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Gardening: Reap the benefits of pinching back perennials

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

A couple weeks ago,  I wrote about pinching the centers out of annual starts to promote side branching of the plants. But annuals aren’t the only plants that benefit from pinching. Gardeners who grow branching perennials, especially hardy garden mums, have been using this technique for eons.    

The difference between pinching and cutting back is the amount of plant material removed. Pinching is removing the growing tips and first set of leaves,  anywhere between 1/2 to 2 inches, depending on the plant. This is usually started when perennial mums  reach about 6 inches and repeated again 2 or 3 weeks later. The downside of this method is it's labor intensive, so most gardeners I know wait until sometime around the 4th of July and simply cut the stems down to half. The cut should be made just above a leaf node pointing out. 

Full color saturation — no wimpy colors — are a trend that you can count on this season.

The tools used for pinching are your thumb nail and pointer finger, but if that doesn't work for you, needle nose scissors, such as Fiskars 6 inch craft scissors, work like a charm.  They are also great for dead heading and harvesting herbs. You can find them at craft stores.  

When doing a single cutback, a sharp pair of hand pruners is perfect for the job.  

If you choose to do the single cutback, consider rooting those mum cuttings and growing new plants for your garden, to give as gifts or donate to plant sales. Throw them in a pail of water to keep them hydrated while you’re working. Google “how to grow plants from cuttings" for growing tips. 

Newer varieties of hardy mums grown for a shorter, more rounded habit do not need pruning or pinching . 

Mums aren’t the only perennials that benefit from cutting back around the 4th of July. Fall-blooming asters such as ‘New England’ and ‘Alma Potchke’ will also form stockier plants that won’t get scraggly looking and flop when blooming in fall if cut back early in the summer. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. E-mail her at , Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at