One of the most common practices that gardeners do is to deadhead their flowers. While deadheading flowers keeps flowerbeds looking their best and adds to curb appeal, it also has some drawbacks. In this article we are going to examine the pros and cons of deadheading flowers.
Historically it has been common practice for gardeners all over the world to deadhead their flowers as the blooms begin to fade. And this common practice can make ornamental gardens showier for longer, or just keeping the appearance a bit more tidy, it will often come at the expense of your local wildlife.
But if you are starting to grow more native plants to benefit your local ecosystem, you should consider letting the blooms fade and produce seed. You will likely discover that your plants can provide new garden interest after seed heads form, and that interest may last well into Winter.
What is deadheading?
Deadheading is when you remove blooms as they begin to fade or look less pleasing by snipping off spent flowerheads. This process will often stimulate new flowers to form and keep a plant looking very showy. You simply clip off a spent flowerhead, snipping the stalk just above the next junction of leaves.
And for some species, it can have great effect at stimulating an entire round of blooming (coreopsis) or keeping a plant blooming until Fall (Echinacea purpurea). But, as we will discuss, this can come at the expense of local birds and other wildlife.
Deadheading versus the Chelsea Chop
Not to confuse anyone, deadheading is the process of removing flowerheads that are declining in appearance, while the Chelsea Chop is the act of cutting a plant back by 1/3-1/2 it’s height before it begins flowering. Deadheading is performed throughout the blooming period of a flower, while the Chelsea Chop is performed only once early in the growing season.
If you would like to learn more on the Chelsea Chop, see our detailed guide here.
Pros and cons of deadheading
Deadheading promotes more flowering
The biggest and main reason for deadheading flowers is to promote more flowering. When a flowerhead begins to fade it is starting to use it’s energy for seed production. Removing the spent flowerhead will transfer this energy from seed production to making more flowers and roots. 
The end result is that your plant produces blooms for longer. If you have a formal flowerbed in front of your house, this obviously will improve the aesthetics.
When a plant changes from blooming to making seed it generally isn’t as attractive. Wilted flower petals drooping down just don’t look as nice as full blooms basking in the sun. Deadheading these flowerheads will give a nicer, tidier appearance.
A relaxing chore
The act of dead-heading your flowers means you will need to spend a bit of time up-close with your plants. And the more time you spend in your garden, the more relaxed you generally will be! Carefully examining and trimming up your plant can be very therapeutic.
Improved curb appeal
The longer one can keep their perennials and annuals blooming, the more curb appeal the home will have when viewed from the street. Thus, deadheading perennials such as Lanceleaf Coreopsis or Purple Coneflower will keep your yard looking great.
Probably one of the biggest reasons to deadhead, or the biggest depending on what kind of flowers you are growing is to prevent self-seeding. Some perennials and annuals are prolific self-seeders!
Asters such as New England Aster or Flat-top Aster seem to have their seed germinate at 120%! Columbine is also a prolific self-seeding perennial, and deadheading these before seed heads have finished can reduce the number of unwanted plants you pull in the Spring.
The single biggest reason to not deadhead native flowers is so that birds have a source of food throughout Winter. Seedheads that remain up will provide food and nourishment to numerous species of birds.
Now, some seed is more preferred than others, so not all seed heads will be eaten at the same time of year. For instance, Coreopsis, Liatris, and most definitely Sunflower seeds are eaten as soon as they are available.
But other species such as Bee Balm and Bergamot will have their seed eaten later as the season progresses. You can see this too in berries from natives plants. Some berries are eaten as soon as they are ripe such as Blueberries, Pokeweed Berries, and Serviceberry fruit. But others like Winterberry may persist until late Winter/ early Spring as the taste is quite bitter – but it still will be an available food source none the less.
Let the plant spread
Spreading by seed is one of the primary ways that any plant reproduces itself. And birds are often an integral component of that process! When birds consume the seeds of native grasses and flowers, some of the seed will be deposited further afield, and thus germinate.
This beautiful perennial Sawtooth Sunflower, (Helianthis grosseratus) showed up completely on it’s own one year. I actually had several show up, and had never seen them before. Birds most likely spread the seed.
I’ve had volunteer Echinacea plants germinate and grow where no seed could travel on it’s own. So how did they get there? The birds of course!
This is one of the primary reasons you see Eastern Red Cedar trees along fences of abandoned fields! Cedar Waxwing birds eat the seeds, fly over to perch on a fence post, and poop out the seed. And in regards to the Eastern Red Cedar, the stomach acid from the bird thins the seed coat allowing germination in the Spring!
Provide birds a place to perch
One of the primary ways birds find food is to perch on elevated positions and observe their surroundings, which not only gives them a height advantage but can also provide a degree of safety. Leaving seed heads up on the tops of stalks can help them by providing more places for them to perch and spot the next seed or bit of food.
The second round of blooming often isn’t as showy
While there are many plants that can provide a seemingly endless supply of blooms and look showy when proper deadheading is done, there are many native perennials that don’t have as much benefit. Deadheading Lobelia, or Liatris species can seem like a good idea, but the second round of blooms is often disappointing. In most cases it will result in fewer or less showy blooms. And, the act of deadheading will be removing the seed heads from the initial, showy bloom. Thus the net result is fewer seeds and places to perch for the birds.
List of plants that benefit from deadheading
- Beebalm (Monarda didyma)
- Bellflower (Campanula)
- Perennial Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)
- Blanket Flower (Gaillardia)
- Coreopsis (C. lanceolata & C. grandiflora)
- Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)
- Larkspur (Delphinium)
- Primrose (Oenothera)
- Western Coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis)
- Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
List of plants that shouldn’t be deadheaded
Deadheading flowers is an excellent way to prolong and maintain the showiness of many garden perennials. And while there are several aesthetic benefits depending on the flower type, there are a number of reasons why one should consider leaving the spent flowers up so that seed heads can form.
In my own formal flowerheads I will remove seed heads from species that are notorious self-seeders unless the seed from that species is heavily eaten by birds. Now, this isn’t a hard rule, but a guideline I use. So I will deadhead Columbine and Asters, but leave seed-heads from all Black-Eyed Susans, Echinacea, sunflowers, and Coreopsis (for example).
What you decide to do in your own garden will depend on the species mix you have, time available, and gardening goals. But I hope I have clarified some points to consider before you go out and cut off every spent flowerhead!
 – Loram, Alison, et al. “Urban domestic gardens: the effects of human interventions on garden composition.” Environmental Management 48 (2011): 808-824.
 – Relf, Diane, and Elizabeth Carter Ball. “Flowering Bulbs: Culture and Maintenance.” (2009).
 – Holloway, Patricia S., et al. “Annual Flower Plant Evaluations 2006.” (2007).
 – Kratsch, Heidi. “Flowers at the Border.“, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. 2014
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