This spring I decided to be a better deadheader. Now it’s summer and all the tough, self-sufficient plants that do so well on my dry soil are in bloom. The garden is full of colour and buzzing bees busy pollinating. Before you can say “Go forth and multiply,” there will be seeds.
Many of those tough, self-sufficient plants are prolific seeders. They share this quality with weeds; in fact, some wouldn’t hesitate to call plants such as toadflax (Linaria), lamb’s ears (Stachys) and campion (Lychnis) weeds and treat them accordingly.
For me it’s too late. I welcomed these and others of their type into my dry garden with open arms and discovered their seedy tendencies by experience. Since about mid-June I have made weekly rounds of my garden, secateurs in hand, snipping and clipping any blooms that are past their best, before the seeds can ripen and scatter.
Many years I wasn’t persistent enough. Seeds develop with astonishing speed, and in late August or September I would find myself creeping up to certain plants and shaking the stalks gently to hear if they rattled (which they inevitably did), then trying to cut and trap them in a bucket before they showered seeds all over. Almost always the snip of the blades was followed by the peppering sound of seeds bouncing off neighbouring foliage as they fell earthward. At this point I would tell myself that a certain amount of seeding is necessary for continuity, and that the seedlings won’t be that hard to remove next spring. Not strictly true, which is why this year I resolve to keep up with deadheading.
Deadheading need not be viewed as a tedious chore. There is another aspect to it. Think of it as perennial pruning. There is a whole book about this — The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. The author discusses different techniques for removing spent blooms from plants, or cutting plants back to delay bloom and reduce size for better appearance. The book includes many before and after photos illustrating the techniques, as well as a plant-by-plant section.
It’s all a matter of attitude — think of shaping and managing your plants throughout their season, rather than frantically trying to keep up with their fiendish seed-producing tendencies. Think of deadheading as sculpture rather than housecleaning. Consider that removing the first flush of blooms often leads to another round of bloom rather than seediness.
Be brutal. Don’t fuss with snipping off individual dead flowers, even though that may be optimal for some plants, Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia, to name two. But if you have a lot of plants, trying to do it right soon means you won’t do it at all. Once most of the blooms on a stalk are past their best, cut off the whole thing. The tough plants will cheerfully send up new bloom stalks, and if they don’t at least you will avoid excessive seeding. You can experiment, in the spirit of Ms. DiSabato-Aust. Do the flower-by-flower thing on one plant and the crude but effective cut-the-whole-stalk treatment on others, leaving a few alone as a control. That’s the beauty of these slightly weedy plants — having so many, you can treat them harshly without fear of losing them.