Deadheading flowers — Why, when, and how to deadhead

Deadheading flowers is one of my favorite gardening tasks. It keeps me in touch with all the plants, it instantly tidies them up, and it indulges my love of productive puttering. I can even do it when it’s not the best time to get garden-dirty — say, when I have a few minutes before heading someplace but won’t have time to cleanup, which I’d need to do if I got into weeding, for example. 

Why deadhead

There are two reasons to deadhead your flowering plants. One is that the plant will immediately look better — more vibrant, happy, less on-its-way-out, so to speak. The other is that it will reward you with fuller growth and longer blooming time.

flowering blue lupine plant

If you leave the spent flowers on a plant, the plant will proceed to form seed-heads. In most cases, you’d rather the plant put energy into making more blooms than seeds, right? Most plants will rebloom all season if you keep deadheading. 

Even plants that won’t reward you with more blooms (astilbe and peonies only bloom once, for example) are better off if you deadhead them. That’s because taking off the dying blooms allows the plant to put energy into growing roots and foliage instead. 

It’s also a good idea to deadhead self-sowing plants that you don’t want to spread. For example, if you leave chives to flower and don’t cut off the spent flowers, they’ll set seeds and scatter them, and the chives will spread across the area. You need to deadhead unless you want this to happen (sometimes it’s exactly what you want!).

So deadheading is a good thing to do. That said, don’t fret if you don’t get to it. It’s not like neglecting to water your flowers. They’ll be fine — just not as tidy and full of blooms as they will be once you get back to deadheading them. 

When to deadhead

Start deadheading your flowers in the spring, as soon as the first flower is tired. Continue throughout the growing season, cutting each flower as soon as it’s spent or the petals are falling off. 

I like to deadhead in the mornings, when I check on plants or water them. It’s my favorite way to start the day. But less often is fine, too — even once a week, say, on the weekend. 

When to stop deadheading

If you stop deadheading when the weather turns cool in the fall, you give your plants (especially perennials) time to reseed — instead of growing more flowers — so they can spread. The seedpods will also provide animals with food during the cold winter months. 

How to deadhead

Deadheading is easy to do and so rewarding. Here are some tips:

• Deadhead both annuals and perennials. Most, but not all, flowers benefit from deadheading. Even those that don’t need deadheading will look tidier if you do it. Some, though, won’t bloom the following year if you deadhead and don’t allow it to set seed. See the list below. If you’re not sure if a flower should be deadheaded (and it’s not on my list), look it up.

• Pinch with your fingers or cut with a pair of garden shears. For woody plants, like roses, you may want a little pair of pruners. I have a little pair of garden scissors that I keep in my metal gardening bucket. I toss the bucket handle over my arm and am ready to deadhead in no time.

a stem of geranium flowers with two pink blooms and two buds on a gray background

• Cut or pinch off the spent flower — the whole flower, not just petals. You want to encourage healthy new growth, so don’t just cut off the flower, leaving a bare stem sticking up. Cut just above the first leaf below the flower.

• You don’t need to remove flowers one at a time.  If the flowers are really covering the plant, no worries. Just cut back the plant a couple of inches to deadhead them all at once. This works for mounding perennials, too, like ground phlox. Just wait until the mound is covered with mostly spent flowers, then give it a good haircut all around. 

• If your plant has multiple blooms on a stem, cut the whole flower stalk off at the base of the plant when about ¾ of the blooms on the stem have faded. (Otherwise it will start setting seeds before those last flowers finish blooming.)

Flowers that will benefit from deadheading:

Blanket flowers

Bee balm

Bleeding heart

Campanula

Coleus (will become bushier, fuller)

Coneflower

Cosmos

Dahlias

Daylilies

Delphinium

Echinacea

Geranium (Leave the flower cluster until the entire cluster is finished blooming, then cut the whole stem off.) 

Goldenrod

Heliotrope

Hydrangea

Lavender

Lilacs

Lilies (Pinch off the blooms. Then, when all the flowers on the stem have faded, cut back the whole stem.)

Lupine

Marguerite daisy

Marigolds

Painted daisies

Petunias

Phlox

Pincushion flower

Roses

Rudbeckia

Sage

Salvia

Shasta daisy

Snapdragon

Sweet pea

Veronica

Yarrow

Zinnia

Plants that don’t need deadheading

Some flowers continue to bloom without deadheading (though you may choose to deadhead some of these to keep them tidy.) Others produce beautiful, ornamental seedpods that you’ll want to encourage.  And some will self-seed and you’ll be happy about it (hollyhock, foxglove, and lobelia, for example).

Ageratum

Angelonia

Astilbe (If you like the pretty dried plumes, leave them. If you like a tidier look and a bushier plant, cut them off.)

Baptisia

Begonia

Bougainvillea

Browallia

Calibrachoa

Canna

Cleome

Euphorbia

Heuchera

Impatiens

Lamium

Lantana

Liatris

Lobelia

Nemesia

Ornamental grasses (will provide interesting seedheads)

Oxalis

Peony

Sedum

Sunflowers (Let the birds have the seeds for winter food!)

Verbena

Blooming orange bougainvillea flowers

How do you feel about deadheading? Enjoyable or tedious? What flowers are you growing this season?

You might also like: How to clean a birdbath, How to grow knockout roses, and How to keep your hanging flower baskets pretty throughout the summer.

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