The Great Dead-Head Debate

No, I’m not giving tips about something gory in preparation for Halloween, today I am heading out into the garden and getting it ready for winter! In this case, ‘deadheading’ is the gardening term used for the removal of faded or dead flowers from plants.

The Great Dead-Head Debate - The Hills Countryside Blog

As the summer sun fades and the ground becomes cool and damp, our favourite blooms have started to wilt. For many of us keen gardeners, this is the ideal time to remove the dead flowers from their stems, as for many years we have been told that deadheading diverts the plant’s energy from producing seed pods, into more flowers for now or next season. If you’re like most gardeners, (I actually enjoy it) deadheading may feel like a tedious, never-ending garden chore, but the new blooms spawned from this task can make the extra effort well worth it (Gardening Know-How).

The Telegraph’s resident green-thumbed editor Bunny Guinness tells us that ‘Deadheading is a smart piece of trickery: you are fooling your plants into believing they are still youthful. As soon as they are allowed to set seed, chemical messages are sent back telling flower production to stop. Stop them doing this, and they will continue to look beautiful. Flowers such as dahlias, cosmos, roses, abutilons, galega, pelargoniums, knautias, and many more will repay huge dividends for a quick snip.’

However, she raises an important point, one with which my favourite garden writer Monty Don agrees - that there are many plants which don’t need deadheading and will in fact provide a bountiful glut for wildlife in your garden over the winter and spring months. She says; ‘I do believe that some flowers should be left as they are, however. I let seeds form from the last flowers on my buddleia to ensure smaller birds have some tasty food, likewise on my sunflowers. I love the look of them as the pungent yellow changes to a sludgy brown, framed by contrasting bright green sepals. Others such as cornflowers and rudbeckias are left attached for handy bird snacks, too.’

When flowers produce seeds or fruits, they can attract wild birds, insects and other creatures to your garden, which when most of our foliage is otherwise dying back, can be a feast for those preparing for winter or hibernation. If you want wild birds, let the flowers go to seed; they enjoy perching on Echinacea (coneflowers) and snacking on the seed heads, and plants like Rudbeckia are great for attracting goldfinches with their seeds. This is crucial food for them in the winter.

Whilst wildlife is just one argument for leaving your garden ‘au naturel’, there are many more reasons, including next year’s hard work (or lack thereof). Some flowers can self-seed, meaning that their seeds will drop down to the potting soil below and sprout new plants without any work from the gardener! If you aren’t precious about your borders, leaving the blooms to seed may ease your efforts the following year and surprise you with new plants filling in the gaps spontaneously.

In many gardens, no deadheading guidelines apply in the autumn, and many gardeners feel that plants have very decorative seed pods and present a beautiful display in the garden during the winter. Examples include alliums; love-in-a-mist (Nigella), stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) and bladder cherry (Physalis alkekengi).

Finally, thankfully some obliging plants simply do not need deadheading and I make sure there is a good mix all types at home. Typically fuchsias, bedding lobelia and salvias either don't set much seed or neatly deadhead themselves - which saves me a job at least!

Making a decision about deadheading can be difficult because it is advantageous for some plants and detrimental for others. You may choose to deadhead some flower species every day in midsummer, while leaving other plants alone. It’s entirely up to you. Your garden is exactly that – your garden. Enjoy it the way you want!

Are you a keen gardener? Are you carting your handy trug and secateurs around with you, or are you letting nature take its course?


Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.