Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2005
Regional Report

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Pinching the tips of the new growth of petunias and many other flowering plants encourages more side shoots and more flowers.

Pinch Your Flowers; They'll Love You For It!

I helped my mother plant a flower garden in Texas in late March (yes, you can plant in late March in Dallas -- that's why I go at that time of year!). We planted some perennials but mostly annuals in a prominent bed just off her back patio. After we'd slipped the plants into holes, covered the roots, and watered them in, I went back through the bed and snipped off the tops of all the plants. Of course, my mother was horrified when she saw all the petunia and marigold blossoms lying in a pile on the patio.

She tried to be nice as I explained that this would make the plants force out side shoots and become much more lovely in the long run, but I don't think she was convinced. She didn't even go for the idea of using the snippings as a vase of cut flowers.

Then she called the other day absolutely gushing about how beautiful the garden is now. She kept saying over and over, "It really worked. Snipping off the tops really made them extraordinarily thick and beautiful!" I had a convert although she still chided me for not teaching her to do this years ago.

How Pinching Works
One of the hardest things to do in a garden is snip off the exquisite blossoms from leggy annuals. It takes courage and an understanding that you are making better plants in the long run.

Most plants have not only the buds on the growing tips of branches, but also latent buds all along the stems. These sleeping buds will not grow as long as all the growing hormones are flowing to the tip of the plant. However, if you cut that tip off, it forces hormones into the side buds and they will begin growing. This makes the plant shrubbier and usually more attractive.

This principle applies not only to petunias and marigolds, but also to shrubs and trees. Of course, you seldom want to cut out the growing tip, or leader, of a tree, but the principle works for keeping shrubs full at the bottom or for heading back fruit trees to keep the fruit in picking range.

This is the principle you use when pruning all woody plants. Every time you make a cut, it stops that part of the branch from growing and forces another bud or buds to begin growing. This way you can effectively shape a tree or shrub by selectively pruning to certain buds.

Leggy, unattractive houseplants, such as dracaena and Swedish ivy, can be cut back fairly severely, forcing latent buds into growth. This will rejuvenate the plants and make them stronger and more attractive.

Although it's nice to purchase annuals with at least one blossom to make sure the color is right, plants that blossom in a greenhouse or lath house at a nursery will often be stretched and leggy. Pinching out the tips corrects this. Of course, if a plant is tight and compact to begin with, there is no need to pinch it at all. You will have to use your judgment. But most importantly, don't be afraid to pinch your flowers. They will reward you for it.

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