Pinching Back: Tips For Pinching A Plant

Pinching Back: Tips For Pinching A Plant

By: Heather Rhoades

Gardening has many odd terms that may confuse a new gardener. Among these is the term “pinching.” What does it mean when you are pinching plants? Why do you pinch plants? You may also be wondering how to pinch a plant? Keep reading to learn more about pinching back plants.

Define Pinching Plants

Pinching plants is a form of pruning that encourages branching on the plant. This means that when you pinch a plant, you are removing the main stem, forcing the plant to grow two new stems from the leaf nodes below the pinch or cut.

Why Do You Pinch Plants?

Many gardening experts have tips for pinching a plant, but few actually explain why. There are may reasons for pinching back a plant.

The biggest reason for pinching plants is to force the plant into a more full form. By pinching back, you force the plant to grow twice as many stems, which results in a fuller plant. For plants like herbs, pinching back can help the plant to produce more of their desirable leaves.

Another reason for pinching plants is to keep a plant compact. By pinching the plant, you are forcing the plant to focus on re-growing lost stems rather than growing height.

How to Pinch a Plant

How to pinch a plant is actually pretty easy. The term “pinching” comes from the fact that gardeners actually use their fingers (and fingernails if they have them) to pinch off the tender, new growth at the end of the stem. You can also use a sharp pair of pruning shears to pinch the ends.

Ideally, you want to pinch the stem as close to above the leaf nodes as possible.

Now that you know how to pinch a plant and why do you pinch plants, you can start pinching your own plants. If you follow these tips for pinching a plant, you can bring out the best shape and fullness in your plants.

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Pinching, Pruning and Deadheading

Except for tomato plants, which can be trained to grow in a number of different ways, most vegetable garden plants need little or no pruning. Flowers, however, are a different story.

Pinching and Pruning
Pinching and pruning refer to tasks that involve removing certain parts of the plant, usually to stimulate it to produce more flowers or achieve better form. Pinching back is usually done when the plants are quite small. This is done to encourage them to produce lots of side shoots and form a bushy, flower-filled plant. To pinch back, simply remove the growing tip using your thumb and forefinger. See sidebar for a list of flowers that benefit from pinching back.

Annual plants rarely need drastic pruning. By midsummer, however, some plants, such as petunias, will start to become leggy, with flowers concentrated at the ends of the branches. You can help the plant maintain a nice bushy form by pruning back one of the longest branches once a week or so. Prune way back to a set of leaves near the main stem sprouts will form at the leaf axils, and these shoots will keep the plant bushy.

This is "garden jargon" for removing faded flowers from plants, and it’s an important part of keeping many annuals, including petunias, marigolds, and zinnias, flowering all summer.

Botanically speaking, the "goal" of annual flowering plants is to reproduce -- that is, to form flowers, achieve pollination, and subsequently produce seeds. Once seeds are formed, the annual plant has completed its mission, and it begins to die back. How can you keep the plant alive and blooming? By deadheading, you’re removing the developing seeds. The plant is tricked into producing more flowers, and more seeds, which you then remove . and on and on.

Be sure to remove the developing seeds! On petunias, for example, it’s easy to make the mistake of removing just the petals. However, if you look closely at what’s left, you’ll see a small, pointed seed pod where the petals were attached. Be sure to remove this seed pod too. You can use your fingers to pinch off petunia flowers however, you may need pruners to deadhead flowers with tougher stems.

If you just pull off the petunia flower.

Well, we’ve covered most of the basics of plant maintenance in this class. The focus of our next (and final) class is troubleshooting, or identifying problems in the garden. Once we’ve identified some common problems, we’ll look at ways to manage them. See you then!

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Flowers that benefit from pinching back:

  • chrysanthemums
  • geraniums
  • impatiens
  • petunias
  • snapdragons

  • celosia
  • stocks

Pinching back coleus, a shade-tolerant plant grown for its colorful leaves, keeps the plant bushy.

