More Timely Tasks – Deadheading

Deadheading flowering plants ranks among the easiest and most productive tasks in the garden. This task does not require precise timing, just whenever blossoms have faded and the gardener wants to promote new blossoms.

Deadheading is the process of removing faded blossoms. The purpose of the blossom of course is to attract a pollinator to bring pollen from another blossom to fertilize an egg cell and thus to produce a fruit with seeds.

In some cases, the gardener wants the fruit to eat (think apple tree) or wants the seeds to grow into more plants (think poppies). In other cases, however, the gardener simply wants the beauty and fragrance of more blossoms.

Deadheading can be a relaxing and satisfying exercise for the gardener, but it involves frustrating the plant’s reproductive purpose. The plant doesn’t experience frustration or any other emotion. Instead it responds by producing new blossoms, still in pursuit of its goal to make more plants. That means more blossoms, for the gardener’s pleasure.

Incidentally, we need a new term for this gardening process. “Deadhead” has been used for many years, possibly to suggest “head back dead blossoms,” but it sounds gloomy and doesn’t indicate the purpose of action. Something like “rejuvenate” (to make young again) would be better, but there are other options. Your ideas will be welcomed!

The basic technique is to remove the spent flower just above the first leaf below the flower head. This removes a section of stem (which might be unsightly) and encourages new growth from the leaf node.

The leaves of rose bushes occur in sets of three, five or seven, with larger sets lower on the cane. The standard advice has been to cut just above the first set of five or seven leaves. Some experts recommend cutting above the second set of five or seven leaves. In both approaches, the apparent intention is to encourage new growth from a stem that is strong enough to support a blossom.

Newer research has shown that roses will flower more prolifically when the gardener removes old flowers by cutting just above the first set of three leaves, rather than lower down on the stem. Try that on your own roses. Mark the “test cases” with a colorful string or ribbon and observe the effect.

Rejuvenating roses in this way can be combined with shaping the plant’s overall form, opening the inside of the bush to improve air movement, and heading back wayward canes. These goals often require cutting lower on the canes.

Next week: dividing daffodils, irises and other spring geophytes (they are not all “bulbs”). These tasks are needed at this time of the year but only on a cycle of about three years.

Enjoy your garden.

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