This is a photograph of a hanging basket of petunias—there are LOTS of these pitiful looking
petunias hanging around in town this year—and I consider this evidence of a crime against petunias. WHERE are the Petunia Police?
I actually offered to cut these blooms back for the owner, so that the plant could regenerate and renew itself, but I was turned down—really! Yes, that was indignation you heard in my tone.
The reason? “There’s still some color on it!” Uh huh. Please—those few remaining blooms are the last gasp of a nearly exhausted annual, and you’re prolonging the agony. And, you’re wasting your plant dollars, because you’re getting the least from the petunias, instead of the most.
The most annoying thing about this is that later, this same person is going to complain that she just can’t seem to keep petunias pretty—that they always disappoint her. Well, she’s disappointing the petunia.
Generalization: Once an annual has bloomed, if it isn’t pinched or cut back, it will think that its job is over and it will begin to send energy to the seeds instead of to the blooms. They can’t help it—that’s what they do. So you, the gardener, can either accept that, and get one burst of bloom from your annuals, OR, you can trick the annual into thinking it’s still time to bloom, so that it will keep blooming. The “trick” is removing the blooms, AND THE SEEDS, after the first bloom begins to fade.
This is not absolutely true about all annuals, but it is very much true of petunias. If you don’t pinch off both the bloom and the little green cap at the base of the bloom, you get scraggly looking plants like the petunia in the basket.
In this photo you can see a few last-minute, top-of-the-stem blooms—further down the stems, you can see dried blooms that are still hanging on, and you can see all the empty seed caps that remain after the blooms fall off. Every one of those faded bloom locations has now received the message that bloom-time is over, so they’re busy setting seed and getting ready to die. This ia a real waste of petunia-power.
If, as the plant bloomed, the fading blooms had been removed as they faded (it only takes a couple of minutes a day, and it can be very Zen!), this plant would look full, healthy, and the blooms would occur all over the plant, instead of at the ends of used up stems. This plant is just sad.
If the plant were cut back hard at this point, it might be able to perform at least one more bloom, but it will take longer than the owner will want to wait, so it probably won’t get done. Instead, it will hang there until it produces its very last, pitiful bloom, and then it will look awful until it’s discarded. It will be discarded, with disgust, because it just didn’t do what the owner wanted—it didn’t bloom over and over again.
Well-groomed petunias will bloom pretty steadily from spring through to frost. That’s true of nearly all well-groomed annuals. If you don’t want to do the grooming, then you’re simply making the term “annual” more literal than is necessary.
Poorly groomed petunias are ugly—they don’t die pretty. They don’t just shrivel up and disappear politely—they look post-nuclear when they languish.
If any of your petunias look like this right now, it’s time for emergency intervention. Cut them all the way back to the green leaves at the base. Water them, and keep them moist, but not wet. Don’t feed them with anything stronger than root stimulator—a week later you can begin feeding them weekly with a water-soluble plant food. Keep them watered, and fed, and pray to the Petunia Gods to forgive you for your sins. Promise to do better, keep the promise, and the petunias will reward you with season-long beauty.
I get a LOT of questions about deadheading. Deadheading is removing spent, or exhausted and used up, blooms from flowering plants. It is most often done on annuals, such as petunias, and to roses.
The most common reason for deadheading is the urge towards tidiness–deadheaded plants simply look better. The more important reason for deadheading is that it can trick the plant into re-blooming, or re-blooming more frequently, or profusely. Done regularly and correctly, deadheading can extend the blooming life of a plant for several months.
Many gardeners deadhead their perennials, such as Shasta daisies and coneflowers, because they look prety ragged once the blooms expire. Some perennials will produce a second bloom after deadheading, but perennials are designed to put their all into their primary bloom, which can last for a couple of weeks. I deadhead perennials just enough to keep them tidy, but I try to let them go to seed naturally, because birds like the seed heads.
