Knowing when it’s time to deadhead (Falling out of your chair is only one way)

When a gauzy, purple butterfly,
Softly tilts a golden flower,
Its cool wings ease the summer flame
As laughter soothes a troubled hour.

– Courtney E. Cottam

ian-gardenLike most of us, I sometimes enjoy doing absolutely nothing! Picture this: there I am sitting in the shade of an umbrella, reading a book, soft music playing in the background, my feet raised on another chair, nicely relaxed and comfortable. I drift off, snoozing away the latter part of an afternoon, whilst a warm summer breeze keeps me snug and comfortable.

I awaken to the sound of the chickadees as they chitter-chatter, fighting over the bird feeders hanging in the trees, when the local squirrel darts past my feet, followed closely by… a cat? Startled, I jump out of my seat, which (I don’t know why) topples over, me with it, planting my face in a pot. I sit up, a little red-faced, and chuckle to myself. “Silly fool,” I say, “a cat and a squirrel!” Laughing, I get up, no bones broken, the chair clearly okay. I clean myself up and check the plants I had ended up in. Deadheading, definitely needed.

The art of deadheading plants, I think, is having patience. We all want our plants to look spectacular to be appreciated by our many friends or just to admire as we sit quietly with a loved one over wine and cheese. But does deadheading really have to take so long? Do we really need to deadhead? Is there a special technique for deadheading?

The definition to “deadhead” plants is to remove their spent flowers. Many plants require this action to promote continued flowering for that particular year and, without such plant care, they would simply get stringy, withering eventually. For soft annuals you can mostly deadhead by hand but the more woody types require secateurs (gardening scissors or pruners).

Most gardeners know that it’s a really good idea to deadhead your annuals and many perennials if you wish to achieve maximum bloom. Deadheading gives the flowers a chance to continue blooming throughout the summer months, and in many cases through the fall. When you deadhead flowers, you are channeling energy away from seed production into further flower production. In essence, to deadhead a plant is to trick it into forming additional flowers in its attempt to produce the seed it set out to produce in the first place. If you do not deadhead, some annuals will “peter out”, robbing your garden and the landscape of the color that could be provided in late summer or early fall.  Many perennials will bloom longer if deadheaded as their flowers fade.

“Deadhead” and “pinch” are similar techniques. Some people use them interchangeably. Others make a technical distinction, insisting that you “pinch back” a plant before it flowers to make its vegetation bushier; whereas you can only “deadhead” a plant, by definition, after its flowers have started to wither.

Even if you draw such a distinction between the two words, deadheading and pinching back do operate under a similar principle: they’re both all about targeting a plant’s energy into a direction you find more agreeable than the “natural” direction mother nature had intended.

Botanical reasons put aside, people deadhead plants simply to keep ugly, shriveled-up flowers from marring the appearance of their front yard or extravagant pots. We all like them to be beautiful for as long as they can.

Now where did I put my secateurs…

Ian Leatt a.k.a. Dr. Petunia is a gardener first and a general manager at this magazine second!

Originally published in Manitoba Home & Gardener Living magazine.

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