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Know Before You Grow: What to know about deadheading

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By now flowers in your garden have burst into bloom creating a beautiful space where pollinators are busy gathering pollen. Perhaps before you’re ready, some flowers may fade as the season progresses. One option for extending the blooming season is deadheading, a gardening technique useful for annual, biennial and perennial plants.

To understand deadheading let’s begin by reviewing the life cycle of a plant. After seed germination, vegetative growth leads to flowering followed by pollination and seed setting. Then, of course, the seeds lead to growth of the next generation for most plants. Annual plants start when a seed germinates and end by producing seeds when they die at the end of the season.

In contrast, a perennial will “die back” to continue root development until winter and early spring when foliage growth resumes until flowers are pollinated followed by seed production.

Disrupting the cycle by removing old and faded blooms before seed production means the plant continues to put energy into producing flowers. This is a means of tricking the plant into producing more blooms instead of stopping the blooming cycle so seeds may be produced. Although deadheading is not essential, the payoff is that the plant produces another flower.

There are many benefits of deadheading. A gardener may prefer removing faded and spent flowers to spruce up and clean the garden. As a sanitation practice a gardener may inspect plants for disease and reduce disease developing from decaying plant matter. A gardener may choose to save seeds before they drop to the ground keeping in mind that plants will self-sow mature seeds. Almost all annuals benefit from deadheading. Some annuals are self-cleaning; that is, they drop flowers and continue blooming. Some hybrid annuals have been bred to not set seeds.

Consider the growth habit of the plant to determine how to deadhead; different plants need different types of deadheading. Cutting off flowers is the simplest strategy. When using pruners, wipe off the blades with rubbing alcohol to prevent spreading disease from one plant to another; remember to dispose of plant debris properly. Check on your plants every few days to keep up with deadheading.

For plants with thin, soft stems, pinch off or snip entire flowers. Cut off only the topmost flower if a new flower bud is present. If the flower is not on a bare stalk, cut to the leaf or lateral bud.

Use pruners to cut off the top flower for plants with thick stalks. If all the flowers on a stalk are dead, cut back the stalk. Another option for flowers on a bare stalk is cutting them back to the basal rosette, the grouping of leaves at the base of a plant. When blossoms like day lilies grow on a stick, snap off flower heads and seed pods and cut the stick back to the base of the plant.

Don’t deadhead biennial plants like foxglove or hollyhocks. Shearing is another type of deadheading useful for annuals like petunias, marigolds, zinnias or salvia. About two weeks after cutting a plant back by half in midsummer, a great show of blooms will return. Plants like dianthus that grow in masses can be sheared back to basal growth after spring and will bloom again. However, a gardener may choose to leave perennials intact in the garden because they provide nutritious cold weather food for wildlife. For example, the seeds of coneflowers are consumed by birds during winter. The seed heads and pods of some plants such as sedum, yarrow, astilbe and liatris also offer winter interest to a garden.

About the Author:

Mary Marks has been an OSU Extension Master Gardener since 2010 when she moved to Marietta.

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