Some flowers don't need deadheading to continue flowering all season long, including:

  • impatiens
  • wax begonia
  • nasturtium
  • alyssum

Nasturtiums will continue to flower even if you don't remove spent blooms.

How to Pinch Pepper Plants

Pepper plants can grow up to 3 feet tall, but it's not the height of the plant that determines how many fruits it produces. Instead, it's the number of side stems that predicts how many peppers each plant will produce. Each side stem features multiple nodes for flower buds. Pruning or pinching a pepper plant encourages it to produce more side stems instead of growing straight up.

Pepper plants can be pruned whether they're still growing indoors or whether they're already outside. You'll know your pepper plants are ready to be pruned if they have eight to ten leaves. Then, remove the top of the central stem – which has a cluster of about four leaves – with a sharp, clean pair of pruning shears.

Wait for the pepper plant to grow another eight to ten leaves, and then prune it again. This should create a suitable number of side shoots, and you can allow the plant to grow tall after this second pruning.

Pinching Technique for Plants

Related Articles

Hi I'm Jane Gates. I'm the owner and the landscape designer for Gates and Croft Horticultural Design and I'm also an author of "All the Garden's a Stage". On the other hand I'm here to tell you about something totally different. We're going to talk about pinching techniques for plants. In other words, how to pinch them so that they bush out better and that's the reason that you want to pinch your plants. Basically if left alone most plants will grow up in one straight little line with their little leaves all lined up and maybe blossom at the top but there are a lot of plants that you really want to grow bushy. You want them to grow side shoots whether they are roses or basil or anything in between that you want a nice full look. And so what you want to do is you want to pinch the new growth right out of the tip. When that happens, when you do that, you take off the very youngest leaves at the tip and that's the growth shoot and it goes oh my gosh I can't grow, what am I going to do, so it sends out arms, arms and legs and lots of nice branches on it and that's how you get your plant to branch. I've got some basil here and I'm just going to show you what I mean. If you look at this basil carefully you'll see. Well here are a couple of them and they pretty much have a nice straight growth and all you are going to get is one little shoot with a few leaves. And you want a lot of basil leaves because they are good and they are great to use in your cooking and fresh. So we're going to take, I'm going to go over here and show you another plant that really, well these need to be pinched out, first of all. I'm going to skip that one, I'm going to come back to it though, pinch these out and you can see I just take the very tips of my fingers, pinch them out neatly and it doesn't look like it hurts too much and it will grow its side shoots. Now I'm going to take you over to take a look at this plant over here which I only did about a week ago and look at the great growth on it. It's growing out nice and full and you can see the side shoots are making it nice and round. I can pinch this again in another few weeks if any of the side shoots start getting long and lanky and it will get even fuller. And that is why you pinch plants and this is the pinching technique you use and then you'll get a nice full happy shrubby plant.

Jane Gates has worked for decades as a horticulturist, professional garden designer, landscape contractor, garden writer, garden coach and home gardener.

Pinching Plants - How To Pinch A Plant - garden

By Denise Seghesio Levine, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County

To pinch or not to pinch? That is the question. Pinching is a technique that can shape a plant increase production of herbs, flowers and fruits determine the size of blooms and fruit and even keep your garden blooming longer. But pinching is not the answer for every plant. So which plants should you pinch, and how?

Pinching is a form of pruning. You can do it with no other tool than your fingertips and fingernails, although if you have a lot of pinching to do, clean scissors or shears will save your manicure. By “pinching,” I mean actually removing the new tender growth at the end of a stem.

Pinch as close to leaf nodes as possible, being careful not to injure the tiny buds beneath. Each time you remove a main stem, your plant will try to grow two new stems beneath the pinch or cut. This easy technique encourages fullness and also helps keep plant size in check. It forces most plants to grow bushier and fuller rather than concentrating their energy on getting taller.

