C’mon — work with me! Either that title got your attention or made you scratch your head, depending on your generation, interest or knowledge of pop culture.
Jerry Garcia, of course, was the iconic founder and leader of the Grateful Dead. Where they got the name for the band is still debated, but those that followed the band around the country, or were hardcore fans, were dubbed “deadheads.”
Before I ever heard of Jerry Garcia, or the Grateful Dead, I had heard the term deadheading. It is a trucker’s term, meaning to drive an empty trailer with no return load. The term is also found in commercial aviation. When an active crew is being relocated to another location to operate an aircraft out of another airport, they are said to be “deadheading.” They are being paid, but ride as passengers to get to their assigned flight.
By now, you’ve gotten my Jerry Garcia connection to us gardeners and the practice of deadheading. Deadheading is the removal of “spent” flowers on flowering plants, both to improve visual appeal, and for many kinds of plants, to stimulate growth of new blooms. Removal of blooms can also be used to slow down the naturalization, or spread of a particular variety of plant.
Depending on the plant, past-their-prime flowers can be removed with scissors, pruners, or even your thumb and forefinger. Some flowers readily pop off, others not so much! Old flowers make a great contribution to the compost pile and can add quite a bit of biomass to your garden plot over time.
Deadheading can have the added benefit of stimulating additional blooming in many plants, but not all. Some flowers, plants and shrubs have a determined amount of blooms set in the early spring, and no amount of removal of old blooms will create new ones.
A good example of this is varieties of hibiscus. Rose of Sharon is a woody variety of hibiscus that produces a prolific amount of flower buds earlier in the season and brings them to bloom over several weeks. Removal of the old blooms will certainly improve the look of the plant, but it won’t give you more blooms. I’ve observed the same thing with the clematis plants we have. They are prolific bloomers, but you don’t get more blooms by deadheading — just a more attractive display.
However, there are many annual plants that will respond quite positively to removal of spent flowers. To understand why, we need to understand the “viewpoint” of the plant. Its goal is to create the next generation. Given a long enough season, it would do that through blooming, pollination, and creation of seed that can sprout the next season. If flowers are taken off regularly, hormone signals are not generated to tell the plant that it has done its job of creating offspring. So, it continues to bloom until it no longer has the resources to do so, or the frost kills it.
There is more to getting a great display of bloom color than just deadheading, as important as it is. The plant also needs the right nutrition, moisture and soil temperature.
To get good bloom, the plant needs adequate phosphorus, and support from potassium as well. These are represented by the second and third numbers on fertilizer packaging. The first number, nitrogen, is not nearly as important for bloom stimulation as the other two. In fact, a blooming plant that is overfed with nitrogen will produce a significant amount of leaf growth, but very little flowers. A good example of this is when a veggie gardener overfeeds tomato plants with nitrogen and gets very large and green tomato plants, but very few blooms and tomatoes. That’s great if you want ornamental tomato plants, but I suspect most of us value the tomatoes more than a display of foliage.
Growing a lot of flowers is hard work for annual plants that are going to live less than a year. So beyond the proper nutrition, they also need adequate moisture. If the plants are in beds, this can be accomplished with good drip irrigation, and moisture retention with mulching. However, many ornamentals are planted in pots.
Containers, as beautiful and versatile as they are, present some challenges that need to be addressed if we are to get a great display of blooms. First, moisture needs to be maintained. This can be done with drip, or consistent moderate watering, and assuring there is adequate soil mass to hold an adequate amount of water at a time.
Polymer crystals can also be added to the growing mix to hold moisture in the pot and make water available to the plant longer. These crystals absorb water readily and grow many times their size when dry. They slowly release the moisture, minimizing the wet-dry swings in the pot while providing a more consistent environment for your plants.
A common mistake is to overwater potted plants, especially when they tend to droop in a sunny spot. The problem can actually be a combination of several things, including a container that is too small, leached out nutrients from repeated watering, or significant heating of the root mass. Heating can happen due to an undersized pot, dark-colored container, or a plastic container that does not allow water to evaporate and cool the root and soil mass.
While many plants strongly benefit from getting good sun exposure, too much sun, along with accompanying heat, stress the plant and make it difficult to survive, much less put on a great display of blooms. While you can walk away and find shade when you get too much sun, your plants are entirely dependent on you to plan ahead.
You can greatly increase the comfort of your plants, and your success as a flower gardener by planting in terra cotta pots that allow moisture to evaporate, and keeping them moderately watered ongoing. Group your pots in such a way to shade the pots to keep them cooler. Avoid having dark pots sitting in direct sunlight for the majority of the day, unless they are quite sizable. The dark color will allow for quite a bit of solar gain, significantly increasing the temperature of the root mass.
To keep your potted plants nourished, plan on fertilizing moderately ongoing during the growing season. This is because they are in a limited amount of soil, with moisture being rinsed through it ongoing. You can also use delayed release formulations so that feeding occurs over a longer time. Osmocote is a national brand that is well known for offering this type of formulation.
Using these tips and approaches will give you improved results with blooming plants, whether they are annuals or perennials. May this growing season be a great one for you!
Be sure to attend the upcoming Garden Tour on Saturday, June 11, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. This is the 18th annual Tour, and it’s better than ever! The Tour features 11 great locations located in Tooele, Erda, Lake Point, Stansbury Park, and Grantsville. This year’s event is expanding to Friday night’s Garden Tour Summer Blast, a free community event on June 10, from 6-9 p.m. at the historic Benson Gristmill. This free event features pony rides, petting zoo, food trucks, a wide variety of vendors, fire trucks, patrol units from the Utah Highway Patrol and Tooele County Sheriff’s Department, BLM Hotshot Unit, Master Gardener Store, and a classic Cruzin’ 435 car show! Visit www.annualgardentour.info for more information. I’ll see you there.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.