Why We Deadhead Flowers

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    You’ve likely heard about deadheading flowers. Plucking the old blooms off seems like a sensible thing to do. It makes the plant look tidy and attractive. But is there another reason we do it?

    What is Deadheading?

    Deadheading removes the old or “dead” flower heads on a plant. Once the flower has started to fade, we remove the flower, both the petals and the base.

    For deadheading to be effective, all parts of the flower must be removed, not just the spent petals. We snip or pinch off the stem on which the flower was held to ensure we get the whole reproductive bundle. Left on the plant, those flowers will eventually become seed heads, and the plant will stop flowering and may fade out and die, having completed its life cycle.

    What does deadheading do to the flowering plant?

    Removing old flowers–deadheading–interrupts the plant’s reproduction process and keeps it in the flowering stage.

    Like all other living things, flowering plants need to reproduce, and flowers are part of that reproductive cycle. Think of a common flower like a zinnia. It grows from a seed and becomes a large, leaf-covered plant. For weeks, it gets taller and wider, putting out more and more leaves to harvest sunlight and make energy. Finally, when it’s big enough, it creates flower buds and opens them.

    But those flowers are more than just a pretty display for us humans. They’re part of a reproductive system designed to achieve pollination. The pretty flowers we choose for the garden or patio attract insects that flit and fly from one to another, dragging pollen along from flower to flower like we might drag mud inside on our shoes.

    Once pollinated, the flower portion of the plant has done its work and will be discarded by the plant. Energy from photosynthesis now goes into forming the newly pollinated seeds, packing them with all the energy they’ll need to sprout and grow a new plant.

    Deadheading interrupts the process. Before the plant can start the hard work of creating nutrient-filled seeds, you’ve removed the flower and all its parts. Now, it has to start over with a new flower. Yay for us! By deadheading, we keep the plant in the flowering portion of its life cycle for longer, allowing us to enjoy more blooms.

    When to Deadhead Flowers

    Deadheading flowers begins after the first flush of blooms on the plant. Some flowers last for a day or two, and others last for a week, but eventually, they’ll fade out and look ratty and tattered. That’s the time to remove them.

    While it may seem like a never-ending chore, it’s really a quick matter as long as you do it frequently. A snip here and there every couple of days can be done while walking in your garden on an evening stroll. Like weeding, if you let it pile up, it can seem like a chore instead of a quick maintenance task.

    Keep deadheading until fall frosts end the flowering season. If you want to collect and save seeds, you’ll need to allow some flowers to eventually remain on the plant as autumn approaches.

    Many gardeners allow the later flowers to stay and develop into seeds, providing food for songbirds throughout the autumn and winter seasons and self-seeding for next year. Native perennials like coneflowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) are wonderful seed producers for finches and other seed-eating birds through the cold months.

    Do all flowers need to be deadheaded?

    Not all flowers need to be deadheaded, and some new varieties have been created by plant breeders to be self-cleaning, meaning they’ll drop spent flowers without your help. Generally, flowers that only make one or a few blooms, like most sunflowers, don’t benefit from deadheading. Here’s a quick list of flowers to deadhead and some to leave alone.

    Commonly deadheaded flowers

    • Dahlias
    • Petunias
    • Cosmos
    • Zinnias
    • Mums
    • Marigolds

    Don’t bother with deadheading these

    • Annual sunflowers
    • Some self-cleaning Begonias and Calibrachoas
    • Most Sedums
    • Vincas
    • Any flower you want to self-seed for next year

    FAQs

    How is deadheading different from pruning?

    Deadheading removes only the old, spent flowers. Pruning typically removes more plant material to maintain shape, improve air circulation around the stems, or remove old, dead, or damaged stems.

    Does deadheading delay flowering?

    Not really. Deadheading is performed after flowering starts. If you deadhead an entire plant by giving it a haircut with a hedge clipper, it will remove some of the new flower buds and delay the next flush of blooms by a bit, but normal deadheading of single blooms will not.

    What happens if you don’t deadhead?

    Nothing terrible! If you forget to deadhead, the plant will start to turn those spent flowers into seeds and may slow down or stop blooming, but it won’t harm the plant. In fact, we often stop deadheading in the fall to allow some flowers to become seeds for wildlife.

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