Monday, May 20, 2013

Pinch your Herbs!

Pinching back your herbs is the most important activity of the early season.

Understanding that herbs, like other plants, are trying to reproduce is important to understanding why we should pinch them off.  Plants intent on reproduction are striving to get a long stem intent on blooming.  That means you have an upright plant with few sideways branches that is reaching toward the sun the target to produce a flower head.  Okay for the plant but not a useful for you as the herb grower.  Pinching the plant changes the signals it is sending up that stem creating a bushier plant.

pinching basil

When a single stem reaches maturity and is ready to flower it sends signals down the stem to tell secondary buds to stop growing letting the single stem have all the energy. When you pinch off the growing tips of the plant it changes the signal and the plant begins to produce more branches to create more flowers, thus creating a larger bushier plant, that will eventually be much stronger.  This works on your flowering plants too!

How much should we pinch off?  There is no hard and fast rule. If a plant is badly in need of bulking up, you can take one or two larger pieces around 4 inches and several smaller tips about 2 inches.  If the plant has produced blossoms pinch off every single one of them.  Blossoms will pull energy from other parts of the plant weakening the flavor of the herbs.

In the early part of the season you can pinch your herb stems between a nail and a finger.  Later in the year a pair of sharp scissors will keep you from damaging the stems by twisting or pulling.

Lemon Basil before being pinched

Lemon Basil after pinching, see the two new branches...

Once you recognize that pinching is a kindness to your plants, you will not be afraid to do it.  For Basils the shape and leaf production is improved with frequent pinching.  Every branch pinched at a leaf node will produce two more stems.  The same is true of scented geraniums which can grow very long hard stems if not pinched back.  Thyme, mints, and oregano can be pinched more casually as you need the herbs for cooking or drying since they are log spreading growers anyway.  I generally trim these with scissors taking off an inch or two depending on the plant size.  With rosemary and bay or any other slow-growing semi-woody herbs, pinch out stems here and there to sculpt plants.

hard geranium stems

As I pinch my plants I lay the branches on a paper towel on a plate.  Everything I do not need to cook with is left to dry and in a day or two I can pop them into a jar. 


So pinch your herbs and enjoy!

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