No, my gardening friends of a certain age, I am not talking about putting on a tie-dyed tee shirt and following that group of lyrical geniuses about the country in an LSD-induced haze. In this context, deadheading refers to the removal of spent flowers from your annuals and perennials. I also include the removal of dead leaves and unattractive growth in my deadheading efforts. Think of it as good grooming, intended to keep your garden beautiful in the same way that proper hygiene keeps you beautiful. We all know the importance of looking our best!
Picture it: one of the former Mr. Perfects and I stroll along, perhaps on our way to a happy-hour cocktail. The heat of summer intoxicates and the gays feel wicked. The two of us notice a shirtless specimen walking toward us, say, one-and-one-half blocks ahead.
“Damn,” I say, “who dat? He is fi-i-i-ine.”
But as he approaches I realize that something is amiss. His golden locks, so loose and flowing from afar, are matted. They appear not to have been washed this week. They certainly haven’t been cut this year. And it worsens. His torso is covered with splotches of sprouting hair, indeterminate in length and color. And those muscle cuts so defined from way back there? They have become jiggling bulges and rolls.
It is essential for self-preservation at this point that I loudly declare “take backs”. I mustn’t linger, though. “Take backs” are overridden if that former Mr. Perfect were to notice the receding illusion of beauty before I do, and interject with “no take backs.” Then I am simply stuck with the horror and humiliation of bad grooming admiration. Dirty nails and all.
You don’t want that for your garden, do you? In much the same way that a haircut can put a whole new shine on your day, or turn that budding troll back into a baby doll, deadheading your garden will lift its sagging morale. Gardens need grooming, too.
Spent flowers and leaves are ugly. Period. But if that isn’t motivation enough for you, this detritus not only provides a cozy little habitat for insects, fungus, and other unhealthy organisms (think crab lice, yellow toenails, and scabies on the poorly-groomed man), but removal of the seed-producing part of the plant ensures that it will keep blooming. Just like the lesbian neighbor’s biological clock: as long as she doesn’t have that baby, that clock takes a licking and keeps right on ticking. But give her a baby and the urge diminishes. She is satisfied.
Your marigolds and petunias work in the same way. Let an annual set seed and she is soon done for the season. Her goal in life is continuation of the species and her own internal clock ticks steadily toward seed production. Allow that process to reach completion and she retreats. But remove the spent flowers and her hormones surge. She will produce new blooms.
Deadheading is not rocket science, and any twit with half a brain can ascertain what should go and what should stay. But my little twit, if you have forgotten your half-brain today, just look at your plants; note where the new growth emerges. Then be certain not to cut off that part. But don’t be too cautious, either. Just like grooming yourself, deadheading involves inspecting closely and harshly and then acting accordingly. Most importantly, grooming your garden is no time to coddle your sentimentality. If it’s yellow, dingy, faded, overgrown or leggy, spent, frayed, or spotted, get rid of it. You can pinch or you can carry garden scissors, whichever suits you. And don’t just remove dead and damaged leaves and petal-less flowers: reshape and prune overgrown plants and for goodness sake get rid of any plants that have died.
If you are less than a half-brained twit and really can’t figure out how to trim that plant, look it up on the internet (my apologies to all those who are less than half-brained twits; I mean no disrespect, but please refrain from deadheading anything. In fact, avoid sharp objects). Ask your local nurseryman. Ask a gardening friend. The information is out there.
There are some generalizations that you can safely follow. When clipping spent flowers, you are usually safe to make the cut just above the first true leaf on the main stem, which is where new growth and subsequent flower buds will originate. For roses, this traditionally means just above the first five-leaf set. For annuals, it generally means removal of the entire flower bud and stem at the point it branches from the main plant stem. If the blooms emerge from a central stem (think hollyhocks or gladiolas) then pluck each spent flower from the stalk and leave the unopened buds alone. Once the stalk has finished blooming cut it off just above the basal growth (the mound at ground level). If the plant is a bloom-covered heap (picture dianthus) wait until there are more seed pods than blooms or fresh buds, and then “mow” with shears. The plant may look straggly for a short time but it will recover and most likely bloom again. The ornamental grasses should not be deadheaded until early spring, at which point you may cut old growth to ground level in preparation for the new year’s growth.
One final note: when deadheading species that traditionally reseed themselves (bachelor’s buttons, hollyhocks, cosmos, etc.), it is important that you allow sufficient seeds to mature for the next year’s growth.
‘Nuff said. Now get to work. And wax that back while you’re at it.