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Deadheading keeps a garden in bloom

By NANCY BRACHEYBy Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. Someone said you really like hardy ferns, but there are too many to choose from. Where should I start?

    There are many great choices, and some are quite spectacular. I would start with the autumn fern, which is one of the easier to find. It is quite a tough little plant, surviving drought and dry soil. It grows about 2 feet tall, produces gorgeous new growth in spring and lovely copper or rusty brown fronds in the fall. Most foliage remains through the winter and sometimes spore cases on the undersides of fronds become a nice feature. This is one of the more amenable ferns for many kinds of situations in partial to full shade.


Often when I use the term deadheading around new gardeners, they look puzzled. It’s as if I am suggesting some form of medieval torture. But while the term sounds ghastly, the act of deadheading is a benevolent one for a flower bed. In fact, it encourages continued life and robust growth for many kinds of annuals and makes flower beds look better.

Deadheading, when gardeners speak of it, simply means removing a flower that is spent, past its prime or looking dead. Removal is quite simple. Small flowers such as little marigolds or petunias can be taken off by pinching them between your thumb and finger. Larger flowers such as zinnias require action with small shears or scissors.

A flower bed looks neater when the old flowers are gone, which is a great reason to spend time and effort on it. Plus the plant tends to produce new growth.

Annuals in particular require deadheading because it prevents the formation of seeds.

Seeds are a signal to the annual flower that its work is done: a new generation is formed for next year and the existing plant is ready to decline and die. Without seed formation the plant thinks – and I know a plant cannot think, but it can respond – that it must keep going, producing more buds and blooms, and that is what you want for the summer and fall.

Some bedding plants such as impatiens and periwinkle have the decency to drop their spent blooms without your help and keep going. Bedding begonias also keep going pretty much without deadheading, but a snip in the summer can help leggy begonias produce side growth that makes a fuller, more attractive plant. Some modern petunias such as Supertunias are such prolific bloomers they tend to keep going without deadheading, but of course their appearance is improved with it.

Most perennials don’t naturally bloom as long as annuals do, but all are helped by summer deadheading for the sake of appearance in the bed. Some, notably black-eyed Susan’s and purple coneflower, may be encouraged to put out more blooms with deadheading. Perennials are meant to live for years and don’t decline if you allow a bloom to go to seed. I think you’ve probably seen that on Shasta daisies.

Roses that bloom on new growth, such as hybrid teas, floribundas and the landscape roses such as Knock-Outs, also benefit in the same important ways. It takes garden shears and gloves to do this because the stems tend to be big and thorny. Knock-outs had a beautiful spring with huge flushes of bloom. Now is the time to think about giving them a good deadheading to encourage fresh growth and bloom.

The point is to keep watch on your flower beds, observe the flowers that are declining and nip them off.

Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com
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