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Deadheading, Pinching, and Pruning

"Summer afternoon
—summer afternoon;
to me those have always been
the two most beautiful words
in the English language."

—Henry James

We have to agree. The long daylight hours as the sun approaches its zenith allow us to spend more time in the one place we most want to be, our garden.

The frantic pace of spring has slowed, and perhaps there are a few moments to sit and savor success. If you’re like us, though, the garden is always more enjoyable when we’re walking through it, not sitting to admire it. We always put pruning shears in our back pocket when we head to the garden, even when we’re planning to walk, not work. (If we’re planning to work, we also take along one of our trusty weed and leaf bags to hold debris.) If tackled a little each evening, deadheading—the single biggest chore of summer—barely counts as work. It’s easy, quick, and a great excuse to visit the garden after supper—the dishes can always wait until after it’s too dark to see outdoors.


Deadheading is usually simple grooming. Depending on the size of the stem, use your thumb and forefinger, or scissors, or pruning shears, to remove spent flowers. (For discussion of perennials that benefit from more drastic cutting back, see “Pruning to Improve Performance” below.) Removing the flowers prevents a plant from making seed. If you’d prefer that your favorite plant sow offspring, allow at least a few seedpods to mature. (Personally, we like to see more Aquilegia [Columbine], Corydalis, Alcea [Hollyhock], and Digitalis [Foxglove], so we always leave at least a few stems untrimmed.)

Cut back the spent flower stems of the following spring-bloomers any time now: Amsonia, Aquilegia, Dicentra (Bleeding Heart), Geranium macrorrhizum (treat other Geraniums differently; see below), Phlox divaricata (Woodland Phlox), Primula (Primrose), Pulmonaria, and Salvia. Wear rubber gloves when cutting back Euphorbia, because its caustic sap causes an allergic reaction in some people.

Deadheading many summer perennials encourages repeat bloom. To get the longest performance, snip off the spent flowers of Achillea (Yarrow), Phlox maculata and P. paniculata. Look for the buds of new flowers and cut back to above those buds. Cut back the stems of Coreopsis grandiflora (unless you can see additional buds, then just snip to those), Delphinium, Echinops, Knautia, Scabiosa, and Veronica ‘Goodness Grows’, and plants will produce new flower stems.

Other perennials need deadheading just to maintain appearances. These include: Adenophora (Ladybells), Alcea (removing the flower stalk before it sets seed occasionally encourages this biennial to return another year; on the other hand, allowing seed to set and scatter is a reliable way to ensure new plants), Campanula, Digitalis (let the biennial D. purpurea set seed to assure you have a crop next year), Helianthemum, Malva, and Sidalcea. Hemerocallis (Daylily) requires a slightly different technique. Use your fingers to snap off the individual fading Daylily flowers. When all the flowers on a stem (technically, it’s called a scape) have finished, use pruners to snip the stem at the base. If the foliage begins to get ratty after flowering, pull or cut off handfuls of the browning leaves at the base. They’ll soon be replaced by fresh leaves that will look attractive until frost.

Pruning To Improve Performance & Appearance

Another simple pruning chore in June involves perennials that won’t flower for several more weeks (or months). It may seem drastic, but to encourage stockier stems and shorter plants that need less staking, it’s a good idea to shear back fall-blooming Chrysanthemums and Asters (except ‘Purple Dome’ which is naturally short). If mature plants of Physostegia tend to flop over in your garden, cut those plants back, too. For any of these plants, cut stems back by about half. The first time we did this, it was difficult—emotionally, not physically. But, after seeing the splendid results, it’s a task we tackle with glee. And it’s much faster than staking would be. Finish this job by mid-July, though, to ensure timely bloom this fall.

Try this technique on a few plants that you don't want to bloom. Artemesia 'Valerie Finnis' and 'Silver Mound' both look much better later in the season if sheared back now by half (or even more, in the case of 'Silver Mound'.) You're growing these plants for their gleaming silver foliage; their rather ratty flowers detract from the display, and shearing delays or prevents flowering.

Some early-flowering perennials also look best if treated drastically this month—shear the plants back to basal leaves, and you’ll be rewarded with fresh, thrifty growth that maintains its tidy habit for the rest of the season. You can even use sharp hedge shears instead of hand pruners, if you have a lot of plants and not much time. Included in this group are: Aquilegia (if leaves are badly marred by leaf miners), Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle), Lamium, Geranium endressi, G. ‘Rozanne’, G. ‘Johnson’s Blue’, G. sanguineum (and other hybrids that flop and sprawl after bloom), Dianthus deltoides, Lupines, Nepeta, Penstemon, mature Salvia nemorosa, Saponaria, Platycodon (only in the South and the West), and Viola cornuta ‘Cuty’. Mature plants of Coreopsis verticillata and C. rosea benefit if cut back by half later in the summer.


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