Deadheading is an interesting term. To those who understand the meaning of the word, it refers to the never-ending cycle of down-on-your-knees gardening work. To those unfamiliar with the term, it might sound like the act of participating somehow, in that famous rock band’s traveling caravan; doing all sorts of deadhead activities with all sorts of happy people. If you’re in the latter group, I’m sorry to break the news, but there won’t be a VW van pulling up to your house anytime soon. Deadheading is indeed work; but productive work that you’ll be glad you chose to do, as the results are nothing short of breathtaking.
Although not very scientific, deadheading is a gardening term, and a simple concept. It means removing dead or dying flowers, stems, and leaves from plants to both improve their life-cycles, but also to enhance the beauty of your gardens and beds. All gardeners know that flowers have a limited life. They start out with beautiful fragrant blooms covering the entire color spectrum, but unfortunately quickly begin to fade and dry out; some quicker than others. Once this drying process begins, the petals will start to fall and the plant will start internally directing energy to seed production. Future flower growth will be limited or non-existent if you allow the dead and dying seed heads to remain on the plant.
But have no fear, for regular deadheading will put a temporary stop to this internal energy shift, and instead make that same energy available to continue producing flowers for the near-future. If you are focusing on appearances, then this task is a must. This technique will work with all ornamental and herbal flowers, however deadheading does not have the same effect on vegetables as it does on flowers.
For those of you who focus more time on vegetable gardens, then you’ll likely be familiar with the term bolting, sometimes called “going to seed.” In principle, its very similar to what flowers do. Bolting happens when a plant, instead of using its energy to make edible leaves (such as with herbs or leafy greens) that you want, starts to flower and produce seed. This isn’t the outcome most people want to see because when a plant produces flowers, leaf growth stops or becomes severely limited. If it’s an annual plant that’s also a signal for the plant to begin dying.
Bolting is caused when plants are subjected to stress. Stress can come in many forms, including lack of water or too much water, too much heat, or other environmental factors. If the plant “sees” an uncertain future, it’s survival instincts activate and it focuses all of its energy on reproductive actions and seed production. The main difference between flowers and vegetables is that once bolting starts, there is no stopping it; cutting off the flowering parts will do very little.
How to Limit Bolting
You can do certain things in the planting stages to limit bolting. Planting seedlings when its cool, but after a risk of frost, will give them more time to get established and be more resistant to weather-related stress. If you have the means to shade your delicate leafy vegetables during the hottest part of the day, it can have dramatically positive results. Use the recommended amount of spacing between plants and add a layer of mulch to retain moisture and keep roots cooler. If the forecast calls for hot weather, start increasing water before it happens and keep levels higher until it has passed. When you fertilize, pay special attention that you aren’t creating a problem by using the wrong type of mix (fertilizers for fruits are meant to encourage flower production.)
If you start to see vertical growth in your garden, especially with leafy vegetables such as spinach or lettuce, then pinch off the upper portions of the plant. That action will cause the plants to get bushier rather than taller; similar to how trees are topped.