Mother Earth Living

The Art of Pinching

A pinch here, a pinch there, and our herbs grow better for it.
By Barbara Pleasant
June/July 2004
Add to My MSN

Content Tools

Related Content

Save Money on Meat: Protein Penny-Pinching Tips

Shop and cook smart to eat high-quality protein. Learn how to save money on meat with these tips.

Back to School: An Herbal Care-package

Use these herbs to relieve stress, increase energy and stimulate sleep this school year.

Avoiding Herbal Apocalypse: Keeping Herbs Alive

Even under optimal growing conditions, most herbs need regular maintenance and nurturing to fight th...

Green Art Spotlight: 2009 Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championships

The 2009 Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado, displayed i...

Q: When I am told to pinch back an herb, exactly what does this mean? How many inches of stem should I take as I pinch? Do I pinch off all the tips, or just one or two?

A: When you pinch back herbs, you are orchestrating two fundamental forces of plant life: the need to reproduce and the need to stay alive long enough to reproduce.

Herbs, like other plants, want nothing more than to reproduce. Most herbs want to make flowers and seeds, so they channel their energy toward stems that will grow fast and bloom quickly. With annual herbs such as basil and marjoram, bud production begins within weeks after plants are set out in the garden. Perennial herbs prepare to bloom in spring soon after days become long and warm.

Whether annual or perennial, herbs’ fast-growing tips send chemical signals down the stem telling secondary buds not to grow. In nature, sprinting to maturity is smart. What we see is a lean, upright plant with few lateral branches. It is totally intent on blooming.

Not what we had in mind! We decide that a bushier plant would be better, plus we want fresh herbs to use for making dinner. We pinch off a few growing tips, taking enough to flavor up the dish we want to make, and in the process we remove the chemical factories that have been inhibiting the growth of the little leaf buds farther down the stems. Within days, new stems pop out just below where we pinched, each one determined to produce flowers as quickly as it can.

It seems like the plant expected this to happen, which is probably true. Deer and other animals often browse on growing tips, and tender stem tips are a favorite site for aphids and other insects. Whether the growing tips are removed by deer, grasshoppers or gardeners, herbs respond to decapitation by growing into bigger, stronger plants that produce many more flowers and seeds than they would had they been left intact. For plants, our pinching is more a blessing than a tragedy.

There is no precise measurement for how long a pinched off stem tip should be. If the plant is badly in need of bulking up, I might take a few longish tips, say 4 inches long, as well as some smaller 2-inch tips. When pinching, following the plants’ natural shapes is always a wise strategy as opposed to giving them flat-tops. If a plant is holding blossoms, be sure to pinch off every last one. This will eliminate possible hormonal confusion as to where the plant stands on its reproductive mission.

Pinching is a kind thing to do to plants. Most basils are vastly improved by pinching early and often, and the same goes for scented geraniums. Thyme, mints and oreganos can be pinched more casually, by gathering stem tips as you need them in the kitchen. With rosemary and other slow-growing semi-woody herbs, pinch out stems here and there to sculpt plants.

If you plan to dry herbs, save your pinching and do it in waves, so you harvest handfuls of thyme, marjoram, oregano, or whatever in one fell swoop. This makes the drying process easy to manage, whether you dry the herbs in bunches hung in a warm, airy room, lay them out on screens or dry them in a slow oven. Depending on your climate, these herbs may produce two or more good cuttings in the course of a season. Herbs handled this way are not as pretty as those tended by hand, in pinches, but they are very productive.

Often times you literally can pinch herbs with your fingers, but this time of year I slip a small pair of scissors into my back pocket whenever I visit my herbs. Snipping off stem tips makes clean cuts, which are less traumatic to stems than twisting and pulling.

Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole Herb (see Bookshelf).

Previous | 1 | 2 | Next

Post a comment below.


Subscribe today and save 58%

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Subscribe to Mother Earth Living!

Welcome to Mother Earth Living, the authority on green lifestyle and design. Each issue of Mother Earth Living features advice to create naturally healthy and nontoxic homes for yourself and your loved ones. With Mother Earth Living by your side, you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $14.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $19.95.