To Deadhead or Not?

Carolyn Black
Adams County Master Gardener

Your Final Answer Is...

Deadheading is a gardening term that defines the process of removing faded or dead flowers from plants. Deadheading is a process of pruning by which old growth and seed heads are removed from the plant to promote new growth and re-flowering.

Deadheading is very simple. As blooms fade, pinch or cut off the flower stems below the spent flowers and just above the first set of full, healthy leaves. Always check plants carefully to be sure that no flower buds are hiding amid the faded blooms before you shear off the top of the plant.

The best time to deadhead a flower is when its appearance begins to decline. The frequency of deadheading a particular plant depends on the life span of its blooms. This can range from a day to several weeks, depending on the species. Weather also greatly affects a flowerís longevity as torrential rains and unseasonably hot weather like we recently experienced can take their toll on blooms.

Most flowers lose their attraction as they fade. Snapping or cutting dead flower heads can enhance the flowering performance of many plants. Deadheading is an important task to keep up with in the garden throughout the growing season because it results in healthier plants and continual blooms. When dead blooms are left clinging to flowering plants, they sap the nutrition and strength from the core of the plants and rob them of the energy to produce new and colorful blooms. The deadheading process redirects plants energy from seed production to root and vegetative growth.

Get in the habit of evaluating your garden frequently to determine if there are any deadheading needs. Spending a short time in the garden each day will make the deadheading task much easier. Deadheading is a maintenance practice that can be done throughout the growing season. Deadheading allows you to stay in contact with your garden beds. Many gardeners find deadheading enjoyable and relaxing. It can also be meditative and therapeutic.

After a plant is finished flowering, it begins to form seeds. The flowering process is suspended, and the plant begins to use all its energy to form seeds. For those left to go to seed, it is likely that next yearís flower quantity and size will be reduced. Deadheading plants as soon as the blooms begin to fade will send the strength back down to the roots and promote a second bloom. Deadheading may sound a little assertive but plants, like all of us, need boundaries. Proper plant pinching gives some herbaceous plants the boundaries they need to keep them under the gardenerís control.

Making a decision about deadheading can be difficult because it is advantageous for some plants and detrimental for others. Gardeners should evaluate the needs of their plants in order to make a proper determination.

There are some perennials that are great self-seeders. For example, columbine loves to spread and roam its seedlings to places away from the parent plant. An advantage to this is that baby plants can help fill in areas of your garden or allow the gardener to share plants with other gardeners. Some perennials that should not be deadheaded so that they reseed for the following year are Alcea (Hollyhock), Digitalis (Foxglove), Lobelia (Cardinal Flower), and Myosotidium (Forget-me-not.).

However, some perennials benefit from being deadheaded. These include Achilea (Yarrow), Astilbe (False Spiria), Campanula (Bellflower),Centranthus (Jupiterís Beard), Coreopsis (Tickseed), Delphinium (Larkspur), Gaillardia (Blanket Flower), Geranium (Cranesbill), Monarda (Bee Balm), Oenthera (Evening Primrose), and Garden Phlox. Taller varieties of Sedum such as Autumn Joy should be cut back to prevent spindly branches and to promote compact growth.

In this authorís gardens, no deadheading guidelines apply in the autumn. It is very important to keep seed pods on the plants for wildlife to enjoy during the winter months. Also, some plants have very decorative seed pods and present a beautiful display in the garden during the winter. Birds enjoy perching on Echinacea (coneflowers) and snacking on the seed heads. Plants like Rudbeckia are great for attracting gold finches with their seeds. This is crucial food for them in the winter.

Nothing is more rewarding to a gardener than watching the garden come to life with beautiful blooms and practicing the task of deadheading throughout the season, when it is deemed appropriate. Nature will bless you with a second wave of blooms to enjoy, even more for some plants, and will reward you with the reseeding of some plants to keep the garden thriving from year to year.

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