The Difference Between Deadheading and Pruning—and How to Use Each for Healthier Plants and Flowers

Although both methods promote new plant growth, these aren't interchangeable gardening terms.

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Whether you're an avid gardener or a newbie, routine plant maintenance is a necessary part of raising healthy, happy flowers and shrubs. But even for the most experienced green thumbs, it can be tricky to determine what type of care your plant requires—and when the ideal time is to perform such upkeep. Two of the most common types of manual care include deadheading and pruning. Although they may seem similar, the two popular maintenance methods are different and may happen at varying periods of the growing season.


Taking a few minutes to deadhead your plants will improve their overall look and encourage them to produce more blooms throughout the growing season.

What Is Deadheading?

As its name implies, deadheading is the process of removing dead or faded flower buds and seed heads from plants. It's best performed during the fall throughout the spring growing season because it encourages the production of new buds, but you can repeat as needed.

someone deadheading roses
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Why You Should Deadhead Your Plants

Taking the time to deadhead your plants will immediately improve their appearance—spent flowers and seed heads are unsightly and waste your plant's precious energy supply. "Once the seed head has been removed, the plant will switch its resources from seed production to flower production," says Jennifer Morganthaler, a clinical instructor of agriculture at Missouri State University. That means your plant will be encouraged to produce stunning blooms all season long.

How to Deadhead a Plant

You'll know it's time to deadhead your plants as their blooms die or fade. "As the flowers fade, simply pinch or cut off the flower stem," says Kip McConnell, business development director of Southern Living Plant Collection.

"Follow the stem below the spent flower and cut just above the first set of full, healthy leaves. This can be done for all the expired flowers at once, or regularly throughout the season as each flower fades," he adds.

Do All Plants Need Deadheading?

Not every variety needs deadheading in order to thrive. Ultimately, it comes down to type, adds Morganthaler. Those with a plethora of flowers, including cosmos, marigolds, petunias, roses, salvia, snapdragons, and sweet peas all respond well to deadheading. However, those that only produce one bloom, such as peonies and astilbe, won't respond as favorably, nor do self-seeding plants, like foxglove, which distribute seeds for the next growing season.

someone pruning branches
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Unlike deadheading, which calls for removing just the buds, pruning involves removing any part of the plant.

What Is Pruning?

Pruning is a form of regular plant maintenance where foliage and branches are removed, McConnell explains. "This can be done to shape the plant into a desired style, to clean the plant by removing diseased or damaged branches and foliage, or to encourage new growth," he says.

Why You Should Prune Your Plants

Similar to deadheading, pruning promotes plant growth, the production of fresh flower buds, and overall plant health—and it can also give new life to old shrubs and tame unwieldy or unshapely plants. "Pruning, in general, is an important piece of regular maintenance to keep plants healthy and well maintained," says McConnell. "Just like humans need a haircut every once in a while, so do plants!"

How to Prune Your Plants

Pruning is very simple. According to McConnell, pruning to thin or shape a plant can be done by cutting unwanted stems to the base of the plant or where stems meet. When pruning to thin your plants, use sharp shears to remove up to one-third of the stems. However, if you're pruning because the plant is invading the space of surrounding plants in garden beds, McConnell says to just cut outside stems to keep the plant in its place.

When to Prune Your Plants

Although pruning is a straightforward task from which most plants benefit, when you prune each species is less cut and dry. "In general, a good rule for most annuals and perennials is to begin pruning after the first display of flowers and stop pruning at the end of the plant's growing season," McConnell says. You should still research the plants you are pruning prior to reaching for the shears, as different species benefit from pruning at different times of year and some plants will or will not bloom based on when they are pruned. He also notes that the closer you prune perennials to their bloom time, the more likely there will be a delay in blooms.

For beginner pruners, McConnell suggests learning about pruning in different seasons. "For example, roses, evergreen shrubs like boxwood and yews, as well as fruit trees are typically pruned in late winter," he says. Come early spring, winter bloomers like camellias, forsythia, and loropetalum should be pruned. During the late spring and through the summer, prune deciduous shrubs and evergreen hedges. "Finally in the autumn, prune nandina, aucuba, and other evergreens." McConnell says.

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