How to Pinch Plants: Which Vegetables Need Pinching?

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Pinching off tomato sucker so that plant gets more nutrition from soil to grow tomatoes.
 

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Pinching Tomatoes, Basil, Pepper, and Other Garden Plants

Robin Sweetser
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To pinch or not to pinch? This is a garden question that is frequently asked as plants start to grow out of control during the summer. Find out what it means to pinch plants, which vegetables can (and should) be pinched, and how to pinch tomatoes, basil, peppers, and other plants that can benefit from a little mid-season pruning.

What Does It Mean to Pinch a Plant?

What do we mean by “pinching” and how is it different from clipping or pruning? Essentially, they are three different words for the same basic thing: removing the excess growth of a plant. The main difference between them is the method that is used to remove the growth.

  • Pinching is typically done with one’s fingers when the growth is tender and easy to remove.
  • Clipping and pruning employ scissors, snippers, or pruners to cut off plant parts that have tougher stems or are hard to access with your fingers.

Pinching is really the simplest type of pruning you can do, though what you decide to remove depends on what you hope to achieve.

On this basil plant you can see the 2 new stems that grew on each side of the cut. Those new stems are ready to be cut back now.
On this basil plant, you can see the two new stems that grew on each side of the “pinch point.” Those new stems are ready to be pinched back now.

Benefits of Pinching Plants

There are many reasons for pinching:

  • To control the size of the plant. Do you want the plant to be bushier or thinner? Pinching out the growing tip of a plant will make it fuller and keep it from growing taller. Basically, when you cut off a stem, the plant responds by producing two new stems, one on each side of the cut. On the other hand, thinning excess side growth is helpful when training a plant to grow up a trellis.
  • Increase fruit size. If you remove some of the developing fruits, the plant will direct more of its energy into the ones that are left, making them larger. This type of thinning is often done on fruit trees, but works with tomatoes or other very productive crops as well. If you are trying to grow a giant pumpkin, you stand a better chance of getting a record breaker if you clip off all but one fruit per plant.
  • Increase the amount of fruit. By removing excess leaves and non-fruiting branches, the plant will put more effort into making more fruit on the remaining branches rather than more leaves.
  • Increase the quality of the fruit. Removing damaged or “iffy” fruits allows the good ones to grow better.
  • Increase air circulation and light into the center of the plant. This will help to thwart powdery mildew and other fungal diseases and promote ripening.
  • To speed ripening. Some plants need to be told when it is time to stop putting all their energy into growing more leaves and start ripening their fruit instead.

Which Vegetables Can Be Pinched?

Here are a few of the plants that benefit most from some judicious pruning.

1. Pinching Tomatoes

Tomatoes can put on so much growth in a hot, humid summer that you can barely find the fruits! They can easily stand to have some of that excess foliage removed. Just don’t get too carried away and cut off too much! Leave at least 2/3 of the plant. Overpruning can result in sunscald and less fruit overall.

The growth emerging where the main stem and side branch meet is the sucker. He has got to go!
The growth emerging where the main stem and side branch meet is the sucker. He has got to go!
Bye bye, sucker!
Bye-bye, sucker!

Where you start pinching tomatoes depends on how you grow your plants. Are you a staker or a cager?

  • If you are a staker, how many stems do you want? Leaving the lowest two side branches will give you three fruiting stems to train up your stakes. Remove all the suckers that want to form above that point by pinching them out as soon as you see them starting to grow where the side branches meet the stem. This will give you a less bushy plant and those suckers would only produce more leaves instead of any fruit.
  • If you are growing in cages, remove the bottom branches to increase air flow at the base of the plant. Then start to pinch out the suckers that form higher up on the plant where fruiting side branches meet the main stem to keep it from getting too bushy. If you are growing indeterminate plants (those ones that just keep getting taller and taller until frost kills them), you can clip off the growing tip to keep them a manageable size and to inspire the plants to start ripening the fruits they have rather than trying to make any more. This should be done about a month before your first frost usually occurs to give those last tomatoes time to ripen. If you are growing determinate plants (the ones that are shorter and produce most of their fruits at the same time), it is best not to prune them or you run the risk of losing potential fruit.
    For both types: if it seems like the fruit will never ripen before frost, remove the blossoms that form in late summer to divert the plant’s energy back into the existing developing fruit.

