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When, Why & How to Prune Tomatoes

Pruning tomatoes? Aren't gardeners busy enough during the year, pruning roses and grapevines? Pruning tomato suckers is not a big, hairy project -- although it is fun to touch those hairy tomato stems and aromatic leaves. It's more like a once-a-week grooming of your tomato plants.

Rewards of Pruning Tomatoes

  • Larger, earlier tomatoes -- a boon for those of us with short growing seasons (or cooler-than-usual summers).
  • A slimmer plant that is easier to grow vertically.
  • A healthier plant: growing tomatoes vertically increases air circulation between the leaves, and lifts the leaves and fruit away from crawling pests and dirt splashing on plants during rain

Two Schools of Thought on Pruning Methods

  • Some suggest pinching the sucker off at its base, in the axil (or crotch) of the tomato plant, where the vertical stem meets the branch.
  • UC Davis  recommends "Missouri pruning", allowing two leaves to remain on the sucker and snipping off all the other sucker growth. The illustration shows Missouri pruning in action. The advantages of Missouri pruning are more photosynthesis, and more shade for the fruit (to keep sunscald at bay).

Pruning is for Indeterminate Tomatoes

As Tricia says in our video on tomato pruning and problem control, ONLY prune vining (indeterminate) tomatoes. The bush (determinate) tomatoes, like 'Roma', stop growing at a pre-determined height and should not be pruned.

START SNIPPING So, once a week, grab your snippers and get up close and personal with your vining tomato plants. See if that gives you a bigger, earlier tomato.

Pruning When Supporting Tomatoes on a String

If you have the set up and space, you can run a horizontal wire across your rows and ties string or twine on the top wire (must be very strong to support your heavy plants) at the position of each plant. Secure the string on the ground with a ground staple (or you can tie it loosely to the bottom of the plant) and you can wrap the plant around the string or tie it to the string. For this method of support it is advised to prune out all your suckers on the plant and only allow one leader to grow. 

Using this method of support allows for the following:

  • Planting tomatoes closer together
  • Saves space by growing vertically and closer planting of plants
  • Makes harvesting easier
  • Better airflow around plants
There are so many ways to grow tomatoes and support them. Experiment and find out what works best for your situation. For more information on plant supports, read our blog on Plant Supports for Garden Vegetables.

     

    5 comments

    • BB, plants grown in pots need to be fertilized frequently since the fertilizer is lost from watering. Sounds like they do not have enough phosphorus. You can feed them an all purpose fertilizer according to the label about every 2-4 weeks.

      Suzanne
    • I have a tomatoe patio plant in a pot that is 15 inch round at top an 10 inch at base, an 15 inch hi an my tomatoes are small in size. I use bought garden soil for tomatoes, why are they growing so small, approx 5/8th of their normal size while ripening well?

      BB
    • Didn’t know about the Missouri method. I’ll check that out. TNX

      Jerry
    • Rich, If you have a really short growing season, starting your seeds early so your transplants are a good size will help you with growing great veggies. You can also utilize floating row covers, or build yourself some hoop houses covered with greenhouse poly. If you have the space you can also consider a greenhouse or grow in a cold frame. When there is a will there is a way. I know of farmers that grow in Maine in greenhouses (or large hoop houses). If you grow Dahlias you may want to lift them for the winter. You can dig them up, put them in pots and locate the pots to an area so the soil in the pots do not freeze.

      Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com
    • I have learned so much from your videos and this post will really save me next year. Here in southern New Jersey, I grow some tomatoes but it ends up being the only crop I really grow. Other than some great perennial herbs and flowers, of course. I realized that this year, the first year I actually started seeds early, that they were overwatered and the pests got to them. My next battle is Pill Bugs. Can I ask you about Dahlia’s?

      Rich

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