We all know people who seem capable of multitasking (performing multiple tasks simultaneously): answering the phone while filling in a crossword, weeding the vegetable garden while watching the kids, washing the baby while mowing the lawn, and so on.
But plants are not very good at multitasking. They prefer to do one thing at a time, performing their various tasks—rooting, growing, flowering, producing seed, preparing for winter, lying dormant, etc.—successively. Thus, when they’re in bloom, they’re not inclined to produce new roots, new stems or new leaves, nor when they’re producing seeds, and when they’re dormant … well, they won’t do much of anything!
This affects the way we garden, or at least should affect it. Unfortunately, too many gardeners expect their plants to do everything at the same time and come away disappointed or confused when that just doesn’t work.
Here are some examples of situations where it is better to let our plants do one thing at a time:
- When you transplant or divide a plant, pinch off its flowers. It may pain you to do so, but you’ll reap the rewards later, as a pause in blooming encourages the plant to concentrate on producing a good root system. Once it is well established, you can let it bloom again … and now it will bloom much more heavily.
- Avoid supplying nitrogen fertilizer (one where the first digit on the label, nitrogen, is the highest) to plants that are “hardening off” (preparing to enter dormancy), especially in late summer. Too much nitrogen at that time can stimulate off-season growth that will be weak and subject to cold damage and even reduce the plant’s overall hardiness.
- Remove any fruits in the first year or two after planting small fruits (blueberries, currants, bush cherries, etc.) and for up to five years after planting fruit trees (apples, plums, pears, etc.). This will give the plant time to settle in well before having to invest its energy in bearing fruit.
- Harvest leafy vegetables like lettuce, arugula and spinach just before they reach their peak by cutting them back to about an inch (2 cm) above the ground. This will prevent them from producing a flower stalk and thus thwarts their goal of producing seed. It’s a well-known fact that when leaf vegetables “bolt” (the term used when they produce a flower stalk), they become bitter and inedible, but if you harvest them early, most will resprout from the base, producing new leaves … and giving you a second harvest.
- Similarly, rather than pulling out broccoli plants after harvest, simply leave what remains of the plant growing. Since you prevented it from blooming (what you harvest on broccoli are its immature flower buds), the plant will try to produce new flower stalks, giving you a second crop. This works too with cabbage and kale … if there’s still a few weeks left in the growing season, they’ll have time to produce a small head (cabbage) or a cluster of new leaves (kale).
- If you buy a perennial that has been forced into early bloom for May sales (often the case with echinaceas and gaillardias, for example), it will pass the rest of the season trying to keep on blooming and will barely put on any growth at all, no matter how much you baby it. Thus it won’t produce the solid root system it needs to survive the winter. As a result, you often you’ve paid for a perennial that behaves like an annual and doesn’t come back the following spring. The secret to “re-perennializing” such a plant is to not to let it bloom at all the first year, but rather to remove not only the flowers that were present at purchase time, but every flower that it tries to produce that season. Since you thwart its effort to keep putting its energy into blooming, the plant will invest it instead in a robust root system, dense foliage and hardening off for winter. Then, the next summer, once it’s well-established, let it bloom its head off and you’ll find it’s gained in both vigor and hardiness.
- Deadheading (removing the faded flowers) from certain shrubs and perennials (roses, golden marguerites [Anthemis tinctoria], perennial salvias, etc.) will prevent them from putting energy into producing seeds and will therefore often help the plant rebloom that same season.
- Remove flowers and flower buds from cuttings and pinch even the tip of their stem to stop them temporarily from growing and blooming. That way the stem will focus on rooting.
Take full advantage of the natural tendency of plants to unitask and encourage them to do what you want them to do. After all, it is your garden!