Deadheading The Dead Heads

July 26, 2010

It was time for a radical haircut today, as the flowers are drooping, fading and drying out. It is a day to deadhead. You might think deadheading is just whacking everything off, but it’s not. At least, not always.

There are several plants that do get whacked; chives, yarrow and catmint are three that I take down to just a few inches above the ground. I gather the stems in a bouquet and then, using my Fiskars, I cut that bouquet clean off. The remaining stems spring back like a cowlick cut too short and set about regrowing. This is the second cut back for the chives and the first for the yarrow. The yarrow was a mess, falling all over the bed and grass like a drunkard. I’m not sure if the yarrow will come back and set flowers again. I do know that I’m going to try to cut that back before buds set next year, to keep it shorter and therefore have the stems remain upright and sober. Catmint grows like a weed, so I know that will always come back.

The coreopsis is a tricky one. Because it’s a mass of buds and dried blooms right next to each other, we have a choice to make. We can trim dead heads one by one with scissors, a very tedious, exacting and boring task. We can also just whack the dead heads off and hope we don’t snip too many buds in the process. The second method is the one I prefer. I whack, but carefully, only trimming off the last 2-3″ and thereby saving many buds, but losing a few in the process. This technique makes the plant come back a little bushier, a little healthier, a little more prolific.

Balloon flower must be done carefully. The buds and blooms appear up and down a long stem, very close to each other and in no real order. If you whack back, you’ll lose everything. Using scissors, or even a fingernail, each drying bloom has to be snipped individually. Fortunately, these are easy to snap off; all the blooms are in a row. What might be a tedious job is very simple and goes quickly. This must be done often, each morning as you stroll by and each evening as you unwind for the day.

And then there is coneflower. First, we must take a deep breath and come to terms with cutting back all this color and texture and glory. Coneflower really don’t look sad for a long time and their whole dying process is very intriguing to watch. When they are blooming, they reach their petals up to the sun, then out to the sides as the center rounds out. When they are dying back, those petals fold down to the ground and the cone forms, higher and higher bumps the middle of the flower – all the seed heads sticking up and out and prickly. The color just fades to a grey purple, then the petals drop and the cone remains, a treat for goldfinches and other birds.

This year, I was determined to do a cut back as the experts recommend – I never have before, I’ve always just enjoyed their cycle. And then I would pass gardens where the caretaker obviously did cut back, as they had fresh new color while my beds were fading into grey. With scissors in hand, I took each bloom in hand and scanned down along the stem until I saw where that new growth was valiantly making an effort. Sometimes, I took off just that one bloom but often, it was 5 or 6 blooms that were being pruned. Yes, it was difficult, but my anxiety was assuaged by the fact that of those 6 blooms, only one had any real color left. This new growth is not where leaf meets stem in any old place. There has to be a cluster of new leaves at the intersection, the faintest hint of a flower bud, and then we cut.

This whole process changes the garden significantly, for the course of several weeks if not for the remaining of the season. It is bittersweet, as I dread getting rid of the color and the majesty, but I know that when I cut back, it will give us another rush, more glorious, longer-lasting and well worth the sacrifice.

balloon flower before pinch back


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