How To Pinch Back Flowers & Why You Should Save Your Cuttings
A vibrant, full garden is a treat for the eyes and a reprieve for the mind—and it doesn't have to be hard to achieve. Pinching is one technique that the beginner gardener will want to have in their back pocket: It takes two seconds and zero skill but leads to a much lusher plant display. Here's what to know.
How to pinch back flowers for a fuller garden.
Pinching is the easiest type of pruning. It's usually done to help make young flower seedlings grow outward instead of upward and look more full. It can also help increase the yield of certain edible plants.
Here's how it works: When you pinch a plant, you're cutting off the top of its main stem, which ultimately encourages the rest of the plant to branch outward and grow new offshoots.
The plant biology1 that fuels pinching is actually pretty fascinating: Plants, like humans, are regulated by hormonal cues. One essential plant hormone is auxin, which regulates vertical growth and keeps stems extending upward. The is an energy-intensive process, so at the same time the hormone tells the plant's main stem to keep going, it tells its lateral buds to take a break. When you snip off the top of certain flowers, it reduces the plant's auxin levels and frees up some energy for those buds to break free and have their time in the sun.
Niki Irving, the founder of Flourish Flower Farm and author of Growing Flowers, explains how this process plays out in the garden, using zinnias as an example: "Zinnias will put up one central stalk; it's trying to put out a flower as quickly as possible. With pinching, you snip that stalk off but leave all the sets of leaves at the bottom of the plant. That will cause the plant to branch out more, so rather than having one stem with a flower, you'll end up with five."
You'll want to do this when your plant is in the seedling stage and has just reached about 12 inches tall. Cut off the top 3 to 4 inches with garden shears, leaving some leaf sets at the bottom. You should notice more side shoots start to form within a few days.
Though it depends on the plant you're working with, you'll usually only want to pinch each flower once. Don't wait too long into the growing season to make your cut, though, as it will delay flowering a bit. Once a flower is cut down, it will usually go on to grow stronger stems through the rest of the season. (A nice lesson from plants, no?)
A few popular plants that you can pinch.
Pinching works well on most annuals and any plant that has strong apical dominance2—when its main shoot is in charge and limits the outgrowth of side shoots. Examples include:
- Sweet peas
- Edible plants: Most herbs, lavender, hot peppers
Plants you shouldn't pinch:
Pinching won't do much on plants that naturally grow bushy. And on single-stem plants that don't form branches, pinching can wipe the whole plant out. Here are a few varieties that you should leave be:
- Most sunflowers
- Shrubs and woody plants
What to do with your pinchings.
You might be a little sad to see the top of your seedlings go to waste, but organic gardener Allison Vallin Kostovick of Finch & Folly farm says that you can actually turn those tips into a totally new plant in some cases.
"If you pinch off the top of a dahlia, you can take that pinched-off top and root it up and have a whole other dahlia plant," she tells mbg. This technique would work for zinnias and cosmos too: Simply repot your cutting in damp soil, and with any luck, it will grow new roots.
The bottom line.
Pinching your flowers is one easy way to make them grow more lush and full. Be sure to save your cuttings when you do, and you'll have a vibrant garden on your hands in no time.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.