In the Garden: Deadheading with the best | Home and Garden

People are noticing my green thumb, and it has nothing to do with gardening prowess. Deadheading roses has left me with stained hands that even OxyClean can’t fix. I am forever misplacing my pruners, but since my right thumb and forefinger are providentially attached to my arm, my favorite rose deadheading tools are always ready.

By removing spent flowers just before they drop their petals, I can keep my roses blooming longer. Like any flower, a rose is here to reproduce and its destiny is pollination. When that mission is accomplished, a hip will develop below the flower and produce seeds. Hormones will prevent any further bud formation, and the stem will wait another season to bloom. Removing the fading bloom before it goes to seed interrupts that process, and the plant has to try again by producing more flowers.

I deadheaded my roses for years in the traditional manner. I followed the flowering stem down to an outward facing “five leaf-set” and cut at an angle just above it. Deadheading was scratchy, uninspired gardening, and when I did manage to finish I still had heaps of long rose canes to deal with.

A Royal Horticultural Society study I found a few years ago suits the way I garden and changed the way I deadhead roses. Some bushes in the RHS test gardens were deadheaded in the traditional manner, while others had their faded blooms simply snapped off at the base of the bloom with a thumb and forefinger. They had me at “snapped,” since this technique required neither pruners nor scratchy trips to the compost pile.

The RHS found that bushes where deadheads were “snapped” were left with more leaves. Leaves are what the plant uses to turn sunlight into food. If a significant number are lost through deadheading, the plant will work to replace them first, and flower production will have to wait.

Bushes with more leaves had healthier canes, more basal breaks (desirable canes that grow out of the base and create a vase-shaped structure), and more flowers.

Snapping off the old bloom encourages new shoots to break from the leaves near the top of the stem, quickly initiating a new blooming cycle. While abundant, these new flowers may be smaller, so if big roses are what you want, deadhead in the traditional manner.

These days, my tea roses are long gone, replaced mainly by David Austin English roses. They lend themselves to being “snapped” because they have much shorter stems than other rose types. If you grow long-stemmed tea roses, leaving their extra-long stems on the plant after deadheading the blossoms may look unattractive to you. If so, go ahead and shorten them by cutting lower on the stem.

Deadheading all your flowering plants, and not just roses, early and often, is a great habit to have. Some tips:

Annuals: Tender plants growing in beds, containers and hanging baskets will bloom their heads off until frost if deadheaded and fertilized regularly. This can take time, but it’s well spent.

Geraniums: Hold the faded flower stalk near the base and pull downward. The old bloom will snap off cleanly.

Shrubs: Deadhead rhododendrons, azaleas and lilacs just below the flower, careful to avoid damaging next year’s buds.

Bulbs: Remove flowers, along with the seed capsule. Leave the flower stalk to encourage photosynthesis, which will build up the bulb to flower next season.

Border perennials: Choosing the exact point to make a deadheading cut can be confusing, since perennials have different flower forms and deadheading can be species specific. In general, prune spent flowers and stems back to a new lateral flower or bud. If you can’t find one, prune the stem back to a lateral leaf. Some hardy geraniums, delphiniums, lupins and salvias produce a second flush of flowers if cut back close to the ground. Lady’s mantle and oriental poppies, cut back to the ground, will respond with fresh foliage, but no more flowers. Sometimes it may be easier to deadhead profusely flowering perennials by shearing away the top few inches or just enough to remove most of the faded flowers. The individual flowers on daylilies and some irises last a day and then hang like mushy, wet socks. Removing them carefully may not bring a re-bloom, but the plant will look tidier during its long blooming period.

Tracy DiSabato’s “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” offers complete information on deadheading a long-list of perennials.