by Sandy Swegel
Ok, your seedlings are up and growing. Whether in the ground or growing under a light, your plants have one or two sets of true leaves. You can’t wait to have a big beautiful and blooming plant. Now you have to be brave. You have to take that nice tall plant and cut it down. Ouch.
The result of this tough love is that you get better, bigger, stronger plants. The gardening term is “pinching back” because you want to get “branching.” When you pinch back your one main stem, the plant responds by sending up two stems. Presto chango, you have doubled your plant. Let the plant grow another two sets of leaves on each new stem and again pinch back to the first set of leaves. Now where you once had one measly little stem, you have four stems growing out and a strong bush plant.
This works especially well with basil and other herb foliage plants. It’s also amazing with petunias and annuals you want lots of flowers from. Even if you’re buying plants from the store, pinching back can be a good idea. When the commercial growers are producing plants for sale, they want a plant that has a flower as soon as possible because even one flower makes a plant sell. If that plant is spindly or just very full you have to be strong and even pinch back that flower.
Pinching back is only for plants whose stems are branching, It doesn’t work for herbs like parsley or flowers like lilies. With perennials, it’s best to pinch back before the first flower buds have started. The only other time I don’t pinch back is when I’m willing to sacrifice the greater good of the plant for the instant gratification of flowers. Sometimes I just need a flower RIGHT NOW.
Knowing how plants act and react is the secret to having a beautiful garden. You can learn about how plants behave by observing them and noticing things like how they branch when you pinch back a set of leaves. There are good scientific reasons the plants are doing what they are doing. Scientifically, you are “interrupting apical dominance” and stimulating “axillary buds.” If you want to understand plant behavior more thoroughly, one way to do that is to read Brian Capon’s book, “Botany for Gardeners” It explains plant physiology with words and pictures that are easy to understand.