Why Deadheading Flowers is Important for Your Garden

Sitting out on the deck, admiring your garden, you see that one flower that has faded and needs deadheading. If you’re like most gardeners you feel a compulsion to take care of that, right then, with your good clothes on, even if you have company.

Instead of taking a reactive approach and leaving your company sitting alone, take a proactive approach and take care of a bit of your garden every day. All you need is a pair of hand clippers and a pair of scissors for the tinier plants.  If you deadhead flowers just a few minutes a day you can think of it as a yoga exercise, stretching but not overdoing.

The Benefits of Deadheading Your Flowers

Deadheading your flowers gives you more blooms all season.  Deadheading also makes your plant fuller and thicker, more stems, more buds, more blooms.  You also are attracting hummingbirds and pollinators to your yard with flowers. Be sure to have plants that pollinators and hummingbirds particularly like in your garden.

Hummingbirds like flowers that are tubular and brightly colored.  There is a long list of plants that attract hummingbirds in The Old Farmer's Almanac.  It makes sitting out on the deck so much more exciting when you can watch hummingbirds whizzing around your garden!

Another benefit of deadheading flowers is your garden will always look tidy. Which makes you the envy of your gardening friends.  If they’ve been looking at their gardens and thinking they have to do everything at once…

… well - it doesn’t happen. So, their plants have a shorter bloom season. By about mid-summer their garden looks scruffy, and the comment is often made “I can’t keep up with my garden anymore.”  But I’ll explain the how's of deadheading your flowers so you’ll know the secret to a lush colorful flower garden all season. It’s not hard to gain the skills necessary and you’ll wow your friends.

What Exactly Is Deadheading Flowers, Anyway?

It’s cutting faded blooms when they begin to look weary. And that means cutting the whole flower blossom off, not just the petals, and the stem down to the first set of leaves below the blossom. Most annual flower plants will continue blooming all summer if you clip off the old blooms.

Some plants, especially annuals, do especially well when the spent blooms are removed.  When you deadhead your flowers, the plant provides an extra burst of energy to create more growth, more buds, and more blooms.  This extra energy burst means you need to be sure to water and give your garden a boost of nutrients.

If your garden has mostly perennials, plants that come up every year from the same roots, you will be surprised at how much longer the bloom time will be for many plants. Deadhead your flowers before they have begun to set seeds, but after the bloom has faded. This list is a wonderful reference for developing a beautiful reblooming garden of perennials.

The How's of Deadheading Flowers

Flowers do not bloom for our enjoyment, sorry to inform you.  They bloom to attract pollinators and set seed.  A plant is all about making it to the next season. And just to be on the safe side most plants set thousands of seeds so you’re bound to see some “volunteers” in your garden. Volunteers are seedlings from the mother plant that you didn’t deadhead soon enough.

When you deadhead, or snip off the flower, you trick the plant into thinking it still needs to make seed. And it really does, because you just snipped off the immature seedpod. Whether you have annuals or perennials the process is the same.

Here’s the quick guide to deadheading flowers. Quick because you want to create a beautiful garden, not sit in front of your computer.  It’s a beautiful summer day, after all.

Step 1

Determine which part of your garden you’re going to deadhead, don’t be like your friends and see a gargantuan task. Make it bite sized. I would suggest doing the part of your garden you see when you’re relaxing in the evening…the area that bugs you the most if it doesn’t look good.

Step 2

Gather hand pruners and a pair of scissors. I suggest you have a designated pair of scissors for garden work and keep them sharp.

Step 3

Carefully step into your flower bed. The goal is to cut off the flower and stem down to the first leaves or a lateral bud in one quick clean cut.

Many garden experts will say you should remove the spent blooms and stems from the area. But before you reach for a paper bag for compost...

Let’s look at the biology and nutrition of your garden.  If you’re always taking away vegetation, you’re removing nutrients the plant gleaned from the soil with the help of a community of microorganisms.

There’s another way to deadhead flowers in your garden and retain the nutrients. That method is called “chop and drop” because you leave the vegetation at its site so it can decompose and release the nutrients back into the

Comfrey plant

soil.  Although chop and drop sounds ugly, it’s not. In just a few days after a “chop and drop” of one of the best soil-building plants, comfrey, the lower leaves of the plant will cover the spent blossoms and leaves you snipped off.  

You may not be growing comfrey in your flower garden. But this method works with all flowers when deadheading. The green leaves lying under the plant in the photo to the right will wilt away and be invisible in a day or two. And you will retain all the nutrients in your soil which will give you more luxurious blooms next year.

Most plants have a base with spreading leaves that the flower stalks rise out of. Just tucking the deadheaded flowers and stems under that base will return nutrients and act as a wonderful mulch.

Smaller blossoming flowers like coreopsis have long stems that make the blooms seem to wave in the wind. When you are deadheading these flowers cut the entire stem down to the first fine leaves or lateral bud.

Coreopsis flower

Balancing beauty with utility is one of nature’s acts and you can emulate it in your garden. This Coreopsis has been deadheaded, you can see the buds but do you see any cut stems and spent blossoms under the plant?

