How & Why to Prune Tomatoes

Pruned tomato vineCome summertime, when the air is hot and the sun is high, everyone comes down with a little case of tomato-fever. I'm not sure how this plant entered such epochal proportions as to measure the success of a home gardener, but it has. It seems if you can grow a good tomato, you'll be awarded with some stamp-of-approval from the tomato gods. With that, here is one more demystified trick for you to consider. TOMATO SUCKERS are the small sets of leaves that grow between the main stem, and a leafy branch of tomato plants. These suckers, if left to grow, will be one more flowering & fruiting stem for the plant. These additional fruits will ultimately compete for nutrients from the plant, and over time lessen the chances of all fruit coming to delicious maturity. Our NW season, in particular, can not support such prolific tomato production. Our summers are not uber-hot or long, and so tomatoes do well with a little pruning.

Pruning tomatoes, in this case, refers to snapping off those little suckers.  When the leaves are still small (say, 3-4 inches) you can snap them off with your fingers. If you let them get much larger, it's best to use a set of sheers. Typically, starting mid-July after the plants have some good strong growth and the weather is consistently warm, I snap off suckers without pause from the top half (*) of the plant. Any new suckers coming up from mid-July on will likely not develop in to ripe tomatoes, anyway. (Remember - too short a season!) Additionally, I prune about 30% of the green leaves off the tomato vine, allowing for air to pass through, sun to shine on the fruit (helps with sweetness) and allows me to clearly see when tomatoes are ripe.  This has never caused damage to the plant or overall tomato production.

If this is your first year pruning, start small and be cautious. You'll get the hang of it once you observe how and when different plants set fruit. Our 'job' as home cooks and gardeners, is to produce the most luscious tomato for our table. Keep that in mind, and you won't have a problem getting rid of suckers and excess leaves. I'll post more soon about different tomato varieties and why/how some can be pruned more than others. For now, this is a great start.

One last note -some people (like me) find the leaves of tomato plants highly irritable to their skin. For this reason, I always, always wear gloves when dealing with tomato plants.

* I leave some suckers on the bottom portion of all my small tomato and cherry tomato plants. Because cherry tomatoes are smaller, they ripen faster and therefore, the plant can support more production.