The party can go on with ‘deadheads’

Dianthus needing deadheading

This Firewitch Dianthus perennial has finished its initial bloom. The brown seedheads should be removed and if the weather stays cool and moist, the homeowner may see a second flush of flowers (Photo courtesy of Greg Anselc)

As we seem to be rushing through spring flowers right into summer with the warmer temps Mother Nature has thrown at us the last few months, I get a lot of questions about faded flowers.

Is my plant dying? Why are there no more flowers? Will it flower again? Should I fertilize it to get more flowers?

So many questions, and so many different answers. But it is worth understanding which plants will not reflower, will definitely reflower and those in between. I always tell people to think of their flowers like a jewelry box: The annuals are the costume fun jewelry you wear day-to-day. It is often colorful, flashy, and bling-y. The perennials are like your fancy jewelry. You bring them out for special occasions only.

Seems simple enough, but so much can make this confusing. If you look in some gardening catalogs and purchase a theme garden, the illustration shows all of the perennials in bloom at the same time, instead of two weeks of this one, and three weeks of another. Gardeners often think they are doing something wrong, when in reality, it is just false advertising, in a way.

The flowers pictured do flower the approximate color and size of the actual plant. But in the Midwest here, we will not see peonies and coneflowers flowering at the same time. Interestingly, if you have ever been to Alaska or Canada where the growing season is even shorter than ours, you might see a wider variety of perennials blooming at the same time, because there isn’t much growing time.

So, for true perennials, those are plants that are supposed to live more than three years, there are those that bloom for one period per year, and those termed “reblooming.” Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, peonies and most irises fall into this category. They bloom in spring for about a three-week period. That three-week period is determined by how Mother Nature adjusts our weather thermostat.

This year, we were on fast-forward. The perennials that we normally think of blooming around Mother’s Day, like lilacs and magnolias, were mostly done by mid-April. And no fertilizer or pruning can change that.

But there are perennials that may bloom more than once if the weather cooperates, like pinks (Dianthus, spp.). These spicy, brightly colored perennials with a spicy carnation clove scent, usually flower once. But if the weather stays cool, it is worth taking time to trim off the spent flowers, as they may reflower.

Cutting off the spent blossoms (also called deadheading) is a smart move horticulturally, almost all the time, unless you are trying to get plants to spread, if they produce viable seed. Deadheading is a simple task that can be accomplished with your hand pruners, scissors, or in my case, a nice sharp thumbnail.

You remove the spent flowerhead, usually cutting the flower stem back to the leaves below. Botanically, when the spent flower is removed, you are really removing the seedhead. And the perennial knows its work for the year has been achieved. The goal of all nature is to reproduce itself.

Now are these seeds viable? And is it worth saving them? Usually not worth it. First, to have viable seeds, you need to leave them on the plant until the seedpod is fully dried and the seeds are mature. This can take weeks.

Also, many of our plants are hybrids and the seed produced may or may not be viable, and you may or may not get the same plant if you do save the seeds to use the following year. Is it a fun experiment? Absolutely … if you are extremely patient. For example, it can take years for a saved peony to produce a flower.

The other botanical reason to deadhead the flowers off of perennials is it signals to the plant to shift energy production away from seed making and back into the roots, thereby strengthening the roots for next year. So, this benefits even the perennial flowers that offer just one set of blooms per year.

With some other perennials, once the first flush of bloom is winding down, it is definitely worth deadheading because you may get a second, third and even forth bloom from them. A great example is the catmint in front of the Will County Farm Bureau building.

The beautiful, light blue mounds of flowers in front of the roses are catmint (Nepeta spp). This easy-care perennial offers more than you might think. Its habit is neat and tidy, and in mid- spring, puts a glorious display of blooms for about a month. Sure, that is nice, but if you cut back the spent flowers after that fist bloom is done, you will be rewarded with a second, then third, and last year, with the long warm fall, a fourth full bloom.

This reblooming after deadheading applies to many perennials including veronica, coreopsis, phlox, and bee balm. You may not always get several reblooming periods, it depends if the weather cooperates with the temperatures and moisture levels that are optimum for blooming.

And then there are the easy perennials that will keep on blooming without the need for deadheading. But this also comes with a warning. Coneflowers, for example, will continue blooming even without deadheading, although by deadheading you will encourage a faster rebloom. But then there are the seeds.

The center of the coneflower, botanically called Echinacea, got its Latin name from that “cone” looking like a hedgehog, Echin is Latin for hedgehog. And that little hedgehog center is packed with sharp, but delicious, (if you are a bird) seeds.

Many gardeners delight in leaving their plant seedheads up and not deadheading beginning later in the summer, because those seeds are nutrient-rich for our wildlife, particularly our birds.

At the same time, some gardeners lament that their coneflowers have started coming up in the cracks of the sidewalk and driveways or overtaking other less strong plants. This, of course, happens when the seeds are left on to mature, and nature takes its course.

The choice is up to you!


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