Why is pruning tomatoes popular with some gardeners and not at all by others?
To better understand this question we need to know how a tomato plant grows.
A tomato plant is basically a sugar
factory and for the first few months of its life all the energy goes toward a rapid growth period doubling its size every two weeks.
The main stem gets stronger and taller and eventually the plant will make more sugar than the main stem can use. When this happens, new branches will grow with new leaves and blossoms that will turn into fruit.
This cycle will continue, producing more shoots known as suckers from existing branch stems in a continuous repetitive fashion throughout the plants life cycle. Left unattended the weight of the added stems and the fruit will cause the branches to hang to the ground and from there the plant will grow in a lateral direction resulting in a tangled diseased mess until it dies. To prevent this from happening, gardeners stake or cage the plant so that it will grow in an upward direction.
I have known many gardeners who never prune their tomato plants because they get a greater tomato yield, but the drawback is a smaller tomato and the fruit takes longer to mature. You do save time by not pruning suckers but end up spending more time staking or caging the plant.
Pruning Tomatoes Tip - You need a larger garden area if planting more than one tomato plant that will not be pruned.
Before we discuss pruning tomatoes, it is worth noting you never prune a determinate tomato or more commonly called a bush tomato.
Let me briefly explain. There are two categories of tomatoes known as determinate and indeterminate.
Determinate tomatoes grow between three to five feet and produce all its fruit in a two to three week period after the plant matures. Typically the blossoms develop at the end of the plant stem and a little staking is required if the fruit becomes too heavy and hangs to the ground. Once the plant produces its yield of fruit, its life cycle is over and the plant dies back.
A determinate or bush tomato plant is a great choice to plant if you are mostly interested in making your own tomato sauce. A Roma tomato is an example of a determinate tomato plant, and if making tomato sauce is your passion check with a local nursery for information on other determinate plant varieties you may also want to try.
An indeterminate tomato plant also called a vining plant is the most popular choice vegetable gardeners prefer to grow and the type we use for pruning tomatoes.
What is pruning tomatoes?
Put simply, it means thinning out the tomato plant by pinching off a leaf stem that grows between the main stem and a branch. This newly formed leaf stem is more commonly called a sucker, (where that name came from don't ask). If left alone these suckers will grow into another stem have blossoms, and yes... develop more suckers.
Each and everyone of these developing suckers adds stress to the plants main stem as more nutrients are required to support all this new growth. The more stems a plant produces, the more but smaller fruit and the longer for the fruit to mature.
So what is the correct amount of stems a tomato plant should have?
It comes down to personal preference. Some vegetable gardeners prefer only the main stem and side branches. Other gardeners will allow two, three, but no more than four suckers to grow and develop. My advice if you are a beginner gardener is to start with one main stem and branches only. The tomato plant is more symmetrical, requires less staking and takes up a smaller space in your garden.
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When your tomato plant reaches a height of about eighteen inches, closely look between the main stem and where the branch joins the stem for any new growth, if you notice new stem growth you have identified a sucker.
Pruning tomato suckers is not difficult and most if not all can be removed by simply pinching or bending the sucker in one direction or the other. However, if on your routine check you missed a sucker or two that grew a thick stem too difficult to pinch off go ahead and use a small pruning shear.
Pruning Tomatoes Tip - To prevent introducing pests or disease to your tomato plant do not use a prunning tool that was used on diseased plants or placed on soil.
As any experienced vegetable gardener will tell you, pruning tomatoes should become part of your garden routine, so check at least every ten days to two weeks for any new sucker growth. With a little practice you will be able to scan your tomato plant and remove any new sucker in less than five minutes.
After planting your tomato seedlings, it is always a good idea to prune or remove the bottom branches near the soil. The soil will contain pests and you don't want your plants infected by leaves touching the soil so remove the branches up as high as six to eight inches from the soil.
Pruning Tomatoes Tip - It is normal for the bottom leaves of your tomato plant to turn yellow. When this happens pinch them off.
Now with all this done, stand back and admire your beautiful plant. It will grow in a nice symmetrical shape as high as four or five feet producing full grown juicy tomatoes on a regular basis. But don't forget to always keep a look out for new sucker growth and prune, prune, prune.
Pruning Tomatoes Tip - When watering your tomato plant, try to avoid splashing water up onto the leaves and getting them wet.
I take great joy in tending my garden and probably fuss over it a little too much. But then isn't that what gardening is all about? Getting out in the sunshine, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the tranquil feeling of watching your garden grow. I call it my "health happiness."
For more information about growing tomatoes our pruning tomatoes link will connect you to our website article on this subject. Also, if you are interested in how to stake your tomatoes, be sure to read my article on tomato cage.
Other resources can be found at CT.gov
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