Deadheading for Pollinators: Prolonging the Bloom in your Habitat Garden
Pollinators are amazing and should be encouraged whenever possible, so we planted a series of garden beds a few years ago specifically for them. Part of what we wanted to experiment with (beyond plant choice, placement and educational opportunities) was maintenance. It's something that designers consider but don't usually get to carry out themselves. Gardens are generally planned, installed and then passed along to the owner with some basic advice. Here was an opportunity for us to guide the plantings over a few years and try out some different techniques and ideas that could impact the ultimate success of the space.
The goal was to create an easy, low input maintenance system that would work with nature rather than against it. It also had to encourage pollinators for as much of the year as possible and look beautiful all at the same time. Besides our perennial plant choices we also included some great annual flowers, water dishes, debris and log piles to provide habitat and nourishment all year long.
Through trial and error, one of the keystones of our approach has become deadheading. I know, you already do this right? but I'm guessing that you wait until your plants have all bloomed, spend a few days chopping everything back in a major overhaul and then wait for them to break and rebloom (at least that's what we used to do). That works, but it will leave you with a lot of bare soil (possibly some extra weeds) and very few flowers for a couple of weeks while they regenerate (not to mention a huge pile of debris to compost all at once).
Here's what we found, if we clipped back one or two plants out of every grouping towards the end of their bloom time we minimized the bare soil. In fact, we created just enough space for other emerging plants to fill in. Now we did this to a different few plants each time we went in to do other maintenance (weeding, watering etc), every 10 days or so from late spring until fall and It worked amazingly well. We had found a way to control the spacing of the plants in the bed while keeping the area acceptably tidy (clearing edges, pathways and view corridors) without losing the wild forms and feeling that we were looking for. We had also encouraged a continuous cycle of blooms and debris for pollinator food and habitat throughout the entire season (as well as aiding soil and other wildlife health to boot).
There are some perennials that we found that are especially well adapted to this kind of regular selective pruning. They became our favourites not only because the pollinators loved them, but because they were also quick to regenerate and bloomed over and over again all season long. Each of the perennials listed may require slightly different methods of pruning. Some we cut right back to the soil, leaving only the newest stems that are just breaking from the crown intact. Others require cutting back to a convenient node and still others may just get their seedheads removed to encourage new buds. It's best to do a little research into the plants that you choose (www.missouribotanicalgarden.org has great plant finder section for getting useful info) or if you enjoy a bit of a challenge, experiment with each of them and see which technique you prefer. And as always, plant what suits your gardens own individual soil, climate and exposure conditions. We also encourage biodiversity, so consider these plants as a foundation to build on, add whatever great annuals, bulbs and other perennials in as you please for added structure and feeling and build a garden that suits both you and our pollinator friends.
Foundational Perennials to Selectively Deadhead all Season Long
Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low' (catmint)
Echinops ritro 'Vetch's Blue' (globe thistle)
Echinacea pallida 'Hula Dancer' (pale purple cone flower)
Echinacea purpurea 'Green Jewel' (cone flower)
Lavandula Stoechas 'Anouk' (Spanish lavender)
Helenium autumnale 'Moerheim Beauty' (sneezeweed)
Eryngium planum 'Blue Glitter' (sea holly)
Eryngium gigantium 'Miss Whilmott's Ghost' (sea holly)
Achillea millifollium 'Moonshine' (yarrow)
Achillea millifolium (white yarrow)
Lupinus var (lupine)
Origanum laevigatum 'Herrenhausen' (ornamental oregano)
Salvia nemorosa 'May Night' (sage)
Sara-Jane & Alicia
Simple Leaf is partnership of garden planting designers located in Vancouver, Canada. We love creating garden spaces and talking all about. Please contact us at simpleleafdesign.com and drop in to say hi @simpleleafdesin2 on instagram, we'd love to hear from you.