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Besides providing the essential water and nutrients a plant needs to survive and thrive, deadheading (the act of removing spent flower blooms from the plant) is the single most important thing you can do to keep your annual flowering plants and some perennials persisting as long as possible. In fact, the head gardener at the Alaska State Fair once told me that deadheading is so crucial, if they even miss a few days, the plants stop producing and they don’t recover.
To the new gardener, deadheading can seem drastic—even harmful to the plant. But experienced veterans know that deadheading is vital to prolonging the display of beautiful flowers and for the overall health of the plant. And it doesn’t just apply to plucking off spent flower blooms from annuals either. For larger plants and woody ornamentals, selective pruning will have the same benefits and add new life and vigor to tired-looking shrubs and trees.
The annuals planted in your garden each year really have only one mission; to produce seed during their relatively short life. If the plant is successful, then it has accomplished what it was born to do. But upon completion of this mission, the plant will start to decline and die. By removing flower blooms that have passed their prime, you are preventing the plant from accomplishing its final and primary purpose. Consequently, the plant is signaled to “send in reinforcements” by way of more flower blooms, all with the intent of producing seed. Deadheading therefore, keeps the plant in constant production mode. To our delight, the outcome is a steady show of new blooms and plants that keep growing strong.
Stronger, Bushier Plants
Whenever you deadhead, you are redirecting the plant’s energy from producing seed, to putting on new growth above and below ground. The results above ground will often be the emergence of new shoots from two or more buds rather than the previous one. When I buy annuals from the nursery, I often will deadhead most of the flower buds. This gives the plants more time to establish in the garden and creates a better foundation for season-long success. And for woody ornamentals and shrubs, pruning back your plants to just above dormant buds will have the same effect, likely two new branches for every one cut.
Anytime you have the opportunity to remove dead or dying plant material (including spent flower blooms), do it. The upside for your efforts will be a reduced chance of pests and diseases taking hold in your garden. And that always translates into season extending benefits and beyond.
An obvious reason for deadheading and pruning includes keeping your garden looking its best. Not only are you removing unsightly plant debris, but you’re also setting into motion a rejuvenation process that often creates a more floriferous, shapely, fuller and long-lived plant.
The end of summer doesn’t have to signal the end to peak annual flower displays. Judicious and consistent deadheading and pruning will be one of the most important steps you can take to ensuring a spectacular display long after your neighbor’s have put their gardens to bed.