edney, who prizes a plant’s full life cycle — not just its fair-weather prime.

To flower, literally and figuratively, is to reach the peak of one’s possibility, from which there is no direction but down. Or so we have been taught: that lushness equals splendour, that when a blossom wilts and fails, the plant that bore it is finished, returned to drabness, spent of purpose. Spring is a pageant, winter a graveyard. What a shock, then, this past spring at the venerable Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show in London, to see — amid the ravishment of colour and swollen blooms — an array of seed heads, pale and close to pure sculpture, without a petal in sight. It was at once austere and flagrant, a rebuttal of cherished notions of what a garden should be. This, too, is beauty, it seemed to say: this diminishing, these skeletons that remain after the gaudy heyday of blossoms is past.

The exhibit was the work of Steven Edney, the English plantsman, horticulturalist and regular on the beloved BBC Radio Kent show “Sunday Gardening.” He has earned multiple gold medals from the R.H.S. for his floral displays, including his radical, petal-less one this year. Since 2005, he has also held the position of head gardener for the Salutation, a private mansion turned boutique hotel in the medieval port town of Sandwich, Kent, in the English countryside. The estate was completed by the architect Edwin Lutyens in 1912, and in May 1950, it became the first 20th-century home to be designated by the government as a Grade 1 property of “exceptional interest.”

But by the time Edney was hired, the gardens — also Lutyens’s meticulous work: 3.7 acres inspired by his collaborations with the landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll, mixing stately geometric structure with informal sprawl — had gone derelict, after what the Sunday Telegraph garden columnist Francine Raymond has described as a history of “absentee owners, a suicide, disappearing bankers, repossession, greedy businessmen.” So Edney had to educate himself in the art of resurrection and reinvention, introducing 2,000 species of plants, the showy alongside the everyday, heirlooms among exotics, tender and hardy alike.

Along the way, he started to challenge the established thinking that values spring and summer blooms above all (sometimes to the detriment of a garden’s biodiversity) and to investigate the possibilities of fall and winter. “You have to unlearn what you’re taught to move forward,” says Edney. He questioned the incessant demand for tidiness and “perfection” in a garden, which leads many to pinch off shrivelled flowers before seed heads can form. The traditional argument for this grooming procedure, a routine part of gardening called deadheading, is that it can encourage another bloom. To Edney’s mind, that’s a limited view; a plant’s worth shouldn’t be confined to the brief moment of its most overt and brazen appeal. In his work at the Salutation, he embraces a plant’s full life cycle, in flower and in death — where others dismiss winter as a dormant, liminal season, he insists that vitality may be found all year.

For a seed head is no drab aftermath. Like a flower, it adds colour to a landscape, from russets and umbers to flaring golds to lunar whites. One of Edney’s favourites, Veronicastrum virginicum “Lavendelturm,” retains its spikes in winter, upright, skinnier, with a blush of purple deepening into brown. In lieu of ripeness, seed heads throughout the gardens present an eerie, ossified architecture: tight-mouthed trumpets of Iris sibirica, alliums like exploding stars. Flat-topped sedum might reach barely 10 inches, while miscanthus (silver grass) towers eight feet high, with long woolly tapers of seeds drifting down.

Edney knew it was a risk to submit seed heads to the Chelsea Flower Show. A long-ago entry following similar lines, from another gardener, had been met with opprobrium and, according to Edney, a stern warning to “never do that again.” The decision by the R.H.S. to award him a gold medal this year is certainly a sign of the changing times, where environmental concerns have come to the fore. Indeed, seed heads are crucial to the well-being of a garden that’s home to more than plant life: When the weather turns, animals take shelter in crannies of unpruned stems, feed on protein-rich seeds and use the heads’ wispy fluff to build nests; their survival depends on this communion.

Historically, gardening has often been an act of control, bringing a riotous landscape to heel and imposing on it the stamp of human will. Edney’s approach is a kind of relinquishment: to follow the plant’s lead. “You’re bound to the fate of your garden,” Edney says — and not only in spring, when the going is good. “Every day. Every month.” He is now at work on a book that makes a case for gardening year-round, with an eye to sustainability and recognizing that every garden exists within a greater landscape. To love a garden in winter, however beautiful, is to accept that beauty is not a plant’s sole mission, nor should it be. We prize the lilies of the field for toiling not, but usefulness, too, has its honour.

And if a seed head is viewed simply as a marker for a lost flower, it is also an acknowledgement that we can only exert so much power over the world around us. “People used to be so afraid of death in the garden,” the Dutch plantsman Henk Gerritsen once said, as recounted by the English garden designer and writer Noel Kingsbury. In 1978, Gerritsen began building a naturalistic, unregimented garden in the Netherlands, where seed heads and bare stems were left to stand through the winter, in collaboration with his partner, the photographer Anton Schlepers; he lost Schlepers to complications of AIDS in 1993, before being diagnosed himself with H.I.V. and dying in 2008. “Now a whole generation has known death,” he said. “So we do not ban it from the garden anymore.”