2. Pinching Basil

Although it’s not a vegetable, basil is a lovely herb that benefits greatly from pinching. Basil plants will start to flower and lose their flavor and tenderness if not clipped often. So, take off their heads! Luckily, you can just eat what you clip off. (I love to make pesto.) 

It is hard to keep up with the lime basil. It wants to flower often.
It is hard to keep up with the lime basil. It wants to flower often!
  • To keep basil plants bushy and producing new leaves, harvest them often. If the plants get ahead of you and start to bloom, be sure to cut off the flower. Once the plants set seeds, they will stop growing new leaves.
  • Cut the stem back to where new leaves are starting to grow and new side branches will form there, making the plant lush and productive. You’ll be surprised how much basil you can harvest from just a few well-maintained plants. The more you cut, the more they branch and grow!

3. Pinching Peppers

Peppers will produce twice as much fruit if cut back early on. I always remove the first group of buds from the top of the young plants. Called “disbudding,” it encourages the plant to branch and produce even more flowers.

You can see where the first blossoms were removed from this pepper plant it has formed 2 branches.
You can see that this pepper plant has formed two branches from where the first blossoms were removed.
  • Be careful not to damage the new leaves below the flower buds! This is hard to do if you are eager to have early fruit, but it is well worth the slight setback because you will get twice as many peppers!
  • Later on in the season, as fall approaches, if it looks like your green peppers are not ripening, pinch off any new flowers that form. They won’t have time to make peppers of any size before frost and the plant’s energy is better directed toward the existing fruit.
This sweet pepper will bear twice as much fruit than it would have if it had not been pinched back.
This sweet pepper will bear twice as much fruit than it would have if it had not been pinched back.

4. Pinching Cucumbers

Cucumbers can benefit from a bit of pinching if they are growing out of control in your garden. Remove the growing tip—being careful to leave the tendril and largest leaf intact.

  • If you are training your cukes up a trellis, you might want to remove the lowest stems from the vine if it is producing lots of side stems instead of fruit. Just don’t clip the top; let it continue to climb.
  • If you are growing bush-type cukes, don’t prune them at all.
If you feel you must prune your cukes, take care to leave the tendril and next largest leaf before removing just the growing tip.
If you feel you must prune your cukes, take care to leave the tendril and next largest leaf before removing just the growing tip.

Other Vegetables That Can Benefit From Pruning

  • Gourds are rampant growers, sending out vines that can be 100 feet long! When your vines reach 10 feet long, clip off the growing tip to force energy for growth to the side branches. This is where the female blossoms form. The male blossoms are on the central vine. You need lots of girls if you want lots of gourds!
  • Summer squash and zucchini are bushy plants, so you can cut out some leaves to improve air circulation, but it is not generally necessary to do more than that. Look for leaves that are overlapping or touching.
  • Winter squash sends its vines far and wide. If you wish, you can clip the tips off the vines as the season winds down to promote ripening instead of more blossoming.
  • Brussels sprouts often need your assistance to stop growing taller and start putting some size on the sprouts. To get them to mature, clip the top leaves off the stem when the lower sprouts are about 3/4 inch in diameter.

Pinching Flowers

Flowers can benefit from some judicious pinching as well. Long, straggly stems with flowers only at the tip are not very attractive.

  • Cut them back to where a healthy new leaf is forming on the stem to encourage new growth. Mums especially should be pinched several times to keep them bushy and increase the amount of blooms they produce.
  • Annuals such as zinnias, snapdragons, salvias, ageratum, tall marigolds, asters, and cosmos respond to being cut by producing even more blossoms. Don’t hesitate to pick big bouquets—more flowering branches will soon form.

Judicious pinching, pruning, and clipping are all part of maintaining your garden and growing the healthiest and most productive plants possible. Start slow and see how your plants respond. Then you can finally decide to pinch or not to pinch!

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