Change and Transformation, Life Lessons

Root Bound and Deadheading: What a Fall Garden Can Teach Us

Snip, snip. The scissoring of my shears cuts through the heavy autumn air. Leaning over my garden beds, I stretch to reach the furthest flowers. Faded, tired, blossoms fall to my feet.

Deadheading, they call it; an ominous name for trimming away old blooms to encourage new growth.

As I work, diligent bees flit from flower to flower. They move like tweens who can’t decide on seats in a movie theater. They land momentarily only to rush to another spot. Even the bees hustle these days. They know warm sunny days are numbered.

Today, I’m deadheading zinnias. They’ve provided stalwart color for months, but now look faded and worn. Maybe, just maybe, deadheading will force some fresh blossoms to open. Hopefully there’s enough time. We’re racing toward first frost.

Gardens make my soul happy. They connect me with something greater than myself. Tiny seeds transforming into giant, food-producing plants is magical. Miraculous! Perennials returning year after year? Inspiring!

It reminds me of a framed cross-stitch hanging in my Grandparent’s farmhouse. It read, “The kiss of the sun for pardon, The song of the birds for mirth, One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden Than anywhere else on earth.” Dorothy Frances Gurney’s words burned into my memory as a child. As an adult, I understand their simple truth. I feel God’s heart in my garden. I know firsthand the wonder of nature’s constant transformation and change.

Yet the race of fall is on. Last tomatoes and cucumbers cling to stems as the plants die. Shade covers my yard where the sun shone brightly only a few weeks ago. Tree leaves color dramatically. Perennials prepare to rest.

Gardening, afterall, is as much about destroying as it is about creating. We force blooms,  weed the unwanted, prune trees, thin seedlings, and deadhead old blooms. Things die back or are removed as often as they are created and grow. The natural world cycles between times of flourishing and composting. It always has.

And my soul echoes that process.

Sometimes I must trim away “old” beliefs, ideas, and ways of being to make room for new growth. When my fingers squeeze around but-this-is-how-it’s-always-been beliefs, fresh nutrients, sunshine, and water can’t drip to the roots of new possibilities in my life. How can I nurture something new if I refuse to let go of the old?

It’s not easy. It takes courage to accept things naturally die back for others to grow stronger. I worry my roots won’t hold me in new environments, new challenges, new ways of being.

How do I know it’s safe? How do any of us?

In college, a plant I’d named “Phyllis the Philodendron” moved to every place I lived. During my final semester, I worked for a college administrator completing her PhD research. Her studies required significant travel, so I lived in her home rent free in exchange for taking care of her house and yard and tending her numerous plants.

During my final weeks staying there, the owner returned for a short visit home. She noticed my plant Phyllis and admonished my neglect.

“She’s totally root bound! You can’t leave her in that little pot or she’ll never grow!”

Root bound?! I’d never heard of such a thing.

At the time, I was nervously planning my post-graduation move to Chicago, a city 10x larger than anywhere I’d ever lived. As I watched her carefully transplant Phyllis into a bigger pot, she discussed the importance of upgrading containers: how plants need spaces to grow in to; edges to reach toward; how quickly new roots become established. She was talking about my plant, yes, but my heart and soul heard her differently. Her words echoed through me and eased my fears.

Plants don’t thrive in too tiny containers. Neither do I. Neither do any of us if we have the courage to look with truth and honesty. It’s frightening to assess what may need to be trimmed away, whether it’s a tangible thing, a belief or an idea. If we see it, we may feel compelled to take action.

I’m going to trust the natural world. Trust my garden. Nature teaches us we are constantly in a state of transformation. It’s always changing, and anything is possible. And who knows? Despite fall’s approach, the brightest blooms may yet arrive.


10 thoughts on “Root Bound and Deadheading: What a Fall Garden Can Teach Us”

  1. Nancy Simpson says:

    This essay really hits home. Thank you Katie.

  2. Therese Gulbransen says:

    Wonderful piece! Reading this provided me with a “deadheading” of my own sort. I’m sitting at the desk, working, figuring out something confusing, full of discrepancies, shoulders are tight and my anxiety high. Fresh ideas and new growth are not possible when I’m in the race for finishing and moving on to the next task. This pops up in my email and I think, “read it later” and keep working. But I chose to stop and read it. I have to start over three times because my mind is trying to move beyond the experience. “Deadheading”. I snipped the expectations of the moment and shifted to a restart. Not sure any of this makes sense, but I need it real bad. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Thank you for sharing how you removed a negative experience and restarted. Glad the article helped you achieve that!

  3. Pamela Nielsen says:

    Wonderful story, Katie.

  4. Barb C says:

    Thank you for reminding us to not be root bound! I definitely have been in my own little comfortable “pot”
    This is inspiring me !

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Glad it inspired you, Barb! We all get comfortable…’til the pot hems us in, right?! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Denise Feisst says:

    Great read! I remember that plant! ?

  6. Maureen says:

    Very inspiring. Thank you for this wonderful food for thought. Your writing is exceptional!

  7. Ana McCracken says:

    Love this entire piece, but in particular, “Sometimes I must trim away “old” beliefs, ideas, and ways of being to make room for new growth. When my fingers squeeze around but-this-is-how-it’s-always-been beliefs, fresh nutrients, sunshine, and water can’t drip to the roots of new possibilities in my life. How can I nurture something new if I refuse to let go of the old?”

    And your photographs are gorgeous. Xo Ana

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Thanks so much, Ana! I’m so happy you enjoyed this piece. Yep, I’ve found I need to let go of some old beliefs once again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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