How to Deadhead Flowers for Repeat Blooms
You may have heard the term deadheading, but do you know what it means and why it's important? Gardening expert Kelli Klein walks you through the benefits of deadheading and how to successfully complete this regular maintenance to produce more blooms.
There are many types of flowers, including both annuals and perennials, that benefit from deadheading. The most popular reason most gardeners spend time deadheading is to encourage repeat blooms, but this garden task is beneficial for many reasons.
How does removing flowers encourage more flowers? It seems counterintuitive. You may fear removing flowers if you’re not sure when the next round of blooms will appear, but deadheading actually speeds up the reblooming cycle. Follow these tips, and you’ll be a pro, enjoying even more blooms than before!
What is Deadheading?
The basic definition of deadheading is the act of removing spent blooms to spur further growth. It generally applies to removing flower heads before they can produce mature seeds. It can also apply when removing flower buds before they bloom to encourage the growth of other parts of the plant (like edible foliage) that are more desirable than the flowers.
When to Deadhead
The best time to deadhead is after the flower has reached peak bloom and starts to wilt and die back. You can’t deadhead too soon, but you can deadhead too late! You want to ensure that you remove blooms before the plant uses energy to produce mature seeds.
Depending on the bloom time of the plant, the seasonal timing will vary from flower to flower. During peak bloom, it’s best to go out every few days and inspect your plants for flowers that need to be deadheaded.
How to Deadhead
It’s time to discuss how to deadhead! You can use either pruning shears or even your hands for some plants. The method of deadheading will depend on the plant. Most flowering plants will be pruned at the closest leaf node under the flower head. Most annual flowers can be pruned this way.
There is really no wrong way to deadhead, per se. As long as you remove the spent bloom with a clean cut that doesn’t damage the plant, you’re doing it right! Though there are some general best practices, it also helps to know how each plant produces blooms before you deadhead it.
For single-stem blooms like poppies, for example, you can snap the spent bloom at the bottom of the stem, where it meets the base of the plant with your hands. This works for poppies because each stem only produces one flower, so after the flower begins to fade, that stem will not produce any additional flowers. This will allow the plant to produce even more stems with more blooms.
For multi-stem blooms, like dahlias, roses, and some sunflower varieties, follow the stem from the spent bloom to the main stem and cut to remove only the spent flower and leave the remaining blooms unaffected. This will allow the plant to focus energy on the flowers that remain on that stem.
Some perennials, like phlox, asters, mums, sedums, and coneflowers, can be left standing all winter to provide the plant with extra protection against harsh weather and frosts. For this reason, you can deadhead them throughout the growing season, but a few weeks before your first frost, you should leave the final round of flowers standing. They will die back and add some character to your winter landscape, not to mention some food for the birds and shelter for overwintering insects like ladybugs and solitary bees.
Benefits of Deadheading
So why spend time deadheading rather than letting your flowers die back naturally after blooming? Well, deadheading redirects energy to producing more flowers rather than seeds. This is beneficial if you want to prolong the bloom time of your plants and enjoy the flowers for that much longer. Prolonged blooms can attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinators to your garden.
Deadheading also prevents the unwanted spread of vigorous self-seeders. Some annuals like cosmos, borage, chamomile, and sunflowers can spread like crazy through self-sowing! Cutting back the flower heads before they can produce mature seeds will help prevent or reduce this.
Deadheading also creates a cleaner-looking garden by removing dying plant material. Add this material to your compost pile, or run it through a chipper and use it as a mulch in your garden. Some spent blooms like coneflower and starflower look just as stunning once they’ve died back and gone to seed, so if you like the look, it’s always an option to skip deadheading for a bit, too.
Deadheading is also applicable to flowering herbs but with the opposite intent. Instead of deadheading to encourage more blooms, you’ll remove flower heads as they appear, but before they can bloom, to encourage the plant to produce more foliage (which is the desirable part of edible herbs). Still, you can see how the same principles apply. Deadheading allows you to redirect where the plant focuses its energy for a desired result.
Drawbacks of Deadheading
Short-lived perennials like hollyhocks and snapdragons must self-seed to replace older plants with new, younger ones. For this reason, you can deadhead them throughout the growing season but leave the last round of flowers standing to create seeds and help maintain your flower patch. If short-lived perennials aren’t allowed to reseed, your patch may eventually die out since each plant only lives for a few years. This can happen if deadheading is too aggressive.
While it’s true that deadheading can help create a tidier-looking garden, that tidiness sometimes comes with a sacrifice. Many insects and birds depend on seeds and dying plant material. To create a balanced habitat, it’s a good idea to leave some spent blooms in place at the end of the season.
As mentioned above, some perennial blooms left over winter can also protect the plant, and you should wait until the spring just as new growth appears to cut them back. If these plants are deadheaded in the fall, they may suffer damage during the winter that they won’t recover from the following spring.
Keep your tools clean to prevent spreading disease from one plant to another while deadheading. This can be accomplished by wiping down pruners and other tools with rubbing alcohol. You also want to keep your tools sharp to avoid causing unnecessary plant injury and ensure clean cuts.
Sharp tools also make the deadheading process quicker and easier! Use a metal file, honing tool, whetstone, or sharpening tool to sharpen the cutting edge of your pruning shears. Once sharpened, apply a lubricating oil, and always store your tools clean and dry.
No matter your skill level in the garden, deadheading is a simple tactic that will help you enjoy stunning blooms all season long! It might seem counterintuitive or like extra work, but it’s worth it! Especially if you have a butterfly garden or large flowers in your landscape. The pollinators will thank you, too!