There seems to be an almost universal fear of pruning that inhibits people from attending to two of the most basic maintenance tasks in the garden: cutting back and deadheading. I understand – after you’ve spent considerable time and money on your plants, the last thing you want to do is make a cut in the wrong place (or at the wrong time). So it feels safer to just leave well enough alone. Unfortunately, this often results in a garden that is a tangle of overgrown, leggy plants with sparse blooms on too-tall stalks. Pruning perennials is not only an easy – and dare I say even pleasant? – chore, it is essential for prolonging bloom times, reducing the need for staking and creating plants with a fuller, more attractive shape.

Of course, as with most gardening chores, you need to do your homework and understand both how and when to prune your particular plants so that you achieve successful results. Here are some tips on how to deadhead in the garden (I’ll cover cutting back in a future post):

Deadheading is the removal of spent or dead flowers, and  there are several reasons to do it. For some plants, it encourages continued blooming.

It can  improve the appearance of other plants (like peonies and ladies mantle) that are finished flowering for the season  but whose foliage remains.

How to deadhead? On plants with individual stems, like coneflower and sage, simply cut the plant down to the next bud or flower (if you do not see a flower, cut down to the next set of leaves).

For shrubbier plants with many small flowers such as nepeta and coreopsis, it’s quicker and easier to just  cut the entire plant back by one half to two thirds with hedge shears after the initial blooming is finished. These plants will look somewhat raggedy and forlorn for a week or two but you will soon see fresh new growth emerging, and another round of blooms to follow.

Again, knowing which plants will respond best to this procedure will yield the most successful results. There are many plants, such as allium, astilbe and ornamental grasses, that need not be deadheaded as they will not produce more blooms. The seed heads of these plants often provide interest in the garden even after blooming is finished and can provide a valuable food source for birds during the winter months.

After deadheading it is important to water regularly, as your plants will be more stressed than usual.

For some more examples of deadheading, click here. Meanwhile, sharpen those pruners, get out into the garden and start cutting! Your plants will thank you, I promise!



  1. Kathy Melody on July 22, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Your coconut lime echinacea plants are beautiful. Not mine. The foliage as well as the flower heads are turning brown. Is that common? I’ve deadheaded the blossoms, but I don’t understand why the foliage is brown as well. Too much water? Not enough water? Hard to tell as the foliage is always drooping downward, not full and uplifted like yours. Do you have any suggestions?

    • sheri silver on July 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm

      How long have they been in for? Mine are in their 3rd season and looking their best ever. I’ve found that these new strains of Echinacea are irresistable for their colors but very finicky. The stems are week and they seem to take a while to settle in. Also, where do you garden? I’m in New York where we are in the midst of a long heatwave. That may be a contributing factor. Finally, I have a drip irrigation system that I can tell you is one of the best investments I ever made. Let me know, and thanks so much for writing!

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