What is Miss Marple doing in her garden? Deadheading, secateurs

First published by Rattan Direct on 18 May 2016.

Miss Marple, one of Agatha Christie’s most well known characters, spends a lot of time in her garden in St Mary Mead. More often than not she’s deadheading her roses. It’s a contemplative, some would say boring, pastime and it allows time to notice things and to muse on what they might mean.

Remind me, what is deadheading and why should I do it?

Just quickly, deadheading is when you remove fading or dead flowers from plants. And to answer your question, you do it to keep plants looking attractive and to encourage more flowers. You don’t want the plant to put energy into producing seed, you want it to use that energy to grow strongly and to produce more flowers. Deadheading also keeps the garden looking tidy.

May daffodils in Gwynedd need deadheading. MIss Marple
May daffodils in Gwynedd need deadheading (M K Stone)

Daffodils benefit from deadheading and so do bedding plants, geraniums (pelargoniums), roses and other bulbs. Aquilegia (a.k.a. columbine or granny’s bonnet) receives a special nomination. That’s because it sets seed so easily and keenly and is making a bid to take over my entire garden.

Aquilegia growing in the Fish Hill picnic area. Miss Marple would probably deadhead these after flowering.
Aquilegia growing in the Fish Hill picnic area is ©  Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons Licence

You can pinch off flowers between your finger and thumb, or use secateurs. Do it regularly. That’s one of the reasons why Miss Marple is so often tending the roses in her garden …

P.S. You don’t have to deadhead everything! Leave flowers like alliums which will turn into beautiful seedheads, and flowers on plants that bear berries in the autumn.

Choosing secateurs (Miss Marple uses a pair of bypass secateurs)

Secateurs are essential to cut back soft growth and woody twigs, to deadhead roses and to prune shrubs. They should have a blade that keeps a very sharp edge, feel comfortable in your hand and have safety catches that work smoothly. If you normally use gloves when pruning, wear them when trying out a new pair of secateurs.

Miss Marple uses bypass secateurs which have two blades that pass each other, like scissors. These are ideal for everyday pruning. The blades can get into small spaces, to cut near a bud or to cut side-shoots right back to the main stem. Don’t cut thicker stems with your bypass secateurs, though, as this can easily damage them.

Anvil secateurs are better for cutting thicker, woody stems. These have one blade sharpened on both sides and a flat metal or plastic block against which the cut is made. They crush as well as cut, so don’t leave as clean a cut as bypass secateurs, particularly on softer stems. And the cutting block tends to get in the way of cutting in tight corners. (For even thicker branches, loppers or a pruning saw are your best bets.)

Ratchet or geared secateurs cut in several small stages – great if you have a weak grip, as you don’t have to apply much pressure, but they are slower to cut.

Rolling-handle secateurs protect your hands from repetitive strain injury if you have a lot of pruning to do. The handle ‘rolls’ across your palm as you cut.

Cut-and-hold pruners hold the stem after cutting – useful if you can’t bend easily to pick up clippings.

If you’re left-handed, go for secateurs with a central safety catch.

More on choosing here with Monty Don.

Mulch

Mulch is material you spread around or over a plant, to cover the surface of cultivated soil or containers. Mulching is a good gardening habit.

It keeps moisture in during the summer, prevents weeds from germinating, and insulates plant roots and the soil in winter. It can be a barrier between edible crops and the soil (for example, a mulch of straw or black plastic around strawberries keeps fruits off the soil). Mulch can deter some pests.

Biodegradable mulches (such as decaying leaves, bark or rotted compost from your garden compost bin) will improve soil texture over time and encourage beneficial soil organisms.

Mulch of woodchips at RHS Wisley, Surrey, protects and improves the soil. Miss Marple
Mulch of woodchips protecting soil at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley in Surrey is © Rowan Adams. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Non-biodegradable mulches (such as horticultural grit) can give a decorative finish. They can be very long-lasting (such as horticultural weed control fabric or synthetic carpet).

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