Tomato Pruning: Apparently Not a New Concept

By on 29 June, 2012 in Gardening, Outdoors, Sarah Churchman with 0 Comments

Clearing the ground zone. All photos by Sarah Churchman.

Editor’s Note: Few things are as prototypically  quite as Southern as growing your own tomatoes. Texas songwriter Guy Clark even wrote a great song about it. As such, we gladly welcome MML’s newest writer, Sarah Churchman.

Growing tomatoes was nothing new for me when I officially started doing so last year. I had watched my folks grow tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. when I was growing up. I didn’t pay too much attention to the care of them; I just thought it was so cool to see them grow.

Last summer, I planted Roma tomatoes in pots and they did fairly well. I had one really good crop and then they got all leggy and ugly and didn’t do squat. I only wish I had done all the research I did this year back then.

I now consider myself a fairly educated tomato farmer. Granted, I know I have lots left to learn, but I’m going to do my best to pass on interesting tidbits and tutorials to ya’ll as I learn them. Someone out there has to be interested in this stuff. It’s cool to grow your own!

Fast forward to this spring. I planted my tomatoes and peppers in the spot where my grandfather used to plant his, and they started growing and growing and growing.

After the tomatoes got to be about 4 feet tall, I started to notice leaves on the bottom of the stems yellowing and generally looking sickly. This is when I learned that you should prune your tomatoes. Prune? Tomatoes? But aren’t you supposed to let them grow all willy-nilly and stake up all 400 offshoots? Um, yeah … no, Sarah.

First off, once the plant reaches about 3 to 4 feet (you should see a fruit cluster or at least blooms at this point), remove all leaves and non-fruiting branches that contact the ground; they are a breeding ground for disease.

Next, you want prune the growing tomato plant so as have only one main, central stem. This is a lesson I learned too late this year to do really do anything about, which is why my plants have two or three main stems. But not to worry, you can still get lovely tomatoes off such plants. I’m getting tons of cherry tomatoes, and the beefsteaks have started to roll in lately too.

Pruning a tomato plant to have a single stem allows the plant to present all its leaves to the much-needed sun. The majority of the sugar produced will be directed to the developing fruit, since its only competition is the single growing tip at the top of the stem.

So you’ve done all of your heavy pruning. You’ve got as close to a single-stemmed plant as possible (if you started late like me) and now you can sit back and watch the tomatoes roll in, right? Again, no. Darn!

The major “upkeep” part of pruning tomatoes is the removal of the vile little suckers. They will pop up the entire season long, so you should probably look for them every time you water (about twice a week). Trust me, you’ll always find sneaky ones that you’ll swear weren’t there last time.

What are suckers? Well, they are at first small delicate side shoots that grow between your main stem and a branch. They will eventually become a full-fledged branch, but probably won’t bear any fruit. While they give the plant structure, they are evil little sugar-stealing demons and should be pinched off whenever encountered. The plant will use valuable sugar resources to help these little dudes grow instead of directing the good stuff to your fruits.

A sucker, ripe for the pinching.

I find myself looking for suckers and occasionally coming across a big one. I would use clippers to remove the big guys. Sometimes I’ve picked them off and stripped some of the main stem’s skin off too. I’m pretty sure that’s not the best way to do it. So use them clippers, yo!

That’s about it for pruning until it gets towards the end of the season. At some point you’ve got to admit to yourself, that the growing season is coming to a close and there will be no more suckers for you to pinch. So cut off the top of your plant. No, seriously, do it!

It’s called “topping” the plant. You want to do this about a month before the first frost. The green tomatoes left on the plant need to be given every chance to reach their full tomato destiny of becoming salsa or whatever – not hard green rocks. By removing all the growing tips, the plant will concentrate its few lingering days of tomato-ness into fleshing out the last vestiges of a once-thriving tomato plant.

So there you have it: Tomato Pruning 101. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination everything. You could spend a lifetime perfecting your tomato pruning skills. But this should get you started in the right direction.

Here are my go-to articles:

And here’s a video. This man’s tomato plants are awesome and bring great shame to my humble garden: How to Prune Tomatoes – finegardening.com

Sarah Churchman is a full-time web designer+developer, a Board Member for AAF-Montgomery and Montgomery Trees, a cook, gardener, and somewhere in there fits in time to be a DIY’er.  She also is a huge Rush fan and lives in the Garden District.  You can find her on Google+ , Pinterest and occasionally on her food blog, Water Chestnuts Are Gross.

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