Deadheading is the term used for the removal of fading or dead flowers from plants. It is done to keep plants looking attractive and encourage more blooms, whether in beds and borders, containers or hanging baskets.
- Deadheading neatens plants, encourages more flowers and stops them scattering petals
- Most garden plants benefit from deadheading, but leave those that produce decorative or bird-friendly seeds and fruits, and those you want to collect seed from
- Spent flowers can be removed from many plants by pinching them between finger and thumb
- It's best to deadhead flowering plants regularly, whatever the season, removing flowers as soon as they start to fade
Reasons for deadheading
Most flowers lose their attraction as they fade, spoiling the overall appearance of beds, borders and containers. Removing these, by deadheading, helps keep displays looking better for longer.
- Directs energy into stronger growth and more flowers, instead of (often unwanted) seed pods
- Prevents plants with numerous petals, such as peonies, some camellias and many roses, scattering old petals widely
- Prevents plants from self-seeding – particularly useful for plants that self-seed readily and can become a nuisance, such as common valerian (Valeriana officinalis), sea holly (Eryngium) and lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
When to deadhead
To get the most benefit from deadheading, it's best to remove spent flowers as soon as they look scruffy, whatever the time of year. This could mean deadheading daily for some plants, such as summer bedding, and once a week or every other week for others, such as border perennials. Some, like lilacs (Syringa), may only need deadheading once, after a short-lived flush of flowers, to neaten their appearance.
Don't worry if you haven't the time to be out checking for spent flowers often, as a delay of a few days or even a week won't greatly impact flowering performance.
How to deadhead
With finger and thumb
The simplest method is to pinch or snap off faded blooms with finger and thumb, aiming to remove the flower with its stalk to keep the plant looking tidy.
With secateurs, scissors or a knife
To deadhead plants with thick, tough or stringy stems, use secateurs, scissors or a knife. On most plants, trim away the spent flower, cutting back to just above the next bud or leaf on the stem.
For plants that produce heads of multiple flowers, such as delphiniums and lupins, pinch or trim off individual flowers (where practical) and then prune the entire head to just above a lower bud/leaf/side shoot, or to ground level, once all have finished. Some, like hardy geraniums, cat mint (Nepeta) and lady's mantle (Alchemilla), will produce a second flush of flowers if cut back close to ground level after flowering. Others, such as pulmonaria and oriental poppies, can still be cut back but usually only produce fresh foliage.
Deadheading different garden plants
Deadheading shouldn't be a daunting task, and the vast majority of plants don't need a special technique – it's just a case of knowing where to pinch, snap or trim off the spent flowers:
- Bedding plants: Tender plants growing in beds, containers and hanging baskets respond well to deadheading. The faded blooms of argyranthemums, heliotrope, pansies, polyanthus and petunias can be removed with finger and thumb, pinching off the flower and its stalk
- Pelargoniums: Pinch off individual flowers and then use secateurs to remove whole clusters and the long flower stalk down to just above where it joins the main stem. Alternatively, grab hold of the flower stalk and pull downwards away from the main stem – the stalk should snap off cleanly
- Roses: Gently snap the faded flowers off hybrid tea roses, breaking the stalk just below the head. This method encourages more blooms more quickly compared to cutting with secateurs. For other roses, snip off individual flowers or clusters of flowers down to just above the next leaf
- Shrubs: The height of a shrub may make deadheading impractical, but examples of shrubs that benefit from deadheading are – rhododendrons (and azaleas), camellias, lilacs (Syringa) and tree peonies. Use finger and thumb to pick or snap off each dead head where it joins the stem, or secateurs to cut just below the flower head. Take care to avoid damaging the new growth buds immediately below the flower
- Climbers: Deadhead climbers where practical, particularly Eccremocarpus as it rapidly produces seed pods. Most have tough stems, so use secateurs to cut near the base of each flower stalk
- Bulbs: Remove flowers from larger bulbs, such as daffodils, cutting or pinching through the flower stalk just behind the bulbous seed capsule. Leave the green flower stalk in place as this photosynthesises (produces food), helping to build up the bulb to flower well next season
The petals of rose flowers become loose as they age, so to prevent them going everywhere when you deadhead, cup each flower in your hand before you cut through the stalk.
Do I need to deadhead?
Some obliging plants don't need deadheading – those like fuchsias, bedding lobelias and salvias either don't set much seed or neatly deadhead themselves, saving you the task. Other examples of where deadheading isn't necessary include:
- Plants that produce seed loved by birds, such as rudbeckias, cornflowers and sunflowers
- Plants that produce decorative and bird-friendly hips or berries, such as many species and rambler roses, many Viburnum and Amelanchier
- Plants that have ornamental seedheads such as love-in-a-mist (Nigella), stinking iris (Iris foetidissima), honesty (Lunaria annua) and Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)
- Plants that produce such an abundance of flowers, as to make deadheading impractical, such as Deutzia, Spiraea, Thalictrum, many asters, alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and trailing campanula
- Plants that are difficult to get to safely, such as many trees and vigorous climbers – not deadheading those like Clematis montana and climbing hydrangea won't significantly affect their display
- Where you want plants to self-seed or plan to collect seed for later sowing
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