How Deadheading Helps Flowering Plants Flourish

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 

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Deadheading both perennials, like roses, and most types of annuals will help to keep your plants looking beautiful and blooming robustly. Jackie Bale/Getty Images

You've taken multiple trips to the plant nursery, selected a variety of plants and can already envision how they're going to brighten up your flower beds throughout the spring and summer. But soon enough (too soon, in fact) these colorful additions lose their luster and you find yourself surrounded, not by the gorgeous landscape you'd planned, but by faded and dead blooms. Now what?

Before you throw those gardening gloves in the trash right along with your dreams of a beautiful botanical space, take a beat. There is a solution ... and it is way simpler than you might think.

Deadhead. No, we're not referring to those diehard fans who once traveled the continent seeing the Grateful Dead as many times as possible. Deadheading is the process of manually removing a spent bloom, whether on an annual or perennial plant, and it not only preserves the beauty of your plants, but encourages them to look their best for longer.

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How to Deadhead, and Why

To deadhead is to do just as it sounds: remove the dead "head" — or blooming portion — of a plant. Often, this means using one's thumb and forefinger to pinch and remove the stem of a spent bloom. For some tough-stemmed plants, however, garden snips or pruning shears may be needed. A sprawling mass of ground cover can even be deadheaded with the careful sweep of a somewhat indelicate garden tool, such as a weed eater.

"Remove the spent blossom as close to the larger main stem as possible because this helps you avoid leaving behind unattractive and flowerless stems," says Erinn Witz, a garden expert and the co-founder of Seedsandspades.com, an educational website for people in any stage of their gardening experience. "What you want is a clean break in the stem, not a break from a pulling or twisting motion."

In general, flowering plants are resilient, so if you are unsure where to remove a dead flower, simply pinch off the stem right under the flower. The important thing is that the faded bloom is no longer attached to the plant.

"Deadheading is basically stopping a plant from developing fruit and seeds so the energy is refocused on making more flowers," emails Charlotte Ekker Wiggins, a University of Missouri master gardener emeritus and blogger at Gardening Charlotte.

After a plant blooms, it usually suspends the process of making new flowers so it can put its energy into forming seeds. Deadheading not only enhances a flowering plant's performance by causing it to produce more blooms, but it can keep its form shapely and compact. Deadheading has the added bonus of removing the faded and browning blooms from view, so even as you wait for plants to rebloom you are rewarded with greenery.

Not all flowers require deadheading, according to Fiskars. Most bulbs produce only one round of flowers per season, as do flowers such as peonies and liatris, and therefore don't need deadheading. Most flowering vines, periwinkles and impatiens don't need it either. Here is a list, by no means inclusive, of some annuals and perennials that will benefit from deadheading:

  • Zinnias
  • Hardy geraniums
  • Cosmos
  • Marigolds
  • Delphinium
  • Snapdragons
  • Marguerite daisies
  • Petunias
  • Blanket flowers
  • Roses
  • Sweet peas
  • Bee balm
  • Campanula
  • Salvia
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Annuals such as geraniums need almost constant removal of spent flowers like this one to keep the blooms coming on strong.
Teresa Crowder

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Just a Pinch, But How Often?

There's one rule of thumb you need to know about deadheading, and it's catchy enough to remember from year to year: early and often. The idea is to begin deadheading in the spring, right after the first blooms are spent. Every few days, tour your yard and observe any plants that bloom, then spend a few minutes removing faded or dead flowers. If you wait until late summer or early fall, the process will probably become overwhelming because of the sheer quantity of dead blooms that need your attention.

"Annual flowers that need to be replanted every year and perennial flowers that live more than two years will produce more flowers if they are deadheaded on a regular basis," says garden designer Joanna VonBergen from GinghamGardens.com, in an email.

If you are growing geraniums or another type of flowering annual, it's likely that deadheading the blooms will encourage them to reflower throughout the season. But, even amongst those plants that benefit from deadheading, there can be differences in where to cut them back.

"How you deadhead depends on the flowering plant," says Chey Mullin, flower farmer and blogger at Farmhouse and Blooms, in an email. "Some plants require deadheading of the whole stem. Other plants benefit from a light pruning of spent blooms just back to the center stem. Then others only require the spent bloom to be removed just under the flower, such as with daylilies."

There are, however, some exceptions to the deadheading rule. Some perennials, like peonies, won't bloom again, even if you deadhead them. And some perennials, such as the sedum autumn joy stonecrop, will reward you with interesting seedheads throughout the winter if you don't lop off their blooms. Hollyhocks and foxgloves are good examples of perennials that should be left alone after blooming so they can produce and drop seeds for the next growing season.

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