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Grateful Deadheading

As the summer sun fades, so do many of our garden flowers. If you haven’t already been cutting or pinching back the spent flowers in your garden, you may be ready to dig up the whole, shabby mess.

But wait. September is one of the nicest months in the yard. The August heat has receded and there may still be a few more months of blooms. And flowers, just like many of our loyal friends, give back so much more with just a little investment.

While the name sounds frightful, “deadheading” is what’s necessary to redirect your flower’s energy and give it needed incentive to bloom again. As flowers shed their petals and begin to form seed heads, energy is focused into the development of the seeds, rather than the flowers. Regular deadheading, however, channels the energy back into flower production which also keeps your plant from getting that spent look.

“Deadheading” is simply the process of removing faded or dead flower blooms. It can be done by simply snapping or pinching off the old flower heads with your fingers. Of course, you can use snips or sheers – and you really can’t go wrong. Just cut below the surface (receptacle) of the flower body. In some cases, like geraniums, the stem can be pulled out too.

Although deadheading isn't difficult, it is time consuming. I don’t know about you, but I always head out to the garden with the hope of accomplishing five things, and am lucky if I get through two. So how can we make the most of our time in the garden without feeling like it’s an endless chore?

Selection – Balance - Gratefulness

I remember walking the streets of Santa Cruz with my daughter and being amazed that even the poorest of yards had spectacular Birds of Paradise and Calla Lilies and wonderfully flowering trees. We pulled fruit right off the limb of some unpruned, unnamed tree in the back yard of the house she stays in. What I realized that May in California is that favorable conditions have as much to do with flowering success as anything.

So, here’s the trick: don’t garden to perfection – perfect your gardening

What do I mean? First, you have to decide how much effort you want to put in to your gardening. Maybe your in a season of traveling light and would do better to visit other gardens or volunteer at a local garden. Maybe you have young kids and you want to teach them where vegetables come from. Or maybe, you want to grow herbs and start enhancing your cooking with freshness. Selection is the first key.

It’s important to consider what your climate will sustain and how much time you can give to upkeep. Like the deadheading chore, knowing what a flower or plant requires for upkeep is as important as what you “like.” Take mums for instance. If you buy them now and keep them in a pot, they will give you a nice fall accent. If you put them in the ground, they will come back next year, but will need to be deadheaded twice in the summer to keep them from blooming early. I have done it both ways with great success, it’s just a matter of selecting how much time you want to spend.

A great way to balance your work in the yard is to add some perennials that bloom only once per season, but remain attractive all season with flowers that dry right on the plant or maybe even interesting seed heads. Here’s just a few examples:

False Indigo - Baptisia is a North American wildflower, so it’s relatively low maintenance. It now comes in yellow and bi-colors, but it’s the original violet-blue flowers that make the most striking effect in the garden. Baptisia is in the pea family and you’ll see the resemblance right away in the shape of the leaves. If you leave the flowers to go to seed, they’ll turn into pea-like pods that will dry on the plants and rattle in the breeze. As with Blue Star (Amsonia), Baptisia plants can have a tendency to split open in the middle after flowering. Shearing them back will make them sturdier plants, but you’ll miss the rattles. It’s easier to simply plant them in the middle of other plants that will support them. USDA Zones 2 – 9.

Astilbe hardly need flowers to make them desirable plants. Their lacy foliage and carefree growing habit make them garden classics. The flower plumes start shooting up weeks before the flowers actually open and remain attractive weeks afterward. You can cut them back, if you prefer, or you can just leave them there until they die back on their own. USDA Zones 4 – 8.

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) - The soft gray leaves of Russian Sage make a beautiful statement against pastels and purples of every hue. The brilliant blue flowers seem to sneak up on you, starting as a faint tint, moving through brilliance and fading back to a soft blue. By the time they’ve fully faded, the season is over and you’ve had months to enjoy your Russian Sage. USDA Zones 5 – 9.

Selection and Balance help design a garden, but I believe the key to enjoying your garden is to appreciate it in all it’s stages. The seedheads that are forming now can be left to dry naturally and then harvested for planting next year. For some annuals, you can let them “self sow” in place. (I have petunia’s that have been coming up for years.)

Next time you go out to deadhead, choose a few flower heads that you’ll allow to go to seed. Once they’re nice and dry (green seeds will likely mold) take an envelope with you and place the flower heads in there. Mark what and when you’ve harvested on the outside and set the envelope in a nice cool, dry spot. As the weeks go along, shake the envelope and the seed should separate from the chaff. Some folks package the seeds in plastic and store in the refrigerator, but if you’re using them the next year, there’s no need. I just tack my envelope to a cork board (at this stage of life, I have to keep things simple or I’ll forget what I did ;)

I used to deadheaded all my flowers to prolong the bloom season, but I’m moving into a simpler phase of life. I’m learning to see the beauty of the garden in all its stages. To me, the seed pods and seedheads are just as beautiful as the flowers.

You know the saying: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”

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