To “deadhead” means to remove old flower blooms. This helps tidy up plants we don’t want to produce seeds and makes room for second blooms. Many of our favorite plants bloom repeatedly including petunias, daisies, echinacea, and more.
Need help selecting the best tool for the job? Check out this guide for choosing the right pruner and more.
Deadheading For Beginners
Once you get into gardening, it’s inevitable that the topic of deadheading will come up. Once you know why it’s done and what benefits it can have, it’s much easier to decide what’s best for your plants.
- What is Deadheading?
- Top Deadheading Tips
- Are There Flowers I Should Not Deadhead?
- Perennials That May Rebloom After Deadheading
- The Science Behind Pruning & Deadheading
What is Deadheading?
Want a better-looking garden summer garden? Deadheading—the select removal of old flowers and their stems—can help.
First, knowing the basic life cycle of a flowering plant will make deadheading easy to understand.
Flowering plants have one goal: to survive long enough to produce seeds that in turn create new flowering plants.
When flowers are pollinated, one cycle stops and another begins. Flowers begin to die off and seeds begin to form.
Deadheading is simply the removal of any dead or dying flowers (and the ovaries where the seeds develop) to stop seed production. You can also snip off the old flower stems since they too have completed their job.
With the ovary gone, the plant can direct its energy into flower production. Or so the theory goes. I have not been able to find any research to confirm this idea—that deadheading actually triggers new blooms.
It seems more likely that each species is hardwired to produce more flowers—or not, and the act of removing old blooms is irrelevant to this.
But, without the old flowers, the plant has more energy available for other growth. So consider the idea that deadheading causes new blooms as unproven, but here are still good reasons to do it (sometimes).
Simply put, a deadheaded plant often looks better, and the trim may allow better air circulation, potentially preventing disease, while making room for any second or third blooms that may form. There are also instances where lateral shoots may appear, providing a fuller, better-looking plant. And more leaves allows more photosynthesis (energy production).
This is a generalized overview and there are many nuances for different plant species, but you can deadhead any time the flowers are starting to die off, looking tired and wilted.
But, if you want to collect seeds or provide nutritious food for birds, just let them be. Or do a bit of both like I do.
Deadheading Versus Pruning
- Deadheading is the removal of finished flowers and their stems down to the nearest leaves.
- Pruning is the removal or cutting back of stems or branches on shrubs, vines, and trees. We prune to remove dead, damaged, diseased, or crowded branches.
Top Deadheading Tips
Pick the Right Tool for the Job
You can deadhead with regular pruners but there is a better tool for the job.
These Curved Blade Pruning Snips by Fiskars are perfect for deadheading.
I’m very prone to hand pain but that is not a problem with these super lightweight snips with their spring-back action.
Single flower on a stem
- Follow the stem from the top (flower) down to the next leaves.
- Snip immediately above this point.
Multiple flowers on a stem
- As individual flowers begin to wither, snip below seed ovary—on many plants it’s a bulbous part just below the flower petals.
- Snip off entire stem when all flowers are done, either down to a pair of leaves or a main stem.
- Haircut time! With hundreds or thousands of tiny flowers, a plant like ground phlox can be sheared. Remove all the old flowers and a portion of the stems.
Always clean your tools before and after deadheading and after handling any diseased plants.
I keep a spray bottle of isopropyl alcohol (70%) with my garden tools for this purpose.
Are There Flowers I Should Not Deadhead?
Yes. Sunflowers, for example, are one-and-done. If you cut off a sunflower, one is not going to grow in its place.
For many other flowering plants, whether or not you deadhead depends on your goal. Removing an old flower is not going to damage the plant. But it will cease seed production for that flower. And seeds are, of course, essential food for many birds, particularly in the winter months.
Some popular annuals are either sterile and do not produce seeds and/or provide continuous blooms for much of the growing season without the need to deadhead.
Supertunias by Proven Winners are one example.
Daylilies are another example—removing the flower will not bring another in its place. They are one and done. But more appear on other stems.
And some perennials are very slow to re-flower or will not at all.
But, for looks, it’s fine to snip off old blooms.
Ideally, know what you are growing and determine your deadheading routine on a plant-by-plant basis, leaving things in fall for the overwintering animals.
Perennials That May Rebloom
These plants may produce second blooms or bloom continuously for a period of time.
Alcea rosea (hollyhock)
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
Begonia grandis (hardy begonia)
Buddleia (butterfly bush)
Centaurea montana (Mountain bluet)
Dianthus (Sweet William)
Echinops ritro (globe thistle)
Gaillardia (blanket flower)
Gypsophila paniculata (Baby’s breath)
Heliopsis (false sunflowers)
Leucanthemum (shasta daisy)
Lychnis coronaria (rose campion)
Monarda (bee balm)
Scabiosa (pincushion flowers)
Sidalcea malviflora (mallow)
Veronicastrum virginicum (culver’s root)
The Science Behind Pruning & Deadheading
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