The Brown Thumb Kills All!
October 30, 2006 7:48 PM   Subscribe

PlantFilter: What is "pinching off" and how do I do it?

I bought a basil plant at the beginning of the summer hoping to grow my own herbs. The plastic tag on the plant said (to the best of my knowledge) to "pinch off new growth". Some googling told me that I should remove new leaf growth by pinching them between my fingers, which would promote new offshoots.

Fast forward to today. The plant's mostly dead (my fault, really). However, the plant never grew anywhere but straight up. It's about 2 feet tall right now, with no stem growth off the main stalk. I did remove some of the new growth at the beginning of the season, but it didn't seem to do anything. So, I stopped "pinching" so I'd have at least a few leaves for my tomato sauce.

So... what did I do wrong?
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
With basil you should be pinching off only the flower buds, new leaf growth is the tastiest part. I use my index finger and (clean) thumbnail to make a sort of dull knife and get under the buds but above the newest leaves.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:52 PM on October 30, 2006

Basil plants will develop white or light purple flowers. You need to pinch these off, or the plant will die a premature death. I usually do it with my thumb nail and finger, and just pinch the flower head off. Also, if you harvest your basil for cooking, that is pinching also. So, when you need some basil, clip a stalk off with a pair or pruners, scissors, or your fingers that contains the stalk and leaves. It can be a couple inches, or several. It depends on how much you need.

Do you have the plant indoors or out? Most herbs like a sunny location. I would repot in a larger container with a quality garden soil, place outside in a sunny spot, and water regularly. Usually containers in sunny locations get dried out quickly. I grow basil like mad, and my plants get pretty bushy and tall, although basil does mostly grow upright. It sounds like it's not getting enough sun/water/nutrition. If you live in a mild, warm climate, you can put it out now and see how it goes. If it is very cold, forget it--wait until Spring.

Good luck.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:58 PM on October 30, 2006

I agree with pollomacho, those tiny new leaves are the most tender and tasty.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:59 PM on October 30, 2006

Agreed with pollomacho. Supposedly the flavour of the leaves changes if you let the plant flower, thus the need to pinch them off.
posted by randomstriker at 7:59 PM on October 30, 2006

Love the leaves, hate the flowers. Pinch off the flowers (i.e. pluck them, but pluck them early).
posted by caddis at 8:14 PM on October 30, 2006

Yes, pinch the blooms off, but also make a point of pinching off even new leaves. Regular pruning encourages more vigorous growth, and will probably lead to more bushy plants, too.
posted by Gilbert at 8:17 PM on October 30, 2006

Gilbert has the answer most appropriate to the instructions that came with the plant, although everyone else has good thoughts, too.

"Pinching off", a.k.a. "pinch pruning" is generally removing the growing tips in order to force the plant to throw more numerous side-shoots that result in a bushier plant. Usually once my basil goes into flower it's too late to expect a lot of leafy growth after that.

Truthfully, I believe your biggest problem lies in only planting one of them! My minimum is usually 10-12. I love my frozen pesto in January :)
posted by a_green_man at 8:27 PM on October 30, 2006

If you do let one or two flower clusters mature (all the way until they start to dry out), you can get teeny black seeds to save & plant next year. You probably knew that, I'm just mentioning it.

Moderation in some things.
posted by amtho at 8:50 PM on October 30, 2006

Your plant may need brighter light. If it mostly grew 2' upward, but not really outward, then it may be straining to grow towards a non-existant Sun. That's the samre reason why your roomate's pot plant in college was 4 feet tall and all stem.
posted by crunchland at 4:06 AM on October 31, 2006

Response by poster: Unfortunately, I live in an apartment with no access to outside gardening areas. The plant's been living on the window sill in my kitchen, which gets a lot of morning sun (the windows face southeast-ish). The plant never got to the point where I was seeing flower buds.

On a related note, the main stalk is mostly brown and dead right now, except for the bits near the top of the plant - is it possible to take cuttings and replant it?
posted by backseatpilot at 5:37 AM on October 31, 2006

Hey backseatpilot, same problem here, I was pinching off flowers and new leaves and giving my lettuce leaf basil as much TLC as an apartment windowside planter could provide, but it browned up and died anyway.

You can try and repot a basil cutting, but it's a slow, hit-or-miss process. Let the base of the stem reroot in a bottle of water for a couple of weeks or so, then bury the roots in some damp moisture control soil and give it as much sun as possible. It'll take a few months before you know if you've been successful.
posted by brownpau at 5:47 AM on October 31, 2006

Is there some emotional attachment to this particular plant? In all but the most temperate southern climates of the US, basil pretty much always dies this time of year. It'd probably be easier just to buy another seedling next spring and try again.
posted by crunchland at 5:56 AM on October 31, 2006

Basil likes 6-8 hours of sun and regular watering. Anything less will result in an unhealthy plant. It sounds like it's not getting anywhere near enough sun. I think you need either to find another location or find another plant.
posted by kc0dxh at 7:04 AM on October 31, 2006

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