Pinching, Deadheading, and Cutting Back in Your Garden

Pruning Techniques to Keep Your Flower Garden Tidy

gardener deadheading flowers

The Spruce / Kara Riley

Planting a garden is only half the battle because all plants require maintenance from the day they're planted. Maintenance is the heart of gardening: watering, feeding, weeding, and keeping plants tidy are the keys to a beautiful flower garden.

With a little regular pinching, deadheading, and pruning, your flower garden will be healthy and lush and with prolonged bloom cycles throughout the season. Another bonus of regular maintenance is that the more time you spend up close to your plants, the more likely you are to notice problems while there's still time to correct them. Learn how to prune flowers the right way to keep your garden thriving all season long.

Deadheading Buds

Most flowers benefit from having their dead (also known as faded or spent) flowers removed. Plants that repeat-bloom will often do so only if their old, dying flowers are removed. If the dead flowers remain on the plant, they will start to produce seeds, and the plant will stop producing flowers. Depending on your plants, you might need to remove blooms or stems once or several times during a growing season.

Tip

There are several different techniques for deadheading a flowering plant. A good pair of garden pruners will make a nice, clean cut, but in some cases, a pinch from your fingers, right where the bud meets the stem, can do a better job.

Even plants that bloom only once per season often benefit from deadheading. Once deadheaded, the plant puts its energy into strengthening itself instead of producing seed. Some exceptions to this rule are plants like astilbe or ornamental grasses that bloom only once but continue to look attractive with their drying seedheads.

Some plants, such as Centaurea montana (commonly known as cornflower or bachelor's buttons) benefit from having just their spent buds removed. Centaurea montana will set more buds along the stem, so the entire flowering stem is not removed until all the buds have bloomed and faded.

gardener deadheading a flower

The Spruce / Kara Riley

Deadheading Stems

When each flower is on its own stem, such as with scabiosa (pincushion flower), it is best to remove the entire flowering stem rather than leaving a gangly, headless stem attached to the plant. Cut off the stem at the base of the plant.

Pinching

Some plants have very crisp, thin stems and you can use your fingers to deadhead them. This type of deadheading is called pinching, and it's much like deadheading. Some plants that can be pinched include marigolds, basil, and coleus. Coleus plants are grown for their foliage, not their flowers. Pinching off the flowers encourages the plants to become bushy and full. Continually pinching and harvesting your basil will coax it into becoming bushy, with more leaves.

Many fall-blooming perennial flowers are pinched early in the season to prevent the plants from becoming tall and floppy and to induce more flower buds. Pinching plants like mums and asters will also move their bloom time a few weeks later than normal, giving you flowers in late September (when the rest of your garden is dying down) rather than in late summer. To pinch a fall bloomer, take these easy steps:

  1. Start by removing up to one-third of the plant when it reaches about 6 inches tall.
  2. Repeat this process every two to three weeks until the very beginning of July.
  3. Then, let the plant grow and set its flower buds.
pinching off flowers

The Spruce / Kara Riley

Pinching vs. Shearing

Sometimes deadheading with shears or scissors makes more sense than pinching. For example, threadleaf coreopsis is suitable for deadheading by pinching, but the large number of faded blooms and close proximity to one another on the stem can make pinching coreopsis very labor-intensive. With plants like this, wait until the majority of the buds have bloomed and then shear the entire plant by one-half to two-thirds. It won't take long for the plant to regrow and set more buds.

Some plants are good candidates for shearing even though they don't have a vast number of flowers. Plants like catmint and perennial geraniums tend to bloom all at once and then decline. Shearing catmint back to a few inches encourages the plant to set out new growth and new buds.

Foliage Dieback

Some early bloomers start to look tired by the middle of summer. Their older leaves, toward the outside of the plant, begin drooping and look worn. Others begin to look leggy. A good example is impatiens which can be lush in the late spring and through much of the summer but develops into unattractive spindles by late summer. Shearing helps impatiens, but try pinching or deadheading a plant suffering from foliage dieback, as well.

Basal Growth

If you look closely at the early bloomers that have started to droop, you will probably see new growth at the base of the plant. This is called basal growth and it's a signal that the plant is ready to rejuvenate itself. This happens with hardy geranium as well as shasta daisy.

Basal leaf
Harry Rose / Flickr / CC By 2.0

Pruning

Pruning can rejuvenate a plant. When a plant's older leaves start to look worn, you should prune the foliage back either to where there is still fresh growth or all the way back to new basal growth, if there is any. Many new gardeners can't bear the idea of cutting back an entire plant, but this is tough love, and your plants will thank you.

Cutting Back to Shape Plants

Finally, there is a type of cutting back that has nothing to do with removing old flowers or leaves. Some plants, especially fall bloomers, will grow tall and gangly and not be able to support themselves.

For example, New England asters often grow tall without filling out. Once these plants set flowers they will topple over. To encourage the plants to become sturdy, take the following simple steps:

  1. Cut the plant back by one-third once it has reached about 6 to 8 inches in height. This will encourage the plant to produce more stems.
  2. Let the plant grow for about a month.
  3. Then cut it back by one-third again, which will create a full, well-branched plant with multiple blooms.

The flowers might bloom a bit later than if you had not cut back the plant, but blooms will be more plentiful.

FAQ
  • Do all flowers need pruning?

    Not all flowers need pruning. If a plant is considered "self-cleaning," it will offer continuous blooms even if the spent ones are not removed. Examples include million bells, vinca, and sedum.

  • When should you prune flowers?

    You can begin pruning, deadheading, pinching, or shearing after the first full display of flowers and when you see faded blooms.

  • How do you prune potted flowers?

    Pruning houseplants and potted flowers are usually necessary, too, typically to keep them neat and presentable. Remove dead matter from houseplants and prune potted flowers after their blooms fade.