Basil, tarragon, thyme, sage, scented geraniums and marigolds respond well to pinching. Oregano and thyme do best when pinched or cut back to about half their length. Frequent pinching can keep rosemary and lavender to a manageable size during their spring growth spurt and supply you with lots of herbs for cooking. Cut back woody stems by no more than one-third.

With most herbs, the more you pinch, the more you will have. For a summer-long harvest of Genovese or Thai basil, pinch.

Inspect the base of the leaves where they connect to the stem and you will see new leaves forming in tiny pairs. Pinch right above that point and soon each pair of leaves will turn into a new branch. This practice keeps your plant producing leaves rather than going into flower and seed mode. Remember to feed your culinary herbs and keep them watered so they will work hard for you.

Many flowers benefit from pinching or cutting, rewarding you with armloads of blooms. But it's worth getting to know the few flowers that do not like this treatment because an unwelcome pinch can eliminate your entire harvest for the season. Do not pinch campanula, cockscomb, delphinium, dill, stock, larkspur and most sunflowers.

Do pinch annuals such as coleus, impatiens, salvia, most snapdragons and petunias early in the season to encourage bushing and spreading. Pinching encourages more side branches, which means more flowers and color for your garden or pots.

Always pinch at a node but decide how low to pinch depending on how compact you want the plant to be. Sweet peas will branch into a much fuller plant with pinching. When you are happy with your plants' shape, stop pinching and let them grow.

Zinnias and cosmos are especially generous bloomers if pinched. Pinch early to promote branching, then “pinch” by cutting flowers. The more frequently you pick bouquets, the more flowers you will have for your tables and your friends. It is a beautiful thing.

Each time you pinch a plant, you delay its flowering. The result is a plant with more side shoots but smaller flowers. With chrysanthemums you can decide if you want a few large flowers or many smaller ones. If you prefer dinner plate-size blossoms, remove side shoots and laterals early in the season when they are green and succulent, leaving only the few stems you want to bloom.

You can stagger bloom times with some late-flowering plants like Russian sage, phlox and asters by pinching back half of the plants in your flower bed by about one third. The pinched plants will bloom later, giving you a few more weeks of summer beauty.

Remove peony blossoms when they are finished so the plant can focus energy on next year's blossoms instead of producing seed. Clip foxglove after blooming to have healthy flowers next year or forego pinching them and let them self-seed. You will probably have fewer blossoms next year but potentially more plants.

Refrain from pinching if you want blossoms and seeds for local birds and insects. As a compromise position, let the last, late blooms go to seed, or identify a few plants as your seed producers for pollinators, birds and self-seeding.

Beginner’s Guide to Pinching Plants

By Kelly Orzel | March 15, 2021

Pinching plants, the age-old technique of snipping out the center of your multi-stem, cut-and-come again herbs and flowers is epic. If you’re like me and want fuller plants, more stems, blooms and increased stem length, you too will soon be a convert.

Pinching plants redirects the plant to refocus its energy from developing the central stem and bud, into side-shoots, promoting stem and flower production.

Removing that top, tender growth is KEY. After this cut—or pinch—your plants will grow 2+ new stems beneath the slice. Resulting in a bushier, more productive plant.

While pinching isn’t required, expect tall, rangy plants with minimal stem and bloom production when pinching isn’t practiced.

My First Cut, Pinching Plants

The first time I ever pinched a plant I was so nervous. I looked at this happy, vibrant little seedlings and could not believe I was going to cut 3-5” off the top. Sounds insane. However, you’re crazy if you aren’t taking advantage of this simple, effective process. So, that initial year I was in fact rewarded with lush, sumptuous stems and blooms. The following year I felt the jitters again. I knew in my head that this snip would make a colossal difference in my harvest, but I still felt timid. After I went through with it, low and behold, heaps and heaps of stems and flowers again! And ever after, this pinching practice became an essential garden task I look forward to every spring.

Sage harvest off ONE plant after pinching. Crazy right?!

Are you ready to make your first cut?

