Deadheading: How to manage spent flowers in the summer garden

After bursting forth in a riot of color and greenery in the spring, our gardens can use a little “freshening” during the summer to keep them looking their best. That means removing the crusty brown flower petals and heavy seed pods that are now weighing down our plants and making our gardens look a little untidy.

Heavy seedpods of this Baptisia australis (Falso Indigo) weigh the foliage down. Simple deadheading allows the foliage to spring back up to shine in the late summer garden.

Deadheading: out with the old to allow for the new

One of the best things you can do for your garden right now is deadhead – that’s removing spent flower blossoms and sometimes entire stems to limit seed production and enable new blooms to grow on plants that can push forth a new set of flowers. Deadheading also enables plants to store more energy in their root systems to support foliage growth and prepare for next year’s blossoms because they aren’t spending that energy producing and ripening their seeds.

o be sure, not all perennials are repeat bloomers, but deadheading is still a valuable and useful practice to neaten up your garden. Perennials that are repeat bloomers, such as daylilies and salvia, will repay you for deadheading with more flowers throughout the season. Even plants that don’t rebloom, such as astilbe and all manner of shrubs may be worth deadheading as a purely aesthetic choice, but that’s up to you. Keep in mind, though, that shrubs are not generally deadheaded because nature’s design is rather perfect in this regard. The spent flowers often just recede into the plant visually, or they form fruits that provide spectacular fall garden interest as well as crucial bird and critter food over the winter months.

While it can be argued that leaving the fruits, seeds, and nuts in a garden are good for wildlife, it is also true that too much of a good thing can overwhelm the ornamental garden. Nature isn’t neat by design, so if your garden is strictly for pollinators, you’re going to have lots bugs and holes in your leaves. If your garden feeds furry critters, then you’ll have the damage that results from their coming and going and nibbling.

Personally, I’m an equal opportunity deadheader. For example, my pollinator garden is a mecca for helpful insects, so I leave much of it alone. I’m perfectly fine with holes in the leaves and the sometimes-scary buzzing that goes on in there.

However, I draw the line at furry critters chewing my gardens to pieces and plants getting flattened by heavy fruits and seed pods, so there are a number of plants that I deadhead, including some perennials such as baptisia.

Many annuals such as zinnias, marguerites, salvias, dalias and petunias benefit from deadheading and fertilizing and will provide a beautiful repeat bloom in response to that kind of attention. Others such as begonias, lobelia, bacopa, and impatiens need far less attention in the deadheading department.

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