Deadheading: what it is and why it’s important

What is deadheading? The word sounds somewhat sinister, and if you belong to a certain generation, you might associate the term with those avid fans of a certain 1970s rock band. (Followers of the group The Grateful Dead are known as “Deadheads.”) While the word might lead to amusing confusion, a gardener’s use of the term deadheading has nothing to do with either music or macabre rites.

In the gardening world, deadheading is the practice of removing withered and faded blooms from a plant. There are several reasons why you should make this chore a standard part of garden upkeep.

One of the best reasons to deadhead plants is to improve their appearance. Brown, dry flowers covering a plant tend to look unattractive, and removing them on a regular schedule can tidy up and brighten most landscapes.

Another important reason to deadhead plants is to extend their blooming season and/or to increase the number of flowers they produce in a given year. It all comes down to science. The main purpose of flowers is to attract pollinators, and once that purpose has been served, the pretty blooms’ jobs are done. The plant then diverts its energy into the developing seed heads or seedpods, because seeds are what ensure its ongoing survival. However, if those young seeds are removed, the plant once again channels its energy into the first stage of reproduction. The result: more flowers!

Most annual plants and many perennial plants will continue to bloom (or have a second period of bloom) if deadheaded on a regular basis. Common bedding plants such as marigolds, pansies, and snapdragons benefit from deadheading, as do many favorite perennials, including blanket flowers, coneflowers, cosmos, dahlias, lupines, Shasta daisies, yarrow, and more.

Deadheading is also wise if you have plants that self-sow easily. The word sow means “to plant seed by scattering it on the earth,” and that’s precisely what these types of plants do. Each plant can produce hundreds to thousands of easily germinating seeds, and when the seedpods ripen and dry, they distribute the seeds over a wide area, either by popping open suddenly or with help form the wind. To control the spread of these plants—including beautiful and prolific ones such as California poppies—deadheading throughout the blooming season is recommended to prevent massive re-sprouting the following spring.

Some flowering plants don’t need to be deadheaded, because their flowers drop off on their own once spent. This process, whereby a plant discards a part no longer needed, is called abscission. Plants with flowers that naturally abscise are camellias, impatiens, and rosemary. Other ornamental plants such as fuchsias don’t produce a lot of seeds, and don’t require deadheading.

It’s very easy to deadhead. As a flower fades or drops its petals, snip off its stem just above the first complete set of healthy leaves. On plants with delicate or tender flower stems, this technique can be done without any garden tools; just pinch the stem between your thumb and forefinger. In other instances, where the plants have tough or sturdy stems—especially roses—use a clean pair of bypass pruners with sharp blades to make clean cuts. For plants with a profusion of small flowers, an occasional light shearing is the easiest way to deadhead, but try to avoid cutting off any developing flower buds still left on the plant. Any disease-free trimmings can be composted.

Avoid deadheading when growing plants with decorative seedheads or fruits (such as buckwheats) and plants with seeds that attract birds (such as black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, and sunflowers). Allow these plants to progress through their flowering cycle naturally, and enjoy the transformation from bloom to a different show. Or, if you want to collect and grow plants from seed next year, allow some of the last flowers of the season to reach maturity.

The job of deadheading can seem overwhelming if left undone for weeks at a time. Not many gardeners want to spend valuable time on such a tedious task, snipping dead flowers for hours on end! But if you devote a few minutes every day or two wandering your yard and picking off spent blooms here and there, the seemingly daunting task can become a pleasure. What better way to become intimately familiar with your garden, enjoy some fresh air and natural beauty on a daily basis, and get a healthy dose of vitamin D with a little time in the sunlight? Both you and your garden will benefit.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website.


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