In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
July, 2013
Regional Report

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Although these coneflowers are lovely, they have self-sown and are taking over and crowding out other plants.

Deadhead to Stay Ahead

Deadheading is a death warrant of a sort -- for seeds, that is. It sounds vicious, but it is also a potentially rewarding garden practice: Promptly removing spent flowers prevents a plant from reproducing. The frustrated plant will then frantically race to procreate, producing more and more flowers, trying to set seeds.

Getting the Most from your Plants
Deadheading -- picking off spent flowers, young seedpods, or fruit -- encourages plants to bloom over a longer time than they normally would, or to produce bigger and better flowers or fruit so that the resulting seeds will be of the best possible quality. Since the plants are prevented from devoting energy to excess seed production, the flowering and production period is extended and long-term flower quality is enhanced as well.

This explains why fruit trees naturally drop overloaded fruit and why gardeners disbud peonies and hard-prune hybrid tea roses to create show-quality blooms. It also explains why you need to pick peas and beans almost daily -- or the plant will stop producing. It explains why the more cute little zucchinis you pick the more you get (for better or worse.) And it explains why deadheading and cutting back bloomed-out flowers can seem to rejuvenate the plants. Eventually the plants may become exhausted, but in general they comply because their mission in life is to grow, bloom, set seed, and take over the world.

Coneflowers Take Over
Which brings us to purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), deadheading, and averting a homegrown population explosion. Because coneflowers, it seems, are bent on taking over the world one seed at a time -- sneaky little devils.

Not that they aren't great flowers. 'Magnus' was named 1998 perennial of the year for good reason. Purple coneflower plants are big and bold, just like their flowers. They rarely need staking, watering or coddling of any sort. They just grow and bloom their heads off. And their profusion of purply-pink daisy-type flowers lures in droves of butterflies. And birds, if the coneflower seed heads are left standing in the garden all winter.

Therein lies the problem. These plants ask only a well-drained spot in the sun. Where they're happy, you may find them colonizing new ground at a rapid pace and out-competing their plant neighbors. The solution to this is deadheading before all those seeds get scattered. But what to do when garden order and wildlife benefit are at odds? Try planting a small patch of coneflowers in an out-of the-way corner of the garden to provide seeds for the birds; then deadhead the plants sharing space in more cultivated borders and beds. This way, both you and the birds will be happy!


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