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Deadheading Plants: a Beginner’s Guide

Deadheading plants is a gardening task with which most gardeners will soon become familiar. Whether you grow indoors or outside, you should learn what deadheading means, why it is done, how it is done, and when and if you need to do so when growing certain plants in your home or garden. 

What is Deadheading?

Deadheading is the name we give to the process of removing spent flowers once they begin to fade and droop. We are literally removing the dead flower heads from a plant before the seeds begin to form. 

Sometimes, deadheading involves removing just the spent flower itself. Sometimes it involves removing also a portion of the stem on which it has grown. It can also involve cutting the flowering stalk entirely to the base. 

Why Deadhead Flowers?

Flowers are deadheaded for several reasons. Sometimes, the reasons involve improving conditions for the plants themselves. Usually, however, we deadhead plants for our own purposes. 

Flowers are deadheaded to:

  • Prevent the spread of diseases by stopping the flowers from dropping and decomposing below a plant or even upon it. 
  • Allow plants to focus on flower production rather than expending their energy on producing seeds. Deadheading can lead to a further flush of flowers or a prolonged blooming period. 
  • Control the spread of the plants grown. Stopping the plants from setting seed can also control the spread of self-seeding species. 
  • Keep the garden neat, and looking good. Often deadheading is primarily undertaken for aesthetic reasons. 

Do all flowers need deadheading?

It is important to understand that while deadheading can be useful, and that it can be a good idea for certain plants and situations, it is not always essential. Not all flowers need to be managed in this way and there are several reasons why deadheading will not always be beneficial. 

Deadheading may not be essential in your garden even when it is recommended for a species on the whole since often, whether or not you deadhead will depend on aesthetic preferences. 

Some people like the appearance of spent, dried flowers or seed heads, while others do not. Some love an extremely neat and orderly garden, while others are happy to get a more loose and natural look. 

Not all species will encounter problems if the flowers drop naturally, and not all flowering plants will bloom further when faded flowers are removed. 

In certain cases, deadheading may not be necessary because you may remove (harvest) the flowers before they fade, either for use as cut flowers or because you are harvesting them to eat or to use within your home in a range of other ways. 

Another thing to consider when deciding whether or not deadheading is required is whether you want the plants to go to seed. If you do, then of course you will need to forgo deadheading on at least some of the blooms and allow these to produce seed. 

You may wish to collect the seed yourself to sow immediately, or to store for later use. In some cases, seeds might be collected for culinary or other reasons as well as for propagation purposes. 

Flowering plants may also desirably self-seed. Self-seeding plants can often be extremely desirable and allowing plants to self-seed can often be a very good idea in a low-maintenance and eco-friendly garden. 

Allowing plants to go to seed can also be beneficial for the wildlife in a garden. The seeds may be eaten, for example, by a range of seed-eating native birds. So this is another reason why deadheading all your flowers is not always the right choice. 

Allowing flowers to naturally fall and decay on the soil can also help to provide habitat and build soil health, so it is not always a bad thing in a garden. 

How to Deadhead Plants 

How to deadhead varies somewhat depending on which plant we are considering. Different approaches are taken depending on which plant we are dealing with. 

Pinching Out the Faded Flower

With some plants, deadheading is simply a case of pinching the stem immediately below the flower that has faded between a finger and thumb and nipping it off to remove it from the plant. 

This method is often used with thinner and softer-stemmed plants and it is easy to remove multiple spent blooms quickly and without reaching for any gardening tools. 

Remember, however, that some flowering plants can be toxic or cause harm to the skin, so you may sometimes need to wear gloves for deadheading to avoid any potential health problems. 

Pruning Back to the Nearest Healthy Leaves

Larger, thicker-stemmed flowering plants may often need to be deadheaded using a pair of secateurs, pruners, garden scissors, or gardening shears. It is important when deadheading plants to use clean, sharp tools that will not cause damage or spread disease around your garden. 

When you are not simply pinching out faded flowers with a finger and thumb, you should often cut through the flowering stem just above the closest healthy leaves on the plant, to keep it looking good. 

Deadheading should not leave you looking at a bunch of bare stems sticking up above or out from the foliage as this can look unsightly. As you cut back a plant, though, make sure that you are not accidentally pruning off buds that will form future flowers. 

Cutting Back Flowered Stems to the Base

In certain cases, deadheading may involve not just removing the spent flowers but also the flowering stems on which they grow. Often, rather than just cutting back to the next set of healthy leaves, you may cut out entire flowering stems to the base of the plant, near the ground. 

Sometimes, cutting back is left until later, and not part of the deadheading process. With some plants though, deadheading and cutting back can be one and the same. Deadheading can sometimes be just a part of the overall pruning process. 

Learning more about deadheading various different plants and whether or not it is required will make you a better gardener.