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The Art of Pinching

A pinch here, a pinch there, and our herbs grow better for it.

| June/July 2004



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.



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