When I was younger I liked to pick leaves off my grandmothers mint plant to chew on – I liked the strong minty flavour and the crisp crunchy leaves. I would wander up to a plant and pick a single dark green leaf, pop it into my mouth and wander off chewing contentedly, thinking of the toothpaste I was never allowed to swallow, but secretly swallowed anyway. If only Grandma had taught me how to properly pick the leaves I wanted to munch on then I could have been a great assistance, helping her mint plants become more productive, while at the same time enjoying my delicious snack. Now I am grown-up and have mint plants of my own, I have learnt that the best way to harvest most herbs is to utilise a technique called pinching out.
By pinching out your herbs you encourage your plant to grow bushy and strong, full of the tastiest new growth, and much less likely to grow woody and unpalatable. While my former technique of picking the leaves off one by one may seem instinctively to be the best (why would you want to remove stem, surely that would hurt the plant?), it turns out that the exact opposite is true. Here is a visual guide as to how to harvest your herbs by pinching out the new growth.
Examine your herb closely and you will notice that new shoots tend to grow from in between the mature leaves and the stem of the plant. The aim of the pinching out exercise is to remove the stem and leaves from above these baby shoots, which will encourage two new shoots to grow from either side of the stem. This results in two stems where previously there was only one. If left unpinched it is unlikely that this new growth will fully develop into adult leaves and stems. You can think of it a little like the plant is a hydra, cut off one of it’s heads and it simply grows two more.
The actual act of pinching out is easy, just use your thumb and your forefinger to sever the stem above the lateral growth. You will notice in the photo above that there are multiple places you could choose to do this, I personally tend to like to leave a few large leaves before the point at which I am pinching, to enable photosynthesis to continue while the lateral shoots are developing. However, how much you choose to pinch will depend on how much of the herb you require for whatever it is that you are using it for.
And finally, a picture of a shoot I pinched out a few weeks ago. You can see the two new stems have grown quite large, and it is easy to imagine how the plant will grow bushier and bushier as I continually pinch out these stems, and then the stems which grow after that, and so on.
So – there you have it. Pinching out your herbs is an easy way to boost productivity, while also meaning you get to eat the most tender new growth in whatever it is you are cooking. And there is another little side lesson to be learnt – if you have children who like to munch on mint leaves and dream of toothpaste, then teaching them how to pinch out new growth properly means much of your gardening work can be done for you!
EDIT: Most herbs like to be pinched out, but not all. Pinching out is beneficial for plants like mint, basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, lemon balm and parsley. It is not necessary for chives or lemon grass. If you are unsure whether or not to pinch a certain herb a quick web search should be able to provide you with an answer.