Some plants spread out and remain close to the ground as they grow, while others reach for the sky. These growth patterns are predetermined by nature and when left alone, plants pretty much follow their imprinted programming.
However, plants are readily adaptable and can be trained to change direction to better suit their environment and to create more space in the garden area.
For example, if have vining veggies like cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, or squash and you need horizontal space, you could redirect your plants’ growth pattern.
Even though vining plants have a natural tendency to spread out, you can get them to grow upwards by staking them or giving them a trellis or wire cage to grow. This easy solution creates more space and helps grow a healthier plant.
Why You Need to Prune and Pinch Your Plants
The two most common horticultural techniques for directing your plants’ growth are pinching and pruning. These trimming techniques include the removal of straggly limbs and vines, the deadheading of spent flowers and leaves, and even more aggressive interventions like the removal of entire branches.
They are also often necessary procedures. These gardening techniques control growth patterns and foliage density, as well as influence the direction in which a plant grows. They also serve to improve the plants’ overall health while increasing the quality of its fruits and vegetables.
General Tips for Pinching Plants
Pinching is generally less aggressive than pruning and it is a hands-on job. To pinch a plant, you must do just what the term implies: pinch. Between your forefinger and thumb, you literally pinch off the smaller flower buds, stunted fruit, suckers and/or weak leaves. You’ll want to pinch the plants’ leaves right above the leaf nodes on the branch.
What results is a natural compensation. A plant with too dense of foliage will produce less fruit or flowers, and the same holds true in reverse. After pinching, the plant’s energy is redirected to the remaining fruit, flowers, or leaves. If you want a shorter and bushier plant, pinch on a regular basis. It forces the plant to focus on density rather than height.
On food-bearing plants, pinching will result in less produce come harvest time (we’re only talking a few less fruits or vegetables with a small garden). However, the flowers or fruit that do set will be larger, tastier, and often of better quality than those that would have grown if the excess leaves and buds remained on the plant.
General Tips for Pruning Plants
Like pinching, this technique redirects a plant’s energy. Pruning is proven to increase production, help resist disease, and improve the quality of fruit.
Pruning also allows for more sunshine to reach the lower and inner portions of the plant, as well as enhancing airflow, thereby reducing the chance of mold and mildew developing.
Pruning is usually more aggressive than pinching and requires tools. To remove gnarly limbs, flowers, vines, and stems, you require a pair of sharp scissors or clippers.
Plant-Specific Tips for Pinching and Pruning Plants
Tomatoes grow on a vine and its suckers grow off that main vine. These suckers, if left to grow, become full stems. As mentioned, a plant with too many stems focuses too much of its energy toward leaf production. So, first, cut back the vines, leaving only one or two. Then for fruit-bearing plants, it is recommended you pinch off a third to a half of all suckers.
Pinching young suckers is recommended over snipping them as pinched plants heal faster, thus reducing the chance of disease. With determinate tomatoes, which produce all their fruit in one swift cycle, you’ll want to pinch only those suckers that appear right below your first fruit cluster if you wish to create a stronger plant.
Also, when unsupported, tomato plants tend to spread out on the ground. Down there, any water splashed on the leaves can spread bacteria and fungus and increase the chances of root rot and leaf spotting. Pruning the suckers ensures the leaves stay drier, which lowers the chance of infection. One study involving a Namibian hydroponics system showed unpruned tomatoes were more susceptible to early blight than their pruned counter parts.
On a side note, we have a hung jury when it comes to pruning tomatoes. Most but not all experts agree that determinate tomatoes (which produce all their fruit in one swift cycle) don’t really need pruning as they will do what they do regardless.
It is generally accepted, however, that indeterminate varieties (tomatoes that produce all season long) benefit greatly from pruning and pinching. Bottom line, it is the gardeners’ call to make.
First, stake your cucumbers on a pole or wire cage; something around four feet tall works well. When the plant reaches the top of the cage or trellis, merely pinch off those fuzzy little tips to maintain its size. (Interestingly, cucumbers that grow curved on the ground will grow straight when hanging).
With winter squash, hold off pruning until three to five fruits appear, then snip the end of the vine two leaf nodes after the last fruit using sharp cutters. With summer squash, cut the plant back until four main vines remain.
When pinching, experts recommend leaving all the female flowers on if possible, while leaving a few male flowers to remain for fertilization. Also, squash required is a little pinching on occasion to remove the dead flowers or sick leaves.
Chives, oregano, basil, thyme, and other herbs flower. Be sure to pinch the buds before they flower or as quick as you can after as some herbs become bitter after flowering.
Admittedly, this is a crash course on pinching and pruning, but the overall technique applies to most flowering and fruit-bearing plants. In general, these procedures allow for better airflow, which reduces moisture, lets in more sunlight, and helps the plant to focus its energy into producing bigger and better tasting fruit, vegetables, and/or flowers while influencing the direction a given plant is growing.
A world of more plant-specific information is available online and in your local library that is designed to make this year’s garden your best yet. So, get to pruning those fruit-bearing veggies and herbs because when it comes to gardening, it’s amazing what you can do in a pinch.