The Art of Good Grooming

Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

In my imagination, I like to think that plants want to look as though they come from a nice family. I tell myself this during the months of July and August when I spend my gardening time trying to make the plants look more presentable. Deadheading is the name of the game.

Plants have one aim in life, other than surviving: They madly want to procreate, some plants more than others. And, this is precisely what my constant deadheading tries to prevent.

Now, I grow several plants that demand constant deadheading, if they are to look presentable. A dead daylily flower is really rather dreadful looking in its profoundly droopy state. I’ve never known anyone to drool over a dead rose bloom. An empty crinum stalk does not add any appeal to the plant’s appearance – and, after all, don’t we mainly garden for the sake of appearance?

I also have a tendency to anthropomorphize several of my ostentatious plants, something that I realize is a rather silly exercise. With certain species, such as cannas and the hybrid hellebores, I sometimes think they want to live in what amounts to a plant tenement.

In one area by my driveway, one that deer periodically overrun, I have let the hellebores do their own thing. This area has passed the tenement definition, sliding into what amounts is a hellebore slum. This area is deer-proof, in that the deer avoid it even when hungry but it is also rather unattractive. It’s an area I show off to all potential gardeners who visualize a sea of low-growing hellebores, explaining that this is not the result they desire.

Plants have several ways of exercising their need to multiply their numbers. Rhizomes and stolons creep along, anxious to fill in any area, whether already occupied or not. Because stolons and rhizomes reside so close to the soil’s surface, these plants are generally easy to remove and contain.

However, when it comes to seeds, it’s an entirely different matter. Remember, that some seedheads (daylilies) are rather unattractive, whereas others definitely add to the garden interest (cannas). You must ask yourself this: “Do I want more plants?” Initially, the answer will probably be “yes,” until that time arrives (usually with a bang) when you begin to mutter, “Enough! Stop.”

And, it is for this reason that we must deadhead.

To our eyes, plants look a lot better when we take off the dead blooms. Dahlias produce beautiful flowers but a dead dahlia offers little enhancement. Dead daylily flowers are caught in a sloppy miasma, one that detracts from the attractiveness of the other blooms. The resulting seedhead adds very little to the physical appearance of the mother plant. The only thing nice about a dead rose is that some varieties produce the fruits called “rose hips” that add a slight winter interest to the garden.

Roses require a lot of deadheading when they are in bloom, primarily during the months of April, May, and June. With a few exceptions, they will go dormant during the hot months of July and August, only to resurface in September when the nights begin to cool down. If you are a fan of rose hips, by all means, stop deadheading in the fall, allowing the flower to blossom into fruit. Just remember that not all of our roses produce hips.

If you dream of producing a spectacular daylily naturally, rest assured that what nature considers special and what we deem to be distinctive are usually entirely different results. All mine resulting from seed, regardless of the color of the mother plant, have produced common yellow flowers. An easier way of getting more daylilies is to choose one you like, dividing it when it gets large enough to do so.

Cannas produce seeds that run true, but a garden can only incorporate so many cannas. The annual, cleome, will produce many seeds that remain viable despite freezing winter temperatures. If you like the aroma and the tiny spikes that can add discomfort when pulling them out, by all means, let them spread. I finally had to wear thick rose gloves to get rid of my batch as I’m a fan neither of their aroma nor of their spikes.

Plants do profit from deadheading as many will produce more flowers in an attempt to produce seeds. We take pleasure from reblooming plants, whether they are roses or dahlias – just realize that the plant isn’t doing this to please us; it has procreation firmly on its mind.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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