What is deadheading and why do it?
Deadheading flowers is simply the process of removing the spent blooms from your plants. You should typically deadhead as the bloom fades and begins to lose its petals. There are two main reasons for deadheading your flowers. Firstly, deadheading encourages your plant to produce more flowers. Secondly, deadheading is a way for you to keep your plants looking at their best by removing unsightly dead and dying flower heads.
Most of us mainly grow flowering plants in our gardens for the beauty, colour and, in some cases, fragrance of the flowers themselves. It therefore follows that what we’d really like to see is as many flowers as possible over the longest period of time.
And that, to my mind, is the main reason to deadhead your flowers.
The majority of plants have evolved to reproduce by producing seeds, and in doing so continue the existence of the species. When ripe and ready, the seeds fall from the plant into the soil, germinate (when conditions of warmth and light allow) and then grow into new seed producing plants that repeat the cycle.
Of course, a critical part of that process involves the production of flowers that contain the reproductive organs of the plants. And to get the full picture about why we deadhead flowers it is worth looking in a bit more detail at how flowers function and the role they play.
Some flowers have only female reproductive plants, some only male parts and some have both. The male part of the plant is called the stamen and consists of the anther and the filament. These produce pollen.
Pollen is transferred to the female parts of the plant by insects, birds, or other pollinating action. The receiving female part is called the stigma, which sits on a structure called the style.
Pollen landing on the stigma germinates and, as a result, produces a tube that extends down the style into the ovary and fertilises the flower’s egg or ovule. The ovule develops into a seed and the ovary enlarges to become seed pod or fruit.
As you’ll probably know, flowers have evolved to attract pollinators to them or facilitate the pollinating process. Some flowers, for example, have colours and markings that are especially visible to certain insects, whilst some have particular shapes and scents that attract butterflies or birds. Some, like many grasses, are designed to transfer pollen through the air when blown by the wind.
Generally it is these adaptions of scent, colour and flower shape that give the flowers the characteristics that we value and want to see more of. And that, in a round about but hopefully informative way, brings us back to the practice of deadheading flowers.
A spent flower – one that has been pollinated – begins the process of developing and maturing its seeds. The plant is then driven to divert its energies into that process so that the reproductive cycle can complete. As a result, the plant ceases flower production and focuses on seed production.
We gardeners interfere with this process when we are deadheading flowers.
When we remove the spent bloom, there can be no seed production. As a result, and because the plant has evolved to want to produce seed, it will have to produce more flowers for pollination so that those seeds can be created.
Thus, when we deadhead flowers continually over the growing season, we are stimulating the plant to produce more and more flowers – which as gardeners is exactly what we want the plant to do.
How to deadhead flowers
The simple principle with deadheading flowers is that you cut off the spent flower head just above the node (or next pair of leaves) below the spent flower. This means that you will sometimes be removing a section of stem as well.
In the picture above, you can see that a new flower bud has appeared at the junction of stem and leaves below this fading Echinacea bloom. Cutting back to just above this point will stimulate that bud into growth and a new and attractive flower will be produced.
It is important in this case, and in the case of other woody or firm stemmed plants like dahlias that you do not leave a section of stem above the leaf node, as this will gradually die back and may become diseased, damaging the rest of the plant.
With soft stemmed plants, including many annuals such as petunias or impatiens, you can simply pinch out the spent flower head, but make sure you pinch out the ovary where the seeds are developing too.
Plants that should be deadheaded
It follows from the explanations above that deadheading works where a plant has the potential to produce more flowering stems. So it will typically be certain annuals, perennials and shrubs that you will target for deadheading. Here is a list of some of the best candidates to dead head for for more blooms:
- Hardy geraniums
- Marguerite daisy
- Sweet peas
Single stem plants, like most bulbs, do not typically respond to deadheading with further flowers. But you should remove the dead heads to prevent the plants from setting seed. This means that the energy from photosynthesis from the remaining leaves and stems will go into building reserves of energy in the bulb, so that the display will be improved the following year.
Plants that should not be deadheaded
You should decide whether you want to leave the spent flower heads on the plant because they are ornamental in themselves, providing interest over winter, as well as food and shelter for insects in the garden.
Most ornamental grasses fall in to this category, as do rosehips and many of the coneflowers, such as echinacea.
What you need for deadheading flowers
What you need for your deadheading is a decent pair of secateurs.
I use and highly recommend Felco secateurs, in particular the Felco number 2, which in my view is the best all round secateur on the market.
The Felco model 2 bypass secateurs are high quality secateurs have comfortable lighweight handles, a hardened steel blade with wire cutting notch, riveted anvil with sap groove and a toothed centre nut mechanism which easily aligns the blades for a clean precise cut. A rubber cushion shock absorber protects the wrists.
These secateurs have a lifetime guarantee and all parts can be replaced.
21.5cm/8.5″ overall length can cut stems up to 2.5cm/1″ in diameter. Overall weight 240g/8.5oz.
I have yet to find anything better in 20 plus years of gardening.
- Comfortable, lightweight, sturdy aluminium alloy handles
- High quality hardened steel blades, forged aluminium alloy handles, wire cutting notch
- Anvil blade with sap groove, rubber cushion shock aborbers
- For a medium to large hand, right Handed; the handles have a non slip coating
- Lifetime guarantee, all parts replaceable
- This size is for medium to large hands
- Efficient: easy, durable cutting adjustment / wire cutting notch / sap groove
- Ergonomic: hand protection is provided by the cushion-shock absorber / non-slip coating
Last update on 2023-11-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
You can get the Felco Classic Number 2 at Harrod Horticulture.
Martin Cole has been an avid gardener for more than 20 years and loves to talk and write about gardening. In 2006 he was a finalist in the BBC Gardener of the Year competition. He is a member of the National dahlia Society.
He previously lived in London and Sydney, Australia, where he took a diploma course in Horticultural studies and is now based in North Berwick in Scotland. He founded GardeningStepbyStep.com in 2012. The website is aimed at everybody who has been bitten by the gardening bug and wants to know more.
Gardening Step by Step has been cited by Thompson and Morgan, the UK’s largest mail order plant retailer, as a website that publishes expert gardening content.
Check out my comprehensive step by step guide, with plain language explanations and ultra-useful images and illustrations. This is for you if you love dahlias and want to the best out of the dahlias you grow.