How To Pinch Plants:

1. Wait until the plant is 8-12” tall with 3-5 sets of leaves.

Zinnia seedlings ready for pinching!

3. Cut 3-5” off the tender top growth. Make sure you make the cut right above a node, or set of leaves.

And voilá! You’re ready to repeat!

Pinching is essential for plentiful crop harvests, whether herb or flower. Whenever I harvest stems, I always cut right above a leaf node, or set of leaves—similar to when pinching young plants—which stimulates more branching.

By harvesting in this manner I am essentially continuing to pinch back and deadheading. This continued cut-back prolongs bloom period for flowering plants, and stem and leaf production for herbs for a summer long—even an entire growing-season long—harvest.

Pinched zinnia tops, headed to the compost bin.

My basils, for example, I’m able to harvest from late spring/early summer, until frost gets them in autumn. One plant can consistently supply me with fragrant, delicious leaves for 3+ months. Every couple weeks, I cut at least one-third of the top growth right above a set of leaves, and this does two things. First, it stops it from going to flower, which signals to the plant it’s time to shut down production. And secondly, it encourages bushier growth, meaning more stem and leaf production. Who doesn’t want more basil leaves?!

When it comes to flowers, I do the same thing. Harvest blooms regularly, but always cut the stem far back to a node, or set of leaves. Again this acts similarly to deadheading, not allowing the flowers to develop seeds. When flowers, such as sweet peas or dahlias, are not harvested regularly and allowed to stay on the plant, they begin to wither. This decline communicates to the plant it’s time to wind down for the season, stop producing blooms and begin seed production. Flowers that are harvested frequently, give no chance for seed development. So they continue branching out, setting buds and blooming until frost or … you stop harvesting.

The Big Takeaway:

The more you pinch, the more you get!

When it comes to plant pinching, I am ruthless! Armloads of flowers and herbs is so worth this teeny-tiny extra step in spring. Not only does it shape the plant and make it more productive, you will have plenty to share with family and friends. Isn’t that one of the great joys of having a garden? The sharing.

In case you have any unanswered questions on pinching, here’s couple FAQ’s.

Pinching FAQ’s.

Q. Must you use flower snips?

A. Clean, sharp snips, pruners or scissors are best. While I have been known to use my fingernails in a pinch (don’t you just love a pun?!), fingers and dull pruners can tear the stem tissue opening young plants up to disease if you’re not careful.

Q. What plants do you pinch?

A. Multi-stemmed, cut-and-come again crops.

Herb-wise, think basil, sage, rosemary, tarragon, lavender, thyme*, oregano* and scented geraniums (pelargoniums). *Thyme and oregano perform best when pinched back by half, and again after flowering.

Dahlias and most annual flowers including: zinnias, sweet peas, rudbeckia, marigolds, calendula, amaranth, branching sunflowers, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, impatiens, most snapdragons, salvia, and petunias, just to name a few, provide more generous harvests when pinched.

Even woody perennials like Russian sage, phlox and asters respond well to pinching—or cutting back—by a third in early spring!

Chocolate Mint Scented Geranium harvest off ONE pinched plant.

Plants NOT to pinch: Dill, single-stemmed sunflowers, single-stemmed snaps, larkspur, delphinium, cockscomb, columbine, stock, columbine, coral bells, iris, foxglove and dianthus.

Q. When do you pinch?

A. Early spring ideally, before the plant sets its first bud. Look for when your seedlings or young plants is 8-12” tall and has 3-5 sets of leaves.

Reality Flash:

There have been times I’ve been busy in spring and neglected pinching until the plants were larger. After my pinching, flowering was delayed a couple weeks, but I’d rather have a bushy plant with an abundance of stems and blooms following a slight lag, than a spindly plant that blooms on time.

Q. Where do you pinch?

A. Snip off the top 3-4” off the plant just above a set of leaves.

Q. What about pinching woody-stemmed plants?

A. Woody-stemmed plants should be cut back, but by no more than on-third.

I hope this answers all your plant pinching related questions!