In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2014
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 an Inch for Flowers

Here's a common late spring scene. You arrive home from your local garden center or greenhouse with 6-pack or flats of annuals like petunias and marigolds to set in the garden. The plants are already in bloom, and you're imagining how colorful your garden will look as soon as you have the plants in the ground.

Now we're going to give you what may seem like contrary advice -- pinch off all that color before you pop those plants in. While it may seem contrary to take this step, you'll be glad you did. Pinching off the new growth forces more side shoots to grow, resulting in bushier plants with more flowers as the season progresses.

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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