Friday, October 30, 2009

Trimming Tomatoes

I was kind of a wimp my first year growing tomatoes. I was so excited to have actual bearing tomatoes in my yard that I let the plants bully me and push me around. I knew I was supposed to trim them—and I made a half-hearted attempt—but around the middle of the season, I just gave up and let them run rampant. I was too afraid of trimming off flowers and potential fruit. I got a lot of tomatoes that year, sure, but ...

Those days are long gone now. I've grown into a harsh taskmaster when it comes to my tomatoes—they only get to do what I want them to do. And ultimately, just like puppies and children, I think they're happier for it.

Trimming tomatoes comes down to control. And it begins with suckers. The photo to the left shows a sucker. These emerge from between almost every branch node and the stem. If you don't pinch them off, they'll form mini branches of their own. But these are suckers—they will reduce the vitality of the plant and the overall size of your fruit. So at the very least, get rid of them religiously. And just because you've pinched it off once doesn't mean it won't come back. So I check for suckers every time I water, and I make sure to check from all angles and sides to make sure none are hiding.

Beyond that, there is the question of the vine itself. Tomato vines naturally split as they grow. You can tell a split from a sucker because the main stem may be lobed, and both of the splits will be approximately the same size. Now, it's up to you what you do with these splits. If you want to grow very large tomatoes, prune off all or most of the splits. If you want more fruit, let the vine naturally split a few times.

Height control is also important. At some point, the vine will hit the maximum height it's allowed. When that happens, pinch off the growing tip (or all the growing tips in a multi-branched vine). You'll have to continue with height control once you start. It will continue trying to grow taller, but just keep snipping away new growth. And don't worry about snipping tiny flowers away—because the plant can't grow any taller, it will put its energy into growing fatter, juicier and thicker tomatoes.

As a side note, you know where I got good at this? Growing hydroponic tomatoes under lights indoors. When you only have 18" of overhead space and a limited area of light intensity, you learn to really clamp down on the plant's growth and control it.

The reward for aggressively pruning tomato vines is better fruit, so this is worth it. If you're like me, your initial worry will be reducing the size of your crop. But I think this is more than offset by getting bigger, healthier fruit.

Up Next: Tomatoes the Professional Way ...


  1. Just wanted to say a hearty Thank You for this blog. This is my first year attempting to grow tomatoes, and you've been a huge help. Really appreciate the advice and you taking the time to post it. Looking forward to seeing how it goes!

  2. Anon,

    Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad I can help. When I first started, I read every book and Internet site I could get my hands on. I hope you have a good grow!