You may have heard the terms deadhead, pinch back, disbud or candle. These four simple methods of pruning are performed to produce a better-looking plant.
Deadheading is the process of removing flowers after they have bloomed and faded. This redirects the plant's energy away from producing seeds and into forming more new blossoms. Deadheading also keeps a plant healthier, especially during dry spells, and improves the overall appearance of the garden.
Most annuals and perennials could use regular deadheading. Fading blossoms from bulbs need to be deadheaded to keep the bulb garden looking neat. Some, like daylilies and impatiens will usually drop blossoms on their own.
Neatness counts. Remember you are trying to keep the plant looking good by prompting new buds and blooms, so don't just yank off the old blossom. Cut back to the base of the stem above where a bud or branch is, otherwise you'll just have a bunch of empty stems and no blooms.
If you want your flowers to create seeds, stop deadheading at the end of the season. To gather seed for re-planting, when the flowers are dead, cut them and allow them to dry. Remove the seeds by crumbling the dried flower head into an envelope or other container. Some plants are noted for their seeds (sunflower) so make sure you let them mature.
Use your fingers to pinch or deadhead plants with soft stems. For tougher woody stems (or if you don't want to mess up your fingernails), use anvil pruners or scissors. Make a clean cut. A ragged edge looks bad and could invite pests or disease.
The only tools you need are two fingers, hence the name. The action is somewhat akin to deadheading, but pinching back achieves a separate purpose. The main reason for pinching back is to keep a plant compact and prevent it from getting too tall or "leggy." Terminal growth at the tips of the branches is reduced and the plants energy is refocused on lateral growth, which means a bushier plant with more flowers.
Not all plants benefit from pinching back and the timing varies by plant. In general, pinch back annuals and perennials when they're 4"-6" high. Mums need to be pinched a little earlier for best results. Do it before flower buds appear, otherwise you'll have no blooms at all. Asters, zinnias and petunias are some other plants you may want to pinch back.
Herbs and leafy vegetables also need pinching back, but not really for looks. Blooms like we see on tomato plants are good - leave them alone. Blooms on vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage or spinach are not good. Their blooms mean that they have begun to put their energy into producing seed (known as bolting) and not producing foliage (the part we enjoy). Bolting is most often caused by warm weather, so there is not a lot the gardener can do to prevent it. You can prolong the productive season by keeping early seed stems pinched off.
Leafy herbs will also go to seed and lose their flavor. These plants will continue to produce tender foliage if you keep the seed stems pinched back. Pinching back herbs keeps the herb's oils (the flavor and aroma) in the leaves. Allowing these herbs to flower changes the taste and make the leaves tougher. Herbs such as basil, lemon balm, oregano, rosemary and tarragon are a few that need pinching back.
Disbudding is a procedure familiar to many dahlia and rose gardeners. The goal is to isolate and enhance immature blooms. The practice also works well with camellias and peonies.
To disbud, remove side (lateral) buds as soon as they appear. Snip or break them off. This focuses energy on the terminal (top) bud. The number of flowers is reduced, but the ones that develop will be much larger. Disbudding also helps direct more energy to root development.
Depending on the size and height of the blooms you produce after disbudding, provide support to keep them from toppling over.
Coniferous evergreens require a variation on the above themes. The procedure, known as candling, is performed to create a denser, fuller plant. Candles are the tender new growth that appears at the tip of many evergreens each growing season. Removing 1/3 to 1/2 of the new growth before the needles open is called "candling." It's usually easy to spot the new growth since it's a much lighter shade of green. When you remove all or part of a candle, new growth should appear.
Candling is labor-intensive and can get sticky, but it allows you to control growth and retain the natural shape. It is also a common practice of bonsai artists to control plant size.
Watch our Garden Basics video: How Do I Transplant or Split A Plant?