Before planting comes pinching. Here’s how to do it.

All right! We are a week away from the traditional planting-out three-day weekend. Given the lateness of birch leaf opening, it may have sneaked up on many of you. The finally warm weather has helped the soils warm up and readers have time to harden off their plants outdoors for a week so they are acclimated to wind and UV rays to which they are not exposed indoors.

Obviously, you are going to need plants. If you didn’t grow your own starts, now is the time to buy. When the rush starts, things go fast. Don’t be overly dazzled by plants in bloom. You want those plants to bloom in your yard, not set seed. Look for healthy plants with buds instead, perhaps.

Do not panic. Your plants will need hardening off, which is so easy; we used to make a huge fuss over how to do it. Just take plants outside and put them in shade, protected from the wind. After three days or so, move them into afternoon sun. That should do it. Make sure they are watered.

In addition to hardening off plants, readers need to decide if they should pinch back some of their starts. Pinching is removal of a set or two of leaves from the top of the plant. This is the only way to delay the demise of many plants already in bloom when you buy them. And, pinching is the standard way to increase the number of stems, get side branches to create bushy plants instead of “lollipops.” Pinching also helps increase flowers numbers.

These are the big advantages to pinching. The downside is that doing so will slow down the development of flowers by up to three weeks or so. We have a pretty short season as it is. Still, the effort may be worth it if done now.

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Listen to the “Teaming with Microbes” podcast with Jeff and Jonathan White:

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The first question is what plants should even be considered? It might be easiest — and safest — to start with those plants that definitely should not be pinched back: sunflowers, larkspur, delphinium, cockscomb, annual ice plant, stock, columbine, coral bells, iris, foxglove and dianthus. Oh, and dill. You can decide for yourself on snapdragons if you want a single stem or smaller multiple stems.


On the herb side, pinching works to increase yields when used on basil, sage, rosemary, tarragon, lavender, thyme, oregano and scented pelargoniums (geraniums).

Any annual flower with opposite leaves — directly across from each other as opposed to staggered — can be pinched. Cosmos, dahlias, impatiens, coleus, petunias, marigolds, zinnias, snaps even sweet peas. Don’t forget fuchsia unless you are trying to grow a tree-style plant.

The act of pinching is obvious — thumb and forefinger. Just make sure your pinch is just above a pair of leaves. It is best to pinch when there are five or so sets of leaves. Remove the top two and the plant will thereafter develop side branches.

You can pinch as you harden off plants. First, make sure that the plant hasn’t already been pinched; check to see if side branches are already developing. Know, too, that plant breeders look for branching traits.

Finally, consider pinching some plants, but not all of them. This way you can have some zinnias, say, in bloom early and some which will develop flowers later, as the first begin to fade.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: What are you waiting for to join, visit, buy from the nursery and wander? You can learn a lot by seeing what is going on in the garden. Visit!

Free spruce trees from Anchorage Audubon: The Anchorage Audubon site has the info and the latest schedule for distribution. Thanks Mr. WhiteKeys and Anchorage Audubon!

Rototilling: No longer considered a good practice unless you are putting in a new garden.

Vegetable gardens: Peas, Swiss chard, garlic, lettuce, onions, potatoes

Lawns: Don’t bag it. Mulch it. All power mowers sold in the past 20 years are mulching mowers. And push mowers work just fine mulching as well.

Chemical dandelion killers and RoundUp: Don’t. Simple as that. Boiling water, clove and vinegar based mixes, hand control.

New podcast: Want to get some of the science behind pinching? Our new “Teaming With Microbes Podcast“ drops every Friday!

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.