To cut or not to cut: that is the question

Adventures in Organic Gardening

By Laura Sileo-Lepkyj


EchinaceaI tried an experiment this summer. I wanted to see how much difference it really made deadheading my flowers.

Until this past growing season I had been a dedicated deadheader (not to be confused with a similar-sounding fan of the Grateful Dead).  I’d pop off a few Coreopsis tops on my way to the car, bring the pruners with me to cut off spent Echinacea on my way to gather vegetables, and so on.

I became disenchanted with the process this year when those Coreopsis that had previously responded so well to the treatment gave me practically nothing in return this time around. Was it just this plant, or was deadheading unnecessary?  I decided to let the plants be and see what happens.

Centaurea macrocephalla
Centaurea macrocephalla (Image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder)

Here is what I found.

Echinacea (see top photo) was noticeably less floriferous when I left it un-deadheaded than in years past when I religiously removed spent blooms. However, I was treated to frequent visits by two pairs of goldfinches. The goldfinch families also frequented the Centaurea macrocephala seed heads that I left alone for the first time.

After my “Alaska” Shasta daisies bloomed, I let them sit for about a month before I cut them back to their basal foliage (which remains evergreen). This kind of Shasta daisy will not rebloom; I cut them back because the stalks were long and very dead-looking by that time and needed to be tidied up.  About a month afterward, I noticed a few small seedlings a few feet away where there had previously been a rather bare patch.  I now have about half a dozen new daisy plants.

Gardens can start looking a bit brown around now, and you may want to cut some plants back to make your garden look better. My herbaceous peonies are awful-looking now, and I cut them back. However, before they turned brown they were covered with powdery mildew. This is one of the few times that I throw away the clippings instead of spreading them in the garden—you don’t want to spread disease. Other brown items, like the Shasta daisies, can safely be spread.

coreopsis
Coreopsis

For the winter, I  have always left most plants uncut. Not once has my garden ever been “smothered” by its own leaves sitting on the crown over winter.  The leaves naturally decompose and add nutrients back into the soil right around the plant where it is needed most.  When the snow has melted in the springtime, I pick up and throw out or compost the slimy leaves so that the wetness is reduced and less likely to cause rotting.

To answer the question: should you deadhead or cut plants? It depends on what you want to accomplish in your garden.

  • If you want more blooms, yes, you should deadhead.
  • If you want more plants, leave the seedheads on for at least a month to naturally disperse nearby in the garden.  Babies will soon follow.
  • If you enjoy birds, no, you shouldn’t deadhead.
  • For the winter, it’s generally not necessary to cut back plants, and leaving the stalks gives you something to look at when your garden is covered with its white, fluffy blanket.  I save most cleanup for spring.

8 Comments on “To cut or not to cut: that is the question

  1. Very interesting experiment, Laura! Deadheading is one of my least favorite chores so it’s nice to have a feasible excuse to avoid it. I love goldfinches.

  2. I do deadheading of those flowers I don’t want to go to seed, or if I know they will reward me with a rebloom — like my gaillarda. I also leave the stalks up over the winter (but remove most of the leaves), so I know where not to tread on new growth come spring and remind me if something doesn’t show up.
    My goldfinches love to eat the cosmos seed heads, so I leave them up until April, and I am rewarded with many new cosmos next year.

  3. Kirsten,
    Thanks so much for joining the conversation! Those are helpful points. I, too, find that leaving stalks over the winter help remind me what I planted, especially when the bunnies trample my markers.

  4. I am so busy weeding, I never seem to have the time to deadhead, so whatever happens with the plants is what I have. And, the garden usually looks pretty good. It’s always full of birds too!

  5. Eileen,
    There are many ways to manage a garden, and many ways to enjoy a garden, too! Thanks so much for joining the discussion.

  6. I cut back part of the tall perennials in late spring (ie obedient plant, phlox, joe pye weed, coreopsis) so I get a longer period of bloom even if I don’t get to deadhead everything. I have used hedge clippers & deadheaded an entire plant when I’m really lazy & still gotten rebloom. I don’t like the look of a garden in winter when everything is cut down so I only take out really ugly or diseased plants. However if you leave common rudbeckia up it will overtake aaaa garden! Small leaves are left to compost.

  7. Marlene,
    Thanks for your suggestions.

    I’m going to try cutting back my phlox to get it to rebloom.

    I do leave my rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), but I know lots of people who want plants, so my extras have always found homes in the spring. (So far, anyway!)

    Thanks for sharing your tips!

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