Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Deadheads in the Garden (Not What You Think)






            So there I am, squatting in the front garden dead-heading asters.
            This act was a direct response to an issue raised by my sister, Gwen Eichorn, who gardens at her home near Syracuse. We have been discussing such issues by email. Deadheading plants -- removing the spent blossoms in order to stimulate the production of new blossoms -- is something to ponder before leaping into it because it's a time-intensive activity.        
            The value of this activity from the point of view of a time cost/benefit analysis has got to be a persistent issue for the army of backyard gardeners, us amateurs, that is, who don't go around snipping off spent pansies at professionally maintained mansions, corporate headquarters and civic showplaces for a living. Frankly on the macro level it sounds like a recipe for repetitive stress syndrome. Snip, snip, snip. I've snipped a hundred or more faded blossoms (the old word for this was 'blown') from a single coreopsis heliopsis, a perennial that looks great in its gold-topped fully crown moment in the sun of July, but then grows dark. The scores of unopened buds just millimeters behind the faded blossoms proved an irresistible temptation.
            My diligence met with minor success. Maybe one new blossom for every 15 to 20 faded blossoms I decapitate. This year I volunteered our daughter Sonya for that job on her 'vacation.' Happily, she volunteers herself for time-consuming landscaping tasks whenever she visits during the growing season.   
            Despite the low rate of return, deadheading a coreopsis produces some satisfaction. With some other plants, like the pale pink anemones just finishing up, my attempts to stimulate color by removing the old blooms have failed to make an appreciable
produced anything at all. I'm betting the technique works better with annuals -- pansies, petunias, marigolds -- than it does with perennials.
            Almost everyone believes that it should work. I deadhead our Shasta daisies because the blossoms are so large and white and generally happy looking -- and besides, another gardener pointed out that I should be doing it -- and because you can see the next round of fat little button-shaped nubs coming up. Alas, very few of this palpable second round ever do blossom. And then they usually prove smaller and kind of half-baked looking. More 'perfect' conditions for this flower's flourishing probably yield better results from deadheading, as they do for almost all other aspects of the plant growth. The results of my dead-heading may be limited by the fact that very few of my plantings (i.e. almost none) enjoy "full sun."
            This year, caught up in drought-patrol, I never got around to deadheading the daisies. I did recently deadhead our hardy mums -- and the perennial version called 'garden mums' (third and fourth photos down). So far no results from a second generation of buds on those plants where the first the blooms are already gone.
            Asters, however, are an interesting case. I have various perennial asters, only one of them really flourishing (top photo), but some of the others producing a good burst of color for about two weeks. But I can't remember if I attempted systematic dead-heading before. Examining the plants closely, it appears that potential buds, if not actual blossoms, are forming almost everywhere you look.
            So this year I decided to make the experiment. I attacked a plant with striking red blossoms (second photo down), trimming carefully so as not to destroy any new baby-buds willing to give open-air exposure a shot. I'm not sure any of these ever intended to do anything more than pretend. We'll see.
            And then I attacked a blue, standard-color perennial aster, all of whose bright flowers have quietly blinked out in the last couple of days as if somebody threw the 'off' switch. On inspection, sure enough, many, many possible-buds -- very small, nearly countless -- lying up close, right behind the blown blossoms, even though the lower parts of this plant appear to be drying out. I dead-headed about half of these stems. Just in case I get any result, I have a clear basis for comparison between the dead-headed stems and those that were not dead-headed.
            The final lesson for me is that although I consider this aster plant to be a very modest specimen, far short of large and lush, when I concentrated on removing every single faded blossom from the chosen branches there proved to be scores and scores and scores of them. It takes more flowers than you think to make that true, blue impression.
            So another unanticipated insight from this experience: so much more is going on in every flowering plant than meets the casual glance.