Annuals live for a year, or more accurately, one growing season. Left to their own devices, annuals will bloom until they’ve exhausted the bloom cycle, and then they’ll begin to set seeds. Once there are enough seeds on the plant to trigger change, the plants begin to withdraw support from blooming and focus on getting ready to produce a crop of seeds. They can’t help it–it’s what they do. Deadheading allows the gardener to trick the plant into thinking it needs to bloom again, because deadheading remove the seeds that would normally trigger the plant to go into its seed setting cycle. When you deadhead annuals, you get to mess with Mother Nature–you get to intervene in natural processes. How often does THAT happen?!
Most deadheading of annuals is pretty simple–if you remove the faded bloom, you usually remove the source of the seeds. The annual that seems to require the most deadheading is petunias–they really look dreadful when they’ve passed their peak. However, if you simply pull off the faded blooms and don’t also remove the seed cap at the bottom of the bloom, you’re not removing the seeds–you’ll get a tidier plant, but you won’t get a second or third bloom. The little green seed caps must be removed in order to trick a petunia to rebloom.
I learned this the hard way, because as much as I tidied up my petunias, they never seemed to burst back into life like my neighbor’s petunias always did. I thought I wasn’t feeding them enough, or that they were getting too much sun, or that I had a black petunia thumb, and it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone about the correct deadheading technique–I had no idea there was a “technique” with petunias. After years of thinking I simply couldn’t grow petunias, I stumbled onto the “secret” and learned to clip off the cap when I removed the blooms–what a difference!
I made the same mistake when I decided to grow one of those Moonflower plants. The huge white blooms look really nasty when they fade, so I always pulled them off the plants when went out each morning to say hello to the new blooms. Then it occured to me that if I removed the seed cap at the base of the blooms, I could interfere with the plant’s ferocious habit of setting huge, spiky seed balls that could explode and sow Moonflower over every inch of my garden. I started deading the plant with scissors, so that I could cut the bloom and the cap off the stem, and most of the seed pods disappeared. Amazing! Not that the plant was stymied in its effort to become huge and invasive–have you ever tried to dig out a Moonflower? Those roots! Those things are monsters!
Most modern roses are designed to rebloom, so even if you don’t deadhead your roses, you’ll get sporadic re-bloom. However, assiduous deadheading, besides improving the look of the bushes, can hurry reblooming along, and make sure the plant’s energy is directed to blooming rather than setting seed. Modern roses literally beg to be cut, and they reward you for cutting them by producing more blooms.
Old Garden Roses (OGRs), which are all the roses in existence before 1867, do not usually rebloom. They bloom in the spring, and they can show those blooms for up to a month, but after that, they rarely bloom again until the following spring. Deadheading keeps the roses looking tidy, but won’t trigger the urge to re-bloom. Again, they can’t help it–it’s just the way they are.
Next up: So, how DO I deadhead roses?
Hanging baskets of flowering annuals float just below the ceilings of all the greenhouses at work, and they’re constantly changing. Depending on the greenhouse, you can walk through low-hanging clouds of lavender petunias, twining black-eyed-Susan vines in yellow and orange, bright red geraniums, blue mists of lobelia, exotic trailing portulacas, and sprawling purple verbenas. Baskets trailing strawberries and tumbling tomatoes sell so quickly they hardly have time to stop swinging on their hooks before they’re gone. EVERYONE loves hanging baskets.
Me, I’m lukewarm on hanging baskets. For one thing, I’m tall, so I bump into them. All the time. More than that, however, is this–they look better sitting in pots, so the the full gorgeousness of these little gardens is fully visible. I’m not interested in seeing the bottoms of all these flowers as they cascade over the sides of the baskets–I want to see the tops of the flowers, too. I don’t want to have to look up to see my petunias–I want them at eye level, which is often sitting level. So, I take the hangers off the baskets and drop them into planters and pots–instant gardening! They are so much easier to water and deadhead when they’re displayed within reach of hands and hoses.
Just because it has a hanger doesn’t mean you have to hang it. Subvert the dominant paradigm, and put the flowers where you can turn see them as you sip your iced tea and survey your domain!