The Importance of Deadheading
Deadheading improves a plant’s appearance in more than one way. First, you’re getting rid of dead flowers, which more often than not look shriveled, brown and generally unsightly. You’re also stimulating the plant to send out healthy, new foliage. Most importantly, you’re preventing the plant from setting seed. In the case of many perennials, setting seed causes the plant's foliage to look bedraggled for the rest of the season. In other flowering plants, particularly annuals, forming seeds contributes to the plant's decline and even causes it to stop producing blooms altogether. Deadheading interrupts the plant's singular goal, which is reproduction. By thwarting a plant's ability to form seed, you can often coax a second, smaller bloom from a perennial. In the case of annuals, you can create wave after wave of bloom all season long.
For some perennials, removing deadheads every few days during the plant's blooming season is sufficient. Other plants, however, need attention on a daily basis to look their best. The "dinner plate" flowers of hibiscus moscheutos, or the diploid or triploid flowers of newer varieties of daylilies are examples of perennials that are rather high maintenance when it comes to deadheading. Certain early-blooming perennials practically demand a haircut of both old flowers and foliage if you don’t want them to look awful for the rest of the summer. Although not every perennial will rebloom after such treatment, they will all send out a much-needed burst of healthy new growth. Removing not only the finished flowers but also the more tatty leaves and rangy growth of plants like geranium, pulmonaria, alchemilla, tradescantia and stachys greatly improves their looks.
Nothing detracts from the beauty of a front porch planter or hanging basket more thoroughly than the sight of long-finished geraniums or marigolds allowed to become unkempt and go to seed. Deadheading annuals can be time-consuming and monotonous, but it's essential -- not only for looks, but because it will ensure bloom all summer long. If you'd rather not be bothered with continuous flower trimming, look for those annuals that don't require deadheading. Some plants, such as impatiens, wax begonias, calibrachoa or million bells, moss rose and certain petunias are self-cleaning, with flowers that drop neatly from the plant on their own. Of course, you will still want to prune all annuals occasionally to keep them looking full and remaining within bounds.
How to Deadhead
To be an effective deadheader, you have to be familiar with your plants. Pay attention to each individual plant’s flowers and the changes they make in appearance as they mature. What does the newly forming bud look like? The opening flower? The past-its-prime flower? It’s important to observe the plant so you can distinguish between a bud and a bloom that is going to seed, otherwise you’ll remove future flowers along with the spent ones. This can be especially challenging with flowers that look similar both coming and going, such as the pansy. Use your sense of touch as well as sight when looking for deadheads -- a fresh bud feels pliable yet firm, while a spent flower is usually soft, wilted or mushy. Flowers that have already started forming seed have a hard, crunchy feel. Be careful that you remove only the finished flower, and not new buds. Some finished flowers must be removed with great care, if you wish to avoid damaging the fresh flowers.
The method of deadheading varies, depending on the plant’s blooming habits. One of the easiest methods is a simple pinch with your finger and thumb. Grasp the stem below the finished flower and pinch the head off, making the pinch just above a set of leaves. If the stem is strong and crisp, you can perform this with a satisfying snap. For more delicate, soft stems, use your fingernails as snippers. Using your fingers to deadhead can be surprisingly effective, because you can deadhead with both hands at the same time. More tough and woody stems are best deadheaded with pruners. Pruners also have the advantage of giving you the cleanest, neatest and most precise cut. For those perennials with many tiny blooms, or when you want to deadhead a lot of plants in a hurry, grass shears (or even hedge clippers for larger plants) will allow you to complete the task quickly. If you're using the shearing method, it's best to wait until the plant is almost done blooming so you don't sacrifice too many new flowers and buds.
The "Ick" Factor
You may find certain plants downright unpleasant to deadhead. Large daylily flowers are stunning on the one day they bloom, but removing them after they've collapsed is like handling a used tissue. I also dislike deadheading the blooms of petunias and nicotiana because of their stickiness. Then there are the plants that bloom so profusely, you can't seem to keep up with deadheading no matter how hard you try -- I put coreopsis and scabiosa in this category. Some plants, however, make deadheading fun. It’s satisfying to pluck off the blooms of the balloon flower once they’ve “popped.” I could trim marigolds and chrysanthemums all day simply because I love the scent that lingers on my hands. If you dislike handling certain flowers, either because of their odor or texture, remove them with scissors or pruners rather than your fingers. Deadheading requires you to get up close and personal with your plants, so if you find trimming certain varieties tedious or just plain "yucky," you may wish to seek out more pleasant or manageable alternatives.
When Not to Deadhead
There are times that you may want to avoid deadheading. Leave at least a few flowers untrimmed if you plan to collect seeds for future planting or just want to encourage the plant to self-sow. If you have the sort of roses that develop attractive rose hips, discontinue regular deadheading of these plants at the end of the summer, leaving late-season flowers on the plant. Other flowers you may want to leave untrimmed for their interesting seed heads include astilbe, liatris, clematis, sedum and yarrow. Some flower seeds are highly attractive to birds, so leaving the flower heads remaining at season's end is an economical alternative to purchased bird seed. Stems of echinacea, rudbeckia, helianthus and hosta will make your winter garden inviting to finches, sparrows, chickadees, juncos and more.
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Goldfinch by Runner Jenny