Midsummer is here, and flowers are blooming with wild abandon.
It’s tempting to sit back and let the garden run on autopilot. I’d rather stay on the porch with a tall glass of iced tea, but I know a bit of deadheading and all-around grooming goes a long way toward keeping my plants healthy and looking their best.
Some gardeners get great satisfaction from deadheading; they’ve even been known to snap the spent blooms from flower displays at stores and restaurants. Others wouldn’t dream of depriving the birds of the seed heads come fall. There are good reasons for both courses of action, and probably a happy medium for everyone.
The case for deadheading
Flowers are programmed to reproduce by setting seed. By removing “dead” flowers, the plant’s energy is redirected from seed production back into vegetative growth. This is especially important for establishing strong roots on first-year perennials. Later in the life cycle, older perennials may be prolific to the point of exhaustion. So both benefit from this practice.
Deadheading not only maintains plant vigor but also helps a plant’s appearance, keeping it looking fresh throughout the season. Daylilies are the best and worst example; those mushy spent blossoms really detract from the appearance of the foliage and the newest flowers.
As a general rule, plants with prominent, large flowers look better with consistent grooming, while smaller flowered varieties let you slide a bit.
With common annuals like marigolds and petunias, deadheading doesn’t require much thought; just pop off the spent flowers with your fingers.
While a few annual varieties are self-cleaning, most respond to deadheading with more prolific flower production. Lots of annuals like petunias and verbena grow leggy in spite of this and require cutting back halfway through summer in order to regroup.
However, perennials require a different approach, depending upon flower structure. With flowers like coreopsis, bee balm, scabiosa, butterfly weed, helenium, yarrow or gaillardia, you’ll want to cut down the next lateral bud or leaf if there’s no other bud. Once all flowers are finished, you’ll want to go back and trim off leggy stems to tidy up the entire plant. This is good practice for perennials that tend to “open” in the center. For spiked flowers like salvia, penstemon or veronica, you may want to shear them all off at the same time.
Some flowers need to be removed at the base of the plant to avoid unsightly stubs. Hosta, heuchera and tiarella, lambs ear and low-growing sedums are good candidates for this method. If you grow these plants mainly for their handsome foliage, you might want to forgo the flowers altogether. Snipping off the flowers (called liveheading) at first notice will result in stronger plants. Cranesbill geraniums like ‘Biokovo’ and ‘Rozanne’ should be deadheaded back to the basal foliage, but with so many small blooms, they seem daunting to deadhead. Luckily, you can easily yank the spent stems out by hand. This is possible with heuchera and tiarella, too.
Depending upon the plant, deadheading can prolong the bloom period or sometimes later on produce a second, although smaller flush of flowers. On the other hand, deadheading can help contain flagrant self-seeders like poppy and columbine that scatter their progeny willy-nilly around the garden.
Leaving seed heads
There are legitimate reasons to leave well enough alone. Many flowers are loved just as much for their attractive seed pods that add beauty as well as bird food to the waning garden. Upright sedum, baptisia, coneflower and rudbeckia are just a few worth considering, while others not so much.
Whether your motive is winter interest or wildlife, plan to trim off broken or spindly side growth, leaving only the sturdiest stems that can withstand some wind and snowload.
The right tools
Sharp thumbnails often suffice for plucking and pinching. For most deadheading jobs, bypass pruners are the best tool. Avoid anvil-style pruners that crush rather than cut. I like small scissors called secateurs for finer work on multiple blooms or slender stems. Grass shears are great for large end-of-season jobs. Wear gloves to protect your digits. Learn from my painful experience; you don’t want to prune an index finger.
Regular garden grooming gets you more closely acquainted with your plants. As you see how and why each plant responds to this kind of micro-pruning, you’ll become more adept. Plus if I hadn’t been out there deadheading the other day, I would have missed much more than the chance to tend my flowers. While I snipped away, I discovered frogs and monarch caterpillars — and even witnessed a wolf spider and her babies.