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Garden Guru: Deadheading

It’s that time of year when everything is lush and lovely and we gardeners should be sitting back and enjoying the result of our work – I was going to say HARD work but I’m, in truth, not that kind of garden ...

It’s that time of year when everything is lush and lovely and we gardeners should be sitting back and enjoying the result of our work – I was going to say HARD work but I’m, in truth, not that kind of gardener. Have you noticed though that the minute you sit down you see some little job that needs doing? For me this is usually deadheading. Some tender plants obligingly snap cleanly with a deft pinch of the fingers so its no problem to leave your drink and do a minute tidy up but others must be cut cleanly with secateurs. Here’s some very clear advice about deadheading from the RHS: when, why and how.

My thanks to the wonderful RHS for the following:  https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=129

Deadheading plants

Deadheading is the term used for the removal of flowers from plants when they are fading or dead. It is done to keep plants looking attractive and encourage more blooms, whether in beds and border, containers or hanging baskets.

Deadheading rose bushes

Quick facts

Suitable for Most flowering garden plants
Timing When the flowers fade or die
Difficulty Easy

Reasons for deadheading

Most flowers lose their attraction as they fade, spoiling the overall appearance of beds, borders and containers, and are best removed. However, there are other reasons:

  • Regular deadheading directs energy into stronger growth and more flowers. Once the flowers are pollinated; seed heads, pods or capsules form at the expense of further growth and flower development
  • It can prevent plants with numerous petals, such as peonies, some camellias and many roses, scattering debris widely

When and what to deadhead

Remove the spent flowers as soon as they look scruffy. In practice, gardeners usually have to remove them as soon as they can and, thankfully, a few days delay won’t make a difference.

Plants to deadhead

  • Bedding plants: Tender plants growing in beds, containers and hanging baskets respond well to deadheading. The faded blooms of argyranthemums, cherry pie, pansies, polyanthus and petunias can be removed with finger and thumb
  • Geraniums (Pelargonium): Hold the faded flower stalk near the base and pull downwards. The old bloom will snap out cleanly
  • Roses: Gently snap off the faded flowers, breaking the stalk just below the head (also see ‘Where to cut’ below)
  • Shrubs: Among the most important shrubs to deadhead are rhododendron (and azaleas), camellias, lilacs and tree peonies. Use finger and thumb to pick or snap off each dead head where it joins the stem or secateurs to cut just below the flower head. Avoid damaging buds or developing growths immediately below the flower
  • Climbers: Deadhead climbers where practical, particularly Eccremocarpus as it rapidly produces seed pods
  • Bulbs: Remove flowers, along with the seed capsule. However, leave the green flower stalk in place as this photosynthesises (produces food), helping to build up the bulb to flower well next season

How to do it

With finger and thumb

The simplest method is to just pinch off the faded blooms with finger and thumb. Aim to remove the flower with its stalk to ensure the plant looks tidy.

With secateurs, scissors or a knife

To deadhead plants with tough or stringy stems, use secateurs, scissors or a knife. This includes dahlias, calendulas, marigolds and shrubs such as lilac.

Where to cut

  • For border perennials and annuals, trim away the old flowers, generally cutting back to a bud or leaf
  • Some hardy geraniums, delphiniums and lupins produce a second flush of flowers if cut back close to ground level. This is known as the Chelsea Chop, as it is carried out at the end of May, at the time of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Others, such as lady’s mantle and oriental poppies, can still be cut back near ground level but, usually, only produce fresh foliage
  • Gently snap off the faded flowers of roses, breaking the stalk just below the head (rather than cutting just above a leaf, as the snapping method results in more blooms being produced more quickly on repeat-flowering cultivars)

No need to deadhead?

Should I be deadheading everything? Thankfully, no;

  • Some obliging plants do not need deadheading. Typically fuchsias, bedding lobelia and salvias either don’t set much seed or neatly deadhead themselves
  • Do not remove the faded flowers on plants that produce seed loved by birds, including Rudbeckia, cornflower and sunflower
  • There is no need to deadhead rose cultivars that bear hips or other plants that bear berries in the autumn
  • Leave plants that have ornamental seeds or fruits without deadheading; examples include alliums; love-in-a-mist (Nigella), stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) and bladder cherry (Physalis alkekengi)
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