Tip of the month: June
Preening makes perfect
Alan Titchmarsh explains how to get the best displays from flowering plants in your garden
Tools for the job
Deadheading may be a dirty word in some gardening circles, but I quite enjoy it. It is true, that hours of picking over floral displays can be mind-numbingly boring (perhaps that’s why it’s called deadheading!), but if you make a point of doing a little each time you venture outside, it becomes a subconscious routine, even habit. Some would say obsession. So much so, that I find myself absentmindedly deadheading when I’m in other people’s gardens and even while appreciating top-notch gardening displays at horticultural shows. Nearly all flowering plants look better after preening, but some repeat performers will reward you will more flowers and longer-lasting displays.
Flowers worth deadheading this summer
You can remove the flowers and seedheads from soft-tissue plants, such as most bedding, by simply pinching them off between finger and thumb. But where accuracy is needed, I like to use sharp-nosed flower snips that can get to the base of stalks without ruffling or damaging the rest of the display. These are particularly useful for removing long-stalked flowers, such as sweet peas. Deadheading plants with tiny flowers is a whole lot quicker using sharpened, lightweight hand shears or even powered topiary snips. Some recommend taking a nylon-line trimmer to flail off the spend blooms of some carpet bedding, but that’s a shortcut too far in my book. For woody-stemmed flowers, such as roses, cut the faded clusters of blooms back using secateurs. Make the cut just above a leaf-joint that’s several leaves below the lowest faded bloom on the stem. This will encourage new flowering shoots to be produced further down the stem on sturdier shoots giving a new flush of flowers later in the year.
In my own garden, easy targets, such as windowboxes, pots on the patio and waist-high flowering shrubs alongside paths, are regularly deadheaded, but I have to make a conscious effort to tackle flowering plants elsewhere. You cannot deadhead everything, of course, but prominent plants with unsightly fading flowers and plants that respond particularly well to deadheading are worth seeking out.
Several border rockets come into this category. Stuck in the middle or back of the display, flowers such as aconitum, delphinium, foxglove, hollyhock, lupin and penstemon are worth deadheading after the initial flower spike withers. With some short-lived perennials, such as hollyhocks and foxgloves, regular deadheading can increase their life span. By cutting back the main stem to a sideshoot or leaf lower down, several smaller sideshoots will grow up and flower to give a second, albeit smaller, display later in the season. Use a pair of garden snips or secateurs for woody-stemmed plants, cutting off just above the first sideshoot or leaf joint below the faded flower spike. When dealing with poisonous and irritant plants, such as aconitum, wear gloves and keep your arms covered.
A few perennials will respond to being cut back to near ground level by producing a new hummock of fresh foliage and, with luck, a second flush of flowers later in the year – often extending the flowering season into autumn. Plants that are prone to foliage disease and look tatty by midsummer and those that simply run out of steam, after the first flush of flowers, are worth cutting back. I do this with my hardy geraniums, giving them a short-back-and-sides followed by a fillip of general fertiliser and a thorough soaking. If the summer is hot and dry, remember to keep watering regularly until the new foliage has appeared. Deadheading after the main flush of flowers are past their best, is also a good way of controlling the spread of rampant self-seeders, such as Alchemilla mollis.
However, sometimes with deadheading there’s a bit of a trade-off that needs to be considered. Take astilbes, for example. It is certainly true they will reward you with further flushes of smaller flowers late on, if routinely deadheaded, but you will miss out on the decorative feathery plumes that linger after the flowers that can last well into autumn. So, in my garden, I cut back some and leave others to be enjoyed as nature intended.