Ah, beautiful August. Even the air is sweet in this sunny season of picnics,
ripe tomatoes and vases of flowers from your own backyard.
Now's the time for the cheerful gardener to go out into the glorious weather and start -- deadheading and pinching?
Those two jobs sound a tad destructive for hammock season, but to plants, they are much like reins are to frisky horses. Give a plant too much perfect weather, especially if it has also been fertilized and drenched in warm rain, and it gets kind of silly and carried away. Unless you show it who's boss, you end up with nothing but stems and straggly leaves.
The best pinchers and deadheaders are like horseback riders who've mastered the art of dressage. You can't really tell anything's been done -- the plants just look unusually fine for this time of year. Pinching and deadheading are especially important in pots and containers, where you want dense, colourful growth no matter how hot the weather.
Pinching encourages branching. More branches mean nice, full plants instead of long, skinny ones and may mean more flowers, too. Most petunias are prime candidates for pinching. They're the headstrong race horses of the garden, spurred into ever faster growth as temperatures rise. As long as the weather is cooler than 16 C, petunias are compact and floriferous, especially if you've given them full sun. But they become less restrained as temperatures rise, yielding ever more stem and fewer flowers until. at temperatures above 24 C, they manage just one flower per tall, leggy stem. This unrestrained growth increases if you planted in shade or in hot weather, in which case frequent pinching will be in order.
On the other hand, there are a few new petunias that are as well mannered as the Mounties' horses in the Musical Ride. Trailing petunias, notably 'Purple Wave,' and also milhiflora petunias, such as the 'Fantasy' series, need no pinching because they bear flowers all along the stem.
Deadheading is a type of pinching, where the part removed is the spent flower. It's done because almost all plants look best if faded flowers are snipped off, but also because some plants are capable of blooming on and on if aging flowers are removed. The same principle is used to prolong the harvest of vegetables such as snap beans, cucumbers and summer squashes. Keep on picking these tender young crops every few days and the plant will respond by yielding more blossoms and fruit.
Among the flowers that benefit from deadheading for both reasons are cannas, cornflowers, Canterbury bells, dahlias, deiphineums, dianthus, gaillardia, geraniums (pelargoniums), godetia, lupines, nicotiana, sunflowers and zinnias. With your fingers, a knife or pruning shears, snip off each fading flower head to the nearest leaf axil or to the base of the flower stalk, so the plant continues to look pretty.
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Of course, you needn't wait till flowers are fading to snip them off. Cutting just as they begin to open also encourages more flowers, and gives you fresh material to arrange indoors. Here's an idea from the Netherlands Bulb Flower Information Centre: Use watermelons, gourds, squashes, pumpkins and even bell peppers as vases. Cut a hole in the top or one side of the fruit, perhaps giving the incision a zigzag edge. Scoop out the pulp and seeds, making sure you don't pierce the bottom. The shell that remains is a watertight vase that's especially suitable for a centrepiece. When the flowers fade, just toss them into the compost pile, vase and all.
Don't "leaf" your plants' identities to memory -- keep tabs on them with embossed metal markers you can make yourself.
• Tooling foil or 32-gauge aluminum sheet*
• 18-gauge wire*
• Embossing tool, such as knitting needle or hard lead pencil
• Needle-nose pliers with wire cutters
• Tin snips or old scissors
• Awl or hammer and nail
• Fine-tip black permanent marker
• Ruler, compass and set square (optional)
• Paper and newspaper
*Available at some hardware and art and craft supply stores
1. With marker and using ruler, compass and set square or drawing freehand, outline simple shape, such as circle, square, triangle, oval or heart, on foil; with tin snips, cut out.
2. Trace shape onto paper; cut out. On paper cutout, write centred plant name and surround with border of lines, swirls and/or dots, if desired. Turn over and place against window; trace design onto wrong side.
3. Cover work surface with newspaper stacked approx 2.5 cm (1 in) thick. Place paper cutout, wrong side up, on foil so edges match. With embossing tool, firmly retrace design; discard paper.
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