Step 4

Step back and admire how tidy that area looks. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now tomorrow go back to Step 1 and repeat for another area of your flower garden. A few minutes a day is all it takes to impress your gardening friends.

As you’re looking at your garden you may wonder if every flower needs to be deadheaded. The answer, happily is no. There are a number of flowers that need to set seed and re-seed to bloom next season.

Many of them we think of as perennials but really, they’re annuals that self-seed every year or biennials, such as Foxglove. The first year the Foxglove plant creates the root and leaf mass but no bloom. The second year it blooms, sets seed, re-seeds, and the process starts all over.  If you continue to deadhead all the flowers on your Foxglove you will end up with fewer Foxglove plants each year.

A little homework on the seed care needed for your particular garden plants will save you time and ensure you have a lush, beautiful flower garden.

When Don’t I Deadhead Flowers in My Garden?

There are numerous reasons not to deadhead flowers. Let’s look at some of the reasons why you might not want to deadhead the flowers in your garden.

I want them to reseed and naturalize in my garden.

Some plants multiply and naturalize through their roots, including many herbs and bulbs. But most plants produce seeds and have multiple ways of dispersing them. For example, Columbine holds its seeds until a wind or rain comes and the brittle flowering stalks break, spilling seeds all around the mother plant. There’s nothing like a spring flowering of a mass of Columbine, so delicate and yet hardy enough to handle a late frost if they must. On the other hand, Cosmos has seeds that float on the breeze and land far from the mother plant.

When you are considering letting a particular flower naturalize take into account how vigorous it is and how it will affect your other plants.  Often, you can allow some “volunteers” to naturalize, but you’ll have to deadhead naturalized flowers after they’ve taken as much space as you want to give them in your garden.

The best way to allow for naturalizing is to deadhead flowers until the end of their season and then let the last flowers go to seed.  That way you’re getting the best of both worlds, a long bloom season and “volunteers” in your garden next season. 

It has interesting seed pods

Floral arrangements are often made up of the seed pods of many flowers. Baptiste, for example, has beautiful flowers and then dark seedpods. Flowers in the Allium family all have interesting balls at the end of long stems.

Be aware that if you like the seedpod you will have “volunteers” that you may, or may not, want in your garden next season.

The birds like to eat the seeds

If you love birdwatching, probably you have all kinds of flowers especially for the birds. 

I have a little story:

I was sitting on my back porch with a friend when she said, “Oh, look at all the goldfinches on those tall weeds!” And I exclaimed as I jumped up to shoo away the finches, “Those aren’t weeds, those are my cosmos going to seed!”

Cosmos is an annual and you either have to buy seed every year or save seed.  I have a variety that I love and the seeds can’t overwinter so the seed has to be saved.  My friend and I spent the rest of her visit harvesting the cosmos seed.

Again, if you’re going to feed the birds, you’re going to have “volunteers” in your garden next season.

The seeds and berries are tasty or a medicinal

If they are tasty to you they are probably also tasty to birds and other wildlife. Letting roses go to seed to make your own rose hip tea means you have to harvest them before the birds and other wildlife find them.  Most of your gardening friends won’t understand why you’re not deadheading your roses and letting them form hips instead, perhaps an educational moment?  

If you’re letting any plant go to seed for culinary or medicinal purposes remember, the plant is only as healthy as the soil it is grown in.  If you want to get the most nutrition from your rose hips (and they’re full of Vitamin A & C) be sure to mulch well, add nutrients, and store the seeds properly so they don’t lose their value.

Does Deadheading Your Flowers Still Sound Like a Big Job?

It’s your garden to create and maintain however you like.  That’s the joy of having your own flower garden.  If you want to avoid deadheading altogether look for plants that are described as

  • Low maintenance
  • Self-cleaning
  • No deadheading required
  • Little care needed
  • Undemanding
deadheading flowers

Although some plants are labeled as no deadheading required that really means the plant may be self-cleaning. The wind or rain will blow or dissolve off the spent blooms, but not the developing seeds.  Plant breeders have spent a lot of time trying to create flowers that don’t need to be deadheaded. They have succeeded in breeding some plants that are either sterile or bloom continuously despite setting seeds.

But plants can’t remain at their optimum health if they have to expend energy on creating blooms, root mass, leaf mass, and seeds.  That’s a lot of multi-tasking.

The morale of the story is you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want a lush tidy flower garden you will have to do some deadheading. Most flowering plants use a great deal of their energy in seed production. That’s energy that isn’t going into shoot and root development.  If you’re growing perennials that may mean every year those plants give fewer blossoms. 

From a plant health perspective, seedpods should be deadheaded. If you want strong healthy long-lasting plants that will amaze you season after season you can’t get around it, you do have to deadhead flowers. Your job is to give your plants fertile soil and tender care. Nature will take care of the rest.

Deadheading your flowers is a habit or ritual you can cultivate, just as you cultivate your garden. Start early in the spring when there aren’t many flowers fading.  A stroll in the garden becomes a deadheading excursion. Pretty soon you’ll automatically pick up your tools as you walk out the door to smell the peonies, then the roses, and then the lilies. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with wave after wave of blooms to enjoy all season.

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