Garden: Grateful Deadheading
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, Brian Cruey offers tips on how to keep your flowering plants strong; giving them tough love by immediately cutting off the wilted parts.
It happens every year and it goes way back to childhood; that stomach-turning moment when I see the first “Back to School” display at the store and realize that summer is flying by. How can this be? How can next week really be August? There must be some mistake. Aren’t we still in late spring? I’m just not quite ready to admit it, but I’m also that person that tells people I’m still in my early-mid-thirties so that’s not saying much.
Unfortunately, we cannot stop the momentum of time and summer will indeed be over before we know it. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to bring about summer’s demise prematurely in your garden.
When it comes to your flowering plants, they have one goal in mind and it’s not to impress you during evening cocktails. No, their job is to go to seed — something that almost always happens once a plant has stopped flowering. If you interrupt that process, your plant will continue to grow and often, flower, because it hasn’t completed its task. Like when your boss walks in at 5 p.m. with a new job that still needs to be done — you keep working.
The maintenance practice of deadheading is how you redirect a plant’s energy from the goal of seed production to root and vegetation growth. Simply, it’s the removal of spent flowers from a plant. Whenever you have a flower on a plant that has started to decline in appearance, cut it off — usually at the next lateral bud, stem, or leaf. This is something that you can do all season long to extend the life of your plants and the overall appearance of your garden. Not only does deadheading encourage new growth, but it tidies the garden and rids it of spent materials. You don’t want to see decaying flowers mixed in with your fresh buds — it’s like having a cadaver at a beauty pageant. Frequent deadheading gives your beds a nice, fresh and clean look.
Of course, all plants are different and so are their blooms. For spear-shaped blooms like say, Delphiniums, flowers should be cut back when the flower stalk is about 70% spent. Other plants like Coleus and basil shouldn’t be allowed to flower at all. Pinch back the buds as soon as you see them start to appear on the plant to encourage thick, rich foliage.
Get into the habit of deadheading early on and you will be surprised at how much better your garden will look through the season. You’ll have more flowers, thicker foliage, and a fresh-looking garden that will look like it’s in late spring even if it’s not. Just like if I keep plucking grey hairs I will be in my early-late-thirties forever.