The Beauty of Decay

October 11, 2023 Horticulture Department

Have you ever thought of how beautiful decay can be? If not, an autumn garden is the perfect time and place to consider this perspective. Gardens may be less vibrant and loud than in their spring and summer symphonies, but the muted colors and waning tunes of fall hold their own precious place in a garden's lifespan. With critters settling down and forbs fading into dormancy, it is the perfect time to consider the quieter aspects of a garden’s essence. Both ecologically and aesthetically, an autumn garden has a lot going on.

Consider all the brown. Boring? How about not? All this decomposing biomass is the nutrient gold that endows next year’s profusion of flowers, and precious shelter for insects. With all this brown, autumn’s color palette still offers intrigue. Are those perennials a chocolatey hazelnut, reddish russet, golden yellow or another hue that you can pick out? Muffled and sleepy, plants are not asking for attention right now. Yet, they still offer soft beauty for those willing to look beyond blooms.

Textures take the show. Can you find oddly shaped seed heads like spiky Echinacea lollipops, bursts of Solidago and dotty Penstemon stalks? One can admire the interesting details of these skeletal remains on a chilly visit to the garden. Additionally, these perennial remnants provide valuable forage and shelter for wildlife during the cold months to come. Overall, these dried-out perennials give a haunting enchantment to viewers and a necessary habitat in the ecosystem.

Since foliage is dropping, one can better view the bones of a garden. Do shrubs cascade, mound or reach upward in vase-like elegance? Do grasses stand tall and stately, splay out freely or droop like a ruddy mop of hair? Do tree forms seem tightly columnar, funky and irregular or spread in an epic reach? Where green once held space, now shape and structure reveal themselves. For the ecologically minded, now is a chance to see hiding spots like old nests and squirrel highways as they run and jump across branches. These are also the places where creatures hunker down for the winter. Both in visual design and in habitat function, structures like trees, grasses and shrubs hold a garden together. 

Every season has something to offer, including the withering and wilting of an autumn garden. Hopefully, you will have a chance to bundle up and visit Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms or York Street to see fall’s glory. 

This article was contributed by Horticulturist Abigail McLennan


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