‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3: Deadhead!

Snap the stem of spent Pelargonium flowers where it meets the main stem to 'deadhead' as the flowers fade.

Snap the stem of a spent Pelargonium flower cluster where it meets the main stem to ‘deadhead,’ as the flowers fade.

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We may grow flowers for their beauty, but from the plants’ point of view, a flower has but one purpose:  to produce seeds. 

Now, it is a noble purpose; the continuation of the species.  And that is why our beds are filled right now with little seedling trees and other ‘weeds.’ Our flowering trees do a fine job of seed production!

And certainly, there are many plants which we want to produce fruit and seeds.  Tomatoes come to mind...  But as you might imagine, it takes a lot of a plant’s energy and attention to produce those seeds; energy it might otherwise invest in producing more growth.

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Pears grow from spring's flowers. Deer grazed these branches last summer.

Pears grow from spring’s flowers. Deer grazed these branches last summer.

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If a plant produces flowers only once each year, say an apple tree, it is unlikely you’ll choose to deadhead spent flowers.  You might remove some to allow those left to grow  into larger and healthier fruit; but you’ll leave a few flowers to transform into apples!

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Fuchsia flowers wither quickly, but more are waiting to open. Keep the faded ones trim away to keep new buds forming.

A Fuchsia flower withers quickly, but more are waiting to open. Trim faded ones away to keep new buds forming.

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But many plants in our garden are grown for their flowers, not for their seeds.  And to keep those flowers coming, we need to ‘deadhead.’   The more we cut back the flowers once faded, the more flowers many plants will produce.  Along with ‘pinching,’ this frequent cutting inspires more branching, more growth, and more flowers!

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Dahlia is a 'cut and come again,' flower: The more you cut, the more will grow for you to come and cut again!

Dahlia is a ‘cut and come again,’ flower: The more you cut, the more will grow for you to come and cut again!

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This holds true for cutting flowers for a vase as well.  In this case we cut the flower just as it is opening to enjoy its beauty indoors.  But cutting the stem will still stimulate more flower production during ‘the season.’  This is true for many favorites in our ‘cutting gardens’ such as Dahlias, Zinnias, Coreopsis, Roses, and even for some Hydrangeas.

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Columbine flowers will reliably produce seed when left on the plant.

Columbine flowers will reliably produce seed when left on the plant.

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Sadly, it won’t work this way for most Iris, Columbine or Glads, which produce but one flush of blooms annually.

But beyond the utility of keeping our flowers coming on for a longer season, deadheading also keeps our plants looking their best.  Faded and drooping flowers are not very attractive.  Annuals, especially, look pretty ragged if we leave the dying flowers in place.  A little grooming, every few days, helps keep our flowering plants in top condition.  It is fairly easy and quick to do with a pair of garden scissors while watering the pots.

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Petunias respond well to frequent grooming to remove faded flowers and elongating stems.

Petunias respond well to frequent grooming,  removing faded flowers and pruning elongating stems.

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Some plants, like  Coleus and Basil, grown for their leaves; should have flowers spikes removed as they form, before they even ‘bloom.’  Basil leaves grow sparse once it blooms and seeds set.  It has accomplished its life’s work at this point, and is ready to ‘retire.’  Cutting the flower spikes before they bloom will encourage a longer season of leaf production and better quality leaves.

Most Coleus cultivars will also stretch out and get ‘leggy,’ with less impressive leaves, once allowed to bloom.  While those flowers are enjoyed by pollinators, each gardener must decide whether or not they want flowers on their Coleus.  If allowed to bloom, it is important to cut off the bloom spikes as the flowers fade.

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When allowed to flower freely, Basil leaf production suffers. This Basil was grown for its flowers last summer. Pollinators love it and it is nice in cut flower arrangements. Goldfinches enjoy the seeds if they are allowed to grow.

When allowed to flower freely, Basil leaf production suffers. This Basil was grown for its flowers last summer. Pollinators love it and it is nice in cut flower arrangements. Goldfinches enjoy the seeds if they are left to grow.

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Perennial flowers, which produce attractive seed heads and seeds enjoyed by our songbirds can present a special case.  Many of us want to leave Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Coreopsis, Asclepias,  and other perennial flowers to ‘go to seed’ in the autumn, giving some winter interest to the beds where they grow.

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Coreopsis should be deadheaded until late in the season, when flowers may be left to go to seed for the birds.

Coreopsis should be deadheaded until late in the season, when flowers may be left to go to seed for the birds.

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We enjoy watching Goldfinches and other small birds feeding on the seeds.  While we may choose to stop deadheading in mid- to late summer, deadheading spent blooms in the first half of summer will keep flower production going longer into the season.

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Seed production is one of the many beauties of Arum Italicum. All from a single flower, these beautiful seeds will grow red by late summer. If collected and sown, each seed can produce a new plant by next spring.

Seed production is one of the many beauties of Arum Italicum. All from a single flower, these eye-catching seeds will grow red by late summer. If collected and sown, each seed can produce a new plant by next spring.

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Woodland Gnome’s Caveat:  Many flowers will ‘self-seed’ if left alone.  When spent flowers are left on the plant, nature takes its course, producing viable seed, which will germinate to populate the garden for another season. 

We regularly find seedling ornamental peppers in pots where they grew the year before.  We also enjoy Petunias from seed, Violas, Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, and Columbine.  You can help this process along by harvesting and re-sowing desirable seed by hand.  Or, just ‘allow’ seedlings to sprout and grow on undisturbed soil. 

These self-sown gifts of nature  often prove hardier and stronger than anything brought home from the garden center.

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Both this ornamental pepper, and the Petunia growing with it, came up as volunteers from seeds dropped by last year's annuals in pots.

Both this ornamental pepper, and the Petunia growing with it, came up as volunteers from seeds dropped by the previous year’s annuals.

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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

Many thanks to Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios, who posted her first tip today:  ‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots!  Please visit her post for beautiful instructions on how to prepare roots for re-potting.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

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June 26, 2016 deadhead 030

Yucca filamentosa blooms only once each year. But it will grow large and distinctive seed pods when left alone. We often cut back the stalks when flowering finishes for a neater appearance, enjoying just the leaves through the rest of the year.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2015-2016

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

7 responses to “‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3: Deadhead!

  1. Pingback: July-OPF (Summer A to Z- letter A) – In the Zone

  2. Grooming the plants is one of the pleasantest tasks, working in a nursery. Of course, all the plants are on tables at just the right height. Deadheading in the garden can be a bit more athletic, but still a civilized chore that I enjoy.

  3. Another really useful Green Thumb Tip, WG! I find deadheading summer flowers is a simple way to keep hanging baskets and planters looking their best. Although, this summer I’ve got a visitor that’s rather too keen at ‘helping’ with removing some of the flower heads in the garden – when the flowers are just starting to bloom! … a wild rabbit! 😉

    Thank you for linking to my post 🙂

    • It is finding the time to keep up with the deadheading which always proves challenging, Peggy. So sorry to hear you have an over-eager ‘helper.’ Something…. and I’ll assume it is probably a rabbit, has been ‘pruning’ the new perennial geraniums we planted this spring. I hope they survive. They are supposed to be critter resistant, aren’t they? But, the leaves, not the flowers, keep disappearing, leaving the naked petioles behind. But I’m glad to see the garden alive with wildlife, as I will suppose you are as well ❤ ❤ ❤

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