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The Gentle Art of Puttering

The Gentle Art of Puttering

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A garden is such a wonderful place to putter. To get clarity, I looked up "putter" in my Miriam-Webster and found it was an intransitive verb that means, "1) to move or act aimlessly or idly" or "2) to work at random". Well, that really says it all. My favorite part is the intransitive aspect, which, in turn, means, "Characterized by not having or containing a direct object".

This was terribly enlightening, because I now see that the difference between definition 1) the aimless and idle part and definition 2) the work part is mirrored in a difference of view between my wife and I. What may seem like aimless, idle wandering to the observer is really random work from my point of view.

The key is, of course, the intransitive nature of puttering. There is very real work going on, but it seems like there is no specific direct object.


The term was around long before Jerry Garcia ever picked up a guitar. It refers to the removal of dead, faded flowers. This is actually a critical aspect of gardening and keeps the flowers coming.

From the plant's point of view, a flower is essentially the way to reproduce. The end result is pollination and seeds. So when a flower is fertilized and the seeds begin to form, it starts a hormone process within the plant that signals "OK, no more flowers are needed, time to divert all energy to making seeds."

This focus on seed production may be great for the plant, but it is not why we usually plant flowers. We want flowers. The way to bypass all this is by removing the faded flowers. No faded (read as fertilized) flowers means no seeds form and the plant thinks (so to speak) that it must continue flowering to produce seeds. By keeping up with faded flower removal we can actually keep plants in bloom much, much longer.

The converse is true also. By letting flowers "go to seed" the whole flowering process may just stop. Of course, you can get a lot of seeds by just letting them ripen, but, again, if your goal is flowers, you don't want seeds.

The solution? Puttering! Wander through your garden picking faded flowers. Remove those forming seed heads. Even cut some fresh flowers for the house. The result is the same, removing flowers encourages more.

Rather than cutting the flower from a long stem, remove the stem with the flower down to a leaf, node, or bud. That is where a new flower will emerge.

It should be mentioned that there are some plants that are best left alone, such as Moraea or Dietes, that rebloom on the same stem, but with most annuals you are safe in deadheading.


Plants grow from the tip. In fact, the main growing point of a plant is the terminal bud, the bud at the end of the stem of shoot. But removing the terminal bud, dormant side buds are encouraged to sprout. In the case of soft, new growth the terminal is easily pinched off. Sometimes it can be snapped off.

In any case, you can control how your plant will grow by pinching or not. Let the terminal grow for long, straight stems. If you want a tree, you may want to leave the terminal bud alone. On the other hand, pinching forces bushy growth - ideal for plants you want to fill out as a tight mass or to keep small. Many annuals are in this category and pinching when young is the way to go. Pinching also makes for denser branching on side branches of trees.

TIP: (pardon the pun) Know how your plants grow. Find out which you want to leave alone to grow straight and tall and which will develop their bushy best by pinching.

Pinching is one of those tasks that is easy - it just needs to get done. A perfect putterer's task, When an appropriate shoot is spotted - pinch away.

Rubbing Out

Sometimes a tree will develop a new shoot from the base. This is especially common from a rootstock of a grafted plant. Besides marring the form of the plant (unless you want shoots coming up from the base), the growth from a rootstock takes energy away from the "real" plant.

The solution, if you catch it early enough, to rub out the forming shoot. Rather than rubbing, this may also mean to pull it sharply at an angle so the whole little new stem pulls out. This is much better than cutting it off, because any stub left from a cut may resprout, whereas when pulled off the tendency is that the whole thing, bud and all, comes off - neatly solving the problem. Perhaps this is the origin of the expression about a difficulty being nipped in the bud.

Deadheading, pinching, and rubbing out are all key puttering tasks for gardeners. Walk around the garden and enjoy it - and always, at the back of the mind, are these easy techniques that pay off such big dividends in the future.

A word of warning is in order. When a concrete task must be accomplished, puttering is totally out of order. There is a time and a pace for just about everything. Keeping focused as to when is an appropriate time to putter and when not is where the skill to this art comes in. Use it well, and enjoy!

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