We vegetable gardeners really eat this stuff up: After weeks of patient waiting, our beloved tomato plants have finally taken off and seem to be growing bigger by the day. (Excellent!) Here’s the problem: We want to grow a lot of healthy tomatoes, not a lot of healthy fruitless branches. The same can be said for cucumbers and squash. If we don’t pinch and prune these vegetable plants to remove excess leaves and flowers, we could be losing out on an extra-bountiful season!

Trellised cucumbers

Branching and vining plants like cucumbers need regular pinching and pruning to be trained to grow along their supports.

Photo Credit: Frank Tansey

If left to grow however their natural habit wills, most vegetable plants will actually reduce the number of flowers they produce and concentrate more on growing foliage. This stinks because (just in case first-time food growers don't already know) the flowers set the fruit, which sets the course for food-garden success. So while lots of healthy, green and leaf-full branches may look nice in the vegetable patch, they don’t guarantee a basketful of homegrown food. They just encourage plants to grow more leaves.

By pinching and pruning, plants can focus their energy on making food instead of foliage. Pinching off extra flowers will help, too: Less flowers (along with less leaves) means more plant attention on developing bigger, better veggies, bringing forth that quality harvest you’ve been dreaming of.

In addition to increasing fruit size and quantity, pinching and pruning can help train plants to grow where you need them to, like up trellises, stakes and other supports, keeping your garden looking well-maintained. This can also help keep your plants healthy, as removing excess foliage encourages good airflow through the plant, as well as makes it easier to spot pests or diseases before they become a serious problem.

If the idea of snipping off extra leaves and flowers makes you nervous, try to remember that vegetable plants adapt well to pinching and pruning. If an active bud gets damaged or cut off, a new one will take over. Use the pictures and captions on this page as a guide to help you get started. Before you know it, you’ll be growing one step closer toward homegrown goodness – and you’ll get there in a pinch!

Pinching Vegetables

Remove excess foliage

Pinching Excess Foliage

Pinching off foliage with your fingers will help increase your yield, as well as encourage a full and dense plant.

Photo Credit: Frank Tansey

Pinching tomato flower

Reduce Excess Flowering

Don’t get carried away with the pinching – leave some shoots bearing buds and flowers on your plant. Removing about one-third to one-half of the blooms as they appear will help your remaining fruit grow larger and mature more quickly.

Photo Credit: Frank Tansey

Tomatoes on the vine

Reduce Crowding

If you have a crowded cluster of tomatoes forming, break it up: Remove any that are deformed or don’t look healthy, and snip off those that receive limited light and air circulation. Pinch off any leaves that come in contact with the tomatoes, too.

Photo Credit: Jenny Hooks