These two methods aren't interchangeable.

By Kelly Manning
February 05, 2021
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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. Below, we outline the difference between the two, and how you can tell which one your plant requires.

woman pruning garden shrub
Credit: Getty / IAN HOOTON/SPL

Deadheading

As its name implies, deadheading is the process of removing dead or faded flower and seedheads from plants. It's best performed during the fall through the spring growing season, since it encourages the production of new buds (you can repeat as needed). As for how to properly deadhead? Jennifer Morganthaler, a clinical instructor of agriculture at Missouri State University, recommends cutting or pinching off a quarter-inch piece of stem located above a new flower, leaf, or bud.

This will immediately improve your plants' appearance—spent flowers and seedheads are unsightly and waste your plant's precious energy supply. Furthermore, "once the seedhead has been removed," explains Morganthaler, "the plant will switch its resources from seed production to flower production." Not every variety, however, needs this step 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.

Pruning

Pruning is a form of plant maintenance whereby dead, diseased, or damaged plant matter is removed. Before starting, cautions Morganthaler, "it's always important to know the plant you are pruning and what your goal is." Similar to deadheading, pruning encourages new growth, the production of fresh flower buds, and overall plant health—an it can also give new life to old shrubs and tame unwieldy or unshapely plants. Timing, however, is everything. Flowering shrubs that bloom on old wood, such as forsythia, azalea, and lilac, should be pruned immediately following flowering. Varieties that flower on new wood, like roses and butterfly bushes, on the other hand, shouldn't be pruned until fall or winter. "Pruning takes some practice and patience," says Morganthaler, "but plants can recover from most pruning mistakes."

There are a few extra benefits to this methodology as well—you can actually reshape a perennial, for example. Simply use sharp pruning shears to cut the plant to the desired form (just "keep in mind the plants' natural growth habit," says Morganthaler). As for how to prune a perennial's stems? Cut the stem directly above a large bud, which will encourage new growth from the healthy area. If a stem is dead or diseased, cut it off at the base of the plant—but "no more than one-third of the plant should be removed," she notes.

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