During these days of late August, I am watching the side garden transition slowly from summer to fall. The black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckias hirta) are the first to show their change from one season to the next. Most of the native variety we have lost their rich, yellow, open-faced flowers that remind me of a wide-eyed youngster full of excitement and wonder. But most of the golden petals of full summer have fallen to the garden floor to rot leaving each stem holding at its top the dark eyed center of summer now transformed to a dark cluster of seeds.
The black-eyed Susan is an easy and pleasing plant for a garden. While there are many varieties, our is the native one of local meadows. Known by several names, we prefer the one used here. But, what an odd name that leads to question: “Who is Susan that the plant is named for?” One internet search tells that legend says the name “originated from an Old English poem written by John Gay (1685-1732) entitled ‘Sweet William’s Farewell To Black-Eyed Susan’. True or not, it is a sweet poem of William telling Susan that her love will keep him safe while he is away fighting in a war.
Legend aside, the late-summer garden needs attention. One task of a gardener has a dreadful name: Dead heading. But the act is not as bad as it sounds since the removal of spent flowers is good for a plant because more energy for growth will be spent on the plant, not the bygone flower. And some folks will say that the flower looks better without what is left of a flower. However, we will not dead head the black-eyed Susans just yet.
One recent evening, Mary Ann and I were watching the birds at the birdbath. She asked me did I see the slight movement of a black-eyed Susan stem? I did, and we watched as a female American goldfinch held onto the stem while eating from the dark cluster of seeds. The tiny body barley had enough weight to cause the stem to bob and weave as she pecked at the seed cluster. Like several female species, this finch did not have the bright colors of a male, but her dark grey and subtle brown had its own beauty, and we enjoyed watching her finding food on what some people would see as a “dead” plant. While she has a proper name, we refer to her species as “Jo Ann” to honor Mary Ann’s deceased mother, an avid admirer of birds. Although we came late to bird watching, Mary Ann and I now realize the joy of birds, and we are fortunate that we have Jo Ann’s copy of Peterson Guide complete with her bird-list of sighted species. But the “Jo Ann” is not alone, and in fact they are joined in feasting on the seed heads of the black-eyed Susan by Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, titmice, and others that feed on the ground hidden by the heavy, dark green leaves of the black-eyed Susans.
However, the days slowly roll towards Labor Day, and all the Susans will soon be void of those lovely, yellow-gold petals. But we will not rush out to dead head them. The fine Canadian writer and poet, Patrick Lane, writes that “The gardener has nothing but time.” He also writes, “My garden is a living place, not just a showroom for flowers and plants.” He is correct and since there is no reason to rush the dead heading and in that way allowing more life to be in the small side garden, Mary Ann and I will enjoy watching the birds feasting, especially the Jo Anns.