What’s An Annual? Deadheading Petunias

If you read my “Introduction” in the tab at the top of the screen, it says that my first job was in gardening, where I was paid the princely sum of $1 a week to deadhead a neighbor’s petunias.

To some of you, this may make no sense in this era of branded petunias that need no deadheading (and by branded, I mean trademarked petunias with names like Wave and Supertunia and Surefinia–petunias that grow so fast that they literally outgrow their ability to set seed, or plants that may be bred to be sterile).

But then there are the “old-fashioned” kind. This kind is most often sold in the little black cell packs, 4 or 6 to a pack. They come in a greater variety of colors than the branded petunias and they can also be ruffled, bicolored–and best of all–some of them are fragrant.

But then again they do have the drawback of needing to be deadheaded. Now, what do I mean by that? When I worked retail, I used to try to explain that to customers. I would explain that an annual is a plant whose sole job is to set seed and die, so you do not want to give the plant a lot of opportunities to do that (that’s why annuals have such a long bloom time–they keep trying to set that seed.)

Don’t confuse annuals with plants we grow as annuals like impatiens. These are really tender perennials. It may sound like a confusing difference but what it means is that impatiens can make all kinds of seeds all over the place and still not die because it is a perennial. It may not be perennial for most of us in our climates but the way to tell the difference is if you brought an impatiens in for the winter, it would grow (provided you gave it sufficient light and water). If you brought a true annual in for the winter, it would still die–because its function is to set seed within one season and to die.

Still confused? Think about basil. Know how hard it is to keep basil from flowering? That’s because it’s a true annual and it wants to set seed and die. We don’t have that problem with most of our other perennial herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary, etc. Cilantro and dill are two others. They keep flowering because they are true annuals and that’s what they do.

But back to deadheading. Since we know we need to deadhead the “old-fashioned” petunias (and given my upbringing, of course I grow those, as well as some of the newer types that do not need the deadheading), let’s make sure we know exactly how to do that. Every so often when I’m deadheading, I think back to a conversation I had once when I was in retail gardening. And sometimes, showing is worth a thousand “tellings.”

A customer swore that she was deadheading religiously but her petunias were still not re-blooming. So it was a slower afternoon and I was able to walk her over to one of our planters and to ask her to show me what she was doing. She grasped a dead flower and pulled it out, leaving the empty receptacle attached to the stem.

The wrong way to dead head a petunia

Of course that also leaves that parts of the plant that will form the seed intact, as I was able to show her on another part of the plant.

petunias forming seed

Sometimes it’s just as simple as that–no one has properly shown you how to deadhead. I think about that every so often when I’m deadheading myself. Here’s the right way to take off a dead flower (except in this instance, the flower isn’t dead!)

correct dead heading

Someday this may be a lost art. But until then, I’ll keep posting about it. And I expect before the end of the month, I’ll be posting about the petunia bud worm that likes these old-fashioned guys as well. Be on the lookout! If we like the scent, so do they!

8 thoughts on “What’s An Annual? Deadheading Petunias

  1. pbmgarden July 7, 2014 / 9:55 am

    This was a very helpful post in explaining the distinction between annuals and tender perennials. I love those old-fashioned petunias–reminds me of my grandmother.

  2. gardendaze July 7, 2014 / 10:12 am

    Thanks. I have a love-hate relationship with the old fashioned ones. As I said, my first job was deadheading literally thousands of them for a neighbor. And after a couple of years, she took the job away from me and gave it to another neighbor child. I was never so grateful. She took the job away because she thought I wasn’t meticulous enough–her petunias would start to “peter out” around August.

    As any gardener knows, without proper feeding, some cutting back and watching for those petunia worms, petunias will do that! It had nothing to do with me! But of course, and 11 or 12 year old isn’t going to know that!

    Luckily I moved away anyway–But I always think of that neighbor with a bit of chagrin.

    Needless to say, it hasn’t stopped me. I adore the fragrance. And clearly so do the bees. I saw the cute little sweat bees all over them yesterday.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting!


  3. Pat Davis June 26, 2016 / 12:36 pm

    Fantastic explanation! Sometimes I feel I may be removing almost ready to bloom buds. Do they ever look like deadheads? This seems especially true with light colored blossoms that sometimes look brownish at the base.

    • gardendaze June 26, 2016 / 1:03 pm

      Hi Pat,
      Great question. In fact, even though I have been doing this my entire gardening life, I wanted to go outside to double check my own petunias before I answered just to be sure.

      And it’s just as I suspected–& as you asked. Yes, the buds can look like petunias that need to be deadheaded, and it is especially true for the light colored ones. I have a pot of red, white and purple right now and it is much easier to see the buds on the red and purple plants.

      So if you are unsure, leave the “mystery ” bud alone. That way you won’t accidentally deadhead the blooms.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


      • Pat Davis June 26, 2016 / 4:40 pm

        Thanks a lot! Sometimes I felt like I was crazy. I will try my best to leave those alone. Sometimes I get carried away deadheading. You give the most detailed and best answers of anyone. My hubby bought me several hanging baskets with petunias. To him they all looked alike. Actually one is an old fashioned, and all the others are Supertunias.

  4. gardendaze June 26, 2016 / 6:56 pm

    Thanks for the compliment! Enjoy your baskets–that’s very sweet of your husband
    to do. He sounds like mine. My husband–the Spoiler–calls plants by their color, like “the pinkies” for pink flowers.

    Let me know if you have any other questions.


  5. Julia Wilson July 20, 2017 / 9:54 am

    If you’ve been deadheading, the plant must be getting too lanky. Believe it or not, cut the entire plant back to about 3 inches. In about a week to 10 days, you’ll see new buds forming. Good time to fertilize with something like Miracle Gro also. I recently did that to mine and they came back and filled in nicely.

    • gardendaze July 20, 2017 / 10:37 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Julia. Interesting comment about the lankiness and cutting back. That is a way to deal with several types of annuals and the midsummer doldrums.

      I don’t feed with Miracle-Gro, but I am glad to hear that it works for you. I prefer an organic fertilizer when I feed–but to each her own!


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