“We dead-head for aesthetic reasons number one,” says Shirley Barnes Beuth, owner of Fleurs Fine Gardeners and Horticulturalists of Wyoming, Rhode Island. “Number two, we [dead-head] thoughtfully and considerately to encourage the plant to rebloom, and to also think about the shape of the plant. We do this with perennials and annuals. Thoughtful dead-heading can allow us to shape the plant.”
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To dead-head is to manually interfere with a plant’s natural life cycle in order to redirect its energy into a more desirable purpose. A plant’s natural goal is to produce fruit and ultimately seeds for reproduction. Dead-heading can stunt this process so that the energy can be directed to goals such as strengthening the roots, coaxing a second bloom, or growing more branches. Removing deteriorating material rejuvenates the plant, which also ultimately wards off pests and pathogens. Whether it’s plucking off spent blooms, cutting down entire stalks to the ground cover foliage, or removing healthy, full blooms before they expire, it’s all about where the gardener wants the plant to thrive.
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Cutting a plant encourages more growth wherever the gardener makes the clip. Although it may seem counter intuitive to remove blooms from the garden while they are still healthy, it will persuade the plant to produce a second and potentially third bloom throughout the season. For plants such as Angelonia, it is helpful to continuously cut the stalks so that the foliage remains lush and the blooms continue to flourish through the spring and summer. Since Angelonia loses its flowers and produces seeds from the bottom up, it is important for gardeners to keep an eye on the process so that they can dead-head when more than half of each stalk turns from flower to seed.
“Angelonia takes time to regenerate, so we should continuously dead-head so that it has flower after flower,” says Louise Coates, gardener and greenhouse manager for Fleurs. “Some gardeners aren’t aware of that, so sometimes we have to go over it with them in order to encourage more blooms.”
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There are different methods to dead-heading for each particular plant and each desired goal. According to Beuth and other professional fine gardeners, each plant has specific necessities in order to keep it looking its best and performing at its potential. For instance, plants with large heads such as hydrangea should be cut down in the fall before the frost comes. This way, the heads won’t fall and scatter around the garden, leaving less debris to gather come spring. Conversely, Beuth says that she treats roses differently. After August 15th, she lets the blooms fill out and naturally fall, turning to seed.
“For roses, we want to shut them down,” Beuth says. “We let them seed and it signals the plant to shut down for the winter and store energy for the next spring.”
Oftentimes, gardeners find themselves enjoying the seed heads, as they provide a natural landscape for the winter and feed the wildlife surrounding the property. If a gardener prefers harnessing a natural landscape and providing food for the birds, Beuth and Coates may forego the process of dead-heading after a certain point, and allow the plant to follow its natural journey. All is in the preference of the beholder.
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Be sure to know the life cycle of each plant and flower in your garden
Beginner gardeners should educate themselves about the plants that they introduce into their landscape. It is beneficial to conduct research about the life cycles of each plant, and be sure to distinguish whether a plant is about to bloom, or about to seed. Delphinium is a plant that is oftentimes hard to tell whether or not the stalk is producing blooms or seeds. For delphinium, it is also important to note that the plant will decline if you just clip the tops off of the plant. Taking it all the way down to the ground cover will ensure that the energy continues to strengthen the roots and consequently produce more beautiful flowers.
“In regards to dead-heading, do your homework and watch the progression of the flower,” says Coates. “Keep it going at first, and wait to see the life.”
The primary goal for an early garden is to tend to the strength of the plants by focusing the energy to the roots and promoting growth in the space that a gardener permits for the plant. Then, one can set goals for the future and shape the progress of the plant. A clever analogy comes from Robert Boyd, lead landscape designer of The Greener Side Lawn and Landscaping, who compares gardening to physical exercise.
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Dead-heading leads to rewards later—just like going to the gym
“This is the number one way that I get through to clients: gardening is like going to the gym,” Boyd says. “You want to do ‘x’ so you can have ‘y’ in the future. Dead-heading is crucial for the survival of the plant material.”
When consulting an expert like Boyd, it is important for a gardener to establish direction and express what they would like to experience in their landscape, just as one would with a personal trainer. For the independent gardener, it is important to set those goals, and research the best ways to achieve them. Dead-heading is the ab workout of gardening: activate your core, and be patient in reaping the benefits.
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On particularly scorching summer days, Beuth and members of her gardening crew say that dead-heading properties that house thousands of roses leaves them slap-happy with heat exhaustion. It is a strenuous task, but worth the labor.
One gardener, Liz Handscom, says that she gets through the long hours by singing little jingles, and imagining the Queen of Hearts from Alice In Wonderland. “Off with their heads!” she tells the roses as she clips, mimicking Lewis Carroll’s iconic villain. Although in the story it is a reference to murder, clipping the heads promotes new life and strength in gardening. It’s perhaps best to avoid painting the roses red, though.