No, we are not talking about those epic childhood battles in the back of the station wagon.
Pinching back is a way to redirect a plant’s growth and nutrients to where they will best be used.
How to pinch back
Take careful aim, tensing thumb and forefinger... Wait, no. That's not what we're talking about here. Pinching your sibling is probably a bad idea. Pinching back your plants can be a good idea. After a young plant has several pairs of true leaves, you can use your thumbnail to severe the stem just above a leaf node. Leaf nodes are the place where leaves grow out of a stem. It is important that you do not damage the tiny buds that are tucked between the leaf and the stem. This space is called the internode and the tiny buds are made of meristem tissue that can grow into new stems. Pinching back stimulates two stems to emerge at the nodes, increasing lateral growth. This doubles the number of stems, making a plant fuller. In only a few days, you will see these buds swell and new stems emerge. You can pinch back these new stems for even bushier growth after they have a few pairs of new leaves. Do not pinch back below where you have already pinched. Plants don’t respond well to that treatment.
Pinching back vs. deadheading
Deadheading refers to the removal of spent blossoms. This is done to stimulate new flowers to grow and the method is very similar to pinching back. In both cases, stems are cut just above leaf nodes, but for slightly different reasons. If a flowering plant believes that it has completed its reproductive cycle, it has little reason to produce more flowers. [Producing flowers is hard work for a plant.] Removing nearly spent blossoms triggers the plant to create new ones. Pinching back is done to stimulate lateral stem growth, rather than specifically for flower production.
Tipping vs. topping
Pinching is generally performed on herbaceous, or soft-stemmed, plants. Pinching back woody plants, such as trees, is called topping and can harm or even kill the plant, unless performed at the proper time of year and in the right way. Topping trees is best left to professional arborists.
Pinching back for structure
Some plants tend to get too tall, falling over just when they are covered with flowers or produce. My borage does this every year. Pinching the central stem slows that upward growth and stimulates growth out toward the sides. Of course, this does mean you get a few less flowers, at first, but it can extend the total growing time, weather permitting. Creating a bushier structure with herbs, such as basil, also gives you far more of the fragrant leaves you grew the plant for in the first place. You can think of pinching back as pruning, only in miniature!
Pinching back for production
Many plants, such as tomatoes, produce far more side shoots than the main stalk can support. That’s why tomato cages are so popular. You can significantly improve fruit quality by pinching back many of these side shoots. Pinching back is also very useful near the end of the growing season. Removing any flowers that will take too long to mature before the first frost dates forces the plant to focus its sugary energy on the remaining fruit.
Don’t be afraid to pinch back new growth on your soft-stemmed plants. You can help them to be healthier and more productive with this simple task. It also gives you an up close and personal look at the health of your garden plants.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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