Deadheading for Pollinators: Prolonging the Bloom
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
We planted a series of garden beds a few years ago specifically for pollinators. Part of what we wanted to experiment with (beyond plant choice, placement and educational opportunities) was maintenance. It's often something that designers consider but don't get to carry out. The space is usually 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.
Through trial and error, one of the keystones of our approach has become deadheading/ cutting back. 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. 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.
Salvia nemorosa 'May Night' (sage)
Echinacea pallida 'Hula Dancer' (pale purple cone flower)
Echinops ritro 'Vetch's Blue' (globe thistle)
Echinacea purpurea 'Green Jewel' (cone flower)
Lavandula Stoechas 'Anouk' (Spanish lavender)
Helenium autumnale 'Moerheim Beauty' (sneezeweed)
Achillea millifollium 'Moonshine' (yarrow)
Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low' (catmint)
Lupinus var (lupine)
So give it try in your own pollinator space and tell us what you think. Have fun out there!
Sara-Jane & Alicia at www.simpleleafdesign.com (you can also visit our instagram @simpleleafdesign2 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org)