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Pruning Tomato Plants for the Best Tomatoes

Pruning tomatoes plants definitely makes a difference in your tomato production. It’s like Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Not too much… not too little… but juuuusst, right!

According to Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, LSU Ag Center, many people often overlook this simple but important part of the tomato growing process.

However, pruning tomato plants is essential to the health of the plant. You could say that pruning helps keep tomato plants from getting too full of themselves! 😀🤔😉

Pruning Tomato Plants is Like Raising Children

Like raising children, pruning tomatoes is a delicate balance between imbuing them with confidence (the bushy, showy leaves in this analogy), and pruning away the excess (hubris over humility). Too many leaves can detract from the best tomatoes (hubris); having enough leaves helps to protect the tomatoes for the best fruit (confidence).

Too Much Foliage Invites Issues

With the plants too bushy and full, not only is the plant working hard sending nutrients into the leaves that could be going into tomatoes, but the full foliage provides ample hiding places for garden pests that prey on your tomato plants and fruit.

Full foliage also reduces airflow which creates is also a ready environment for disease to incubate and grow, which is also a good reason to remove the bottom suckers that can grow heavy and close to–or on—the ground.

Determinant Varieties are Bushier

Before pruning, you must determine which kind of tomatoes you’re growing. Determinant – bushier variety or the indeterminate vine type? Some people have both types. We’re just growing indeterminate this year.

If you’re a beginning gardener new to growing tomatoes and not familiar with these terms, it can be confusing. To help you with that we’ve linked a helpful video by Burpee in the reference section at the end of this article.

For a quick rundown on the pruning of these kinds of tomato plants, here’s a snapshot.

Our favorite pruner is by Felco available on Amazon or your local home and hardware store. You can read more about our top tools in this article. We appreciate that Felco even has pruners for smaller hands, as well… an often overlooked need, especially for women and children gardeners.

If you're a beginning gardener new to growing tomatoes and not familiar with these terms, it can be confusing. To help you with that we've linked a helpful video by Burpee in the reference section at the end of this article. The video walks you through the characteristics of each and helps you determine whether you want to grow one or both types of tomatoes.

Pruning Tomato Plants

Excerpted from the LSU Ag Center

One of the most often overlooked growing practices is pruning tomatoes.

Excerpted from the LSU Ag Center

Tomato Pruning by Type

Determinate Type

To properly prune a determinate tomato, pinch all suckers from the ground level to the first flower cluster. See the diagram 1 below, and pinch the areas shown with red circles around them.

You will want to pinch the sucker at the base. Remove the sucker while it is small. If you wait until the suckers are the diameter of a pencil or larger, you run the risk of stripping the outer layer of tissue (the cambium layer) from the main stem. Leaving a large open wound may enable fungus and other unwanted pests to attack your tomato shrub.

A sucker is a small stem that is growing at a 45 degree angle between the main trunk and stem of a plant.

DIAGRAM 1 – Pruning Determinate Tomatoes

Pruning tomato plants
Pruning Tomato Plants – Determinate Type:
Pinch all suckers from the ground level to the first flower cluster.

Indeterminate Type

To properly prune an indeterminate tomato, prune all suckers from the ground level up to the second flower cluster. See diagram 2. Follow the same instructions as for determinate tomatoes.[1]https://www.lsuagcenter.com/topics/lawn_garden/home_gardening/vegetables/home_garden_crops/pruningtomatoes

DIAGRAM 2 – Pruning Indeterminate Tomatoes

Pruning tomato plants, indeterminate tomato plants, pruning indeterminate tomato plants
Pruning Tomato Plants – Indeterminate Type
graphic by LSUagCenter.com

Grounded or Airborne?

If Your Growing Your Tomatoes on the Ground

Now that we have the pruning of tomato plant types sorted, let’s move on to how you plan to handle them. If you are letting the plants remain on the ground, then it’s best not to prune so as to leave most of the leaves alone to protect the fruits from the sun scalding.

We know gardeners who get great results letting the plants grow naturally along the ground. However. many growers advocate staking, trellising, and/or caging their tomatoes. Each approach will require a certain amount of pruning.

Tomato clips that are quick and easy but still provide a loose enough fit to not strangle plant growth.

Our nearby Virginia Cooperative Extension Service advises keeping the ‘maters off the ground:

Plants should be staked or caged. Trellising is an intermediate method. Though growing upward requires more initial work, this makes caring for tomatoes easier than letting them sprawl out horizontally. Since they are off the ground, fruit rots are reduced, spraying is easier and harvesting is much less work.1

For more on how to construct you own tomato “containers” see our article on building tomato cages. Tomato Cages You Can Build [2]https://www.gardensall.com/tomato-cages/ .

Growing tomatoes vertically, saves space, protects the fruit and plants, and simplifies growing, tending and harvesting.

Velcro plant ties to cut to size.
Velcro plant ties cut to size; comes in different colors which can be helpful for plant identification.
Soft and stretchy plant tape. Takes a little more time but tends to be best for plants.
Soft and stretchy plant tape. Takes a little more time but tends to be best for plants.

Staking Tomato Plants

  • As the plants grow, pull the stems toward the stakes and tie loosely.
  • Prune staked tomatoes to either one or two main stems.
  • At the junction of each leaf and the first main stem a new shoot will develop.
  • If plants are trained to two stems, choose one of these shoots, normally at the first or second leaf-stem junction, for the second main stem.
  • Remove all other shoots, called suckers, weekly to keep the plant to these two main stems.
  • Pinch or snap shoots off with your fingers or use a blade, scissors, or pruners for thicker stems.

Pruning with a blade, scissors or pruners helps to minimize plant damage and speed healing.

The following videos by Mark Hutton with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service, shows one way of trellising.

How to Stake Tomatoes – Part 1

Trellising

Both the single stem and two stem pruning methods are quite similar to staking. It’s very important to leave enough leaf cover to prevent sun scald.

There are many ways to trellis tomatoes however, the basics of pruning tomato plants are the same.

How to Trellis Tomatoes – Part 2

Caging Tomatoes

Caging requires only minimal pruning and many say the caging method is most productive. Because there is more leaf cover, the fruits are less exposed to the sun and creatures that might consume them.  Here’s a quick review of the strategies for corralling your growing crops by Burpee.

Now that you’ve seen these ideas on how to grow, control, and optimize your tomatoes, get on out there and garden! May this season bring you a cornucopia of tasty veggies!

For more on growing tomatoes, you may enjoy this article on how to grow tomatoes, which also includes a pollination tip that can significantly increase your yield.

In this article we share the jute twine method of staking tomatoes that we’re using.

We love the awesome feature image by Lukasbieri on Pixabay.

So on we grow!

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  1. https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-418/426-418_pdf.pdf []
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