Friday, June 8, 2012

Deadheading (Or Things My Mother Told Me)

I grew up in a rose garden.  Some of my fondest childhood memories are of “Peace” and “Chrysler Imperial” nearly reaching into my bedroom window, and filling my room with fragrance every summer morning. And, yes, I knew the names of those roses as a child, because they were part of my life.  What I didn’t know was that “Peace” had just been smuggled out of France before the German occupation in the early 1940s.  Our next door neighbors in Detroit (zone 6) had extraordinary rose gardens, as well, and I wandered through those gardens often.  I cut the lawn of one of those neighbors (50 cents a week, front and back) and cultivated their rose beds.  I remember standing behind their garage on a summer morning, totally mesmerized by an extraordinary, bright-red, fragrant climber on the back fence.  I was 10 years old and it was 1950.

 Fast forward 35 years to 1985; I’m 45, living in Minneapolis, and back in Detroit visiting my parents.  My mom, then 77, leads me into her rose garden one summer morning and says: “Here, Jack, let me show you how to deadhead a rose bush.  “Ahhh, sure mom”, thinking, “here’s some useless knowledge”.  So, Mom says:  “Ok, you just take the spent bloom between your thumb and forefinger and snap it off; watch for where the new growth begins later, and cut it back to that point.”  I filed that away in 1985, among all the other seemingly unimportant things my mother told me growing up.

Well, it wasn’t too long after that, when the rose-bug bit (how did my mother know this?).  I had been growing vegetables for years, but had never planted a flower, much less a rose.  My first one was “Tournament of Roses” and others followed, especially “Peace” and “Chrysler Imperial” and, being an academic, I set out to read everything I could find about growing roses.  I collected a personal library of rose books, including some rare, old classics, checked some out of the library, and tried to learn everything I could about roses (after all, I grew up in a rose garden).  Then I joined the American Rose Society so I could start reading “American Rose”, which I have done religiously for many years.

What I found out about deadheading from all this study was that my mom (who was descended from multiple generations of European agrarians) had to be wrong about deadheading.  What all the new rose books said was: “Cut the dead flower off the flower stalk just below the first true leaves”; or “Cut the stem at a 45 degree angle, ¼ inch above the first set of leaves having five leaflets….  The dormant bud in the leaf axil will be stimulated to grow into a new shoot that will produce a flower within six weeks” (in other words, half the summer!).  And that’s what I did for years.

Fast forward another 20 years or so, and I discovered an article about deadheading in an issue of “American Rose”, which contended that the prescribed method of cutting to the first five-leaflet stem destroys much of the hard-won growth of the rose over a growing season.  Instead, the author called for the straightforward method of simply popping off the spent bloom between one’s thumb and forefinger and subsequently watching to find the point at which new growth would begin.  OMG… That’s what my mother told me!

So, I gave it a try and have been doing it ever since.  Here’s the trick:  Begin by simply popping off the spent bloom between your thumb and forefinger.  There’s a little swelling below most blooms at that point, which snaps off very easily.  You can feel it when you grasp below the spent bloom with your fingers.  This leaves a stem sticking up which begins to wither in a few days.  As you pass through the garden over the next week or so, you will see where new growth is beginning and you simply cut back the stem to that point with your garden scissors.  So, it’s a two step process that you finalize as you deadhead the next week’s spent blooms.  You can shortcut this method to a one step process (which I often do) by using your garden scissors to cut the stem back to a logical growth point the first time through, typically at the first three-leaflet set.  But this varies for each type of rose and you can use your own judgment as to where the best growth is beginning. For example, it doesn’t work the same for clusters of flowers on floribundas and shrubs, where you will want to cut off the whole spent cluster.  But, following this precedent, don’t cut back too far and you’ll get better and quicker growth for the next cluster.

What’s very interesting is that my old classics on roses: “How to Grow Roses” by McFarland and Pyle, copyright 1937, and “Hennessey on Roses” by Roy Hennessey, copyright 1942, say nothing about deadheading.  However, in his section on pruning, Roy Hennessey says: “Why sacrifice or greatly weaken your rose bush…when if you treat it with consideration it will thrive, increase in size and be able to give you finest blooms for years to come….  How far down do you prune an apple tree to get the best apples? The more foliage you have working on the first crop of bloom, the better the results for the rest of the season.”

When you use this little deadheading trick, what’s most noticeable is how much quicker your roses grow and how many more blooms you have over a full season.  Try it, experiment with it, and you will come to understand and like it.  Moral of this story?  Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.  And always do what your mother told you (especially if she grew beautiful roses)!

Let me know how it works for you; e-mail: with observations or questions.

1 comment:

  1. great post. I grow roses in zone 8a in the deep south. looking forward to reading more of your rose growing adventures!