Pruning cherry tomato plants

Prune tomatoes to grow larger more flavorful tomatoes.

Here are six good reasons to prune tomatoes:

  1. To grow more flavorful tomatoes.
  2. To grow larger tomatoes.
  3. To grow more tomatoes over the length of a season.
  4. To keep plant leaves and fruits off the ground and away from pests, insect damage, and fungal disease.
  5. To keep plants smaller and more compact.
  6. To allow tomatoes on the plant at the end of the season to ripen before the first frost.

Best tips on How to Grow Tomatoes.

Pruning a tomato means removing unneeded growth tips from the plant. These growing tips are sometimes called shoots or suckers. Growth tips are the new growth–the small leafy-bud growth–located in the “V” or crotch between two stems.

Pruning or pinching away new growth allows a tomato plant to concentrate its energy on the development of fruit rather than new foliage. Plant sugars used to make new growth are instead used to concentrate flavor and grow larger, healthier tomatoes.


Determinate and indeterminate tomatoes:

Tomatoes can be divided into two growth habit categories: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes usually require no pruning. Indeterminate tomatoes perform best if pruned.

• A determinate tomato grows to a genetically pre-determined size and then stops. Beefsteak and sandwich tomatoes are mostly determinate tomatoes. These tomatoes are bushy and self-topping. All of the blossoms and fruit on a determinate tomato develop at the end of growing tips at about the same time.

• Indeterminate tomatoes grow unchecked. They produce vine-like stems. These tomatoes continually produce new stems, leaves, and fruit until the plant dies. Cherry and salad tomatoes are mostly indeterminate tomatoes. The growth tips of indeterminate tomato plants do not set fruit; fruit is set on side shoots as the plant continues to grow. An indeterminate tomato will have blossoms and fruits at all stages of development throughout its life. Pruning is the best way to contain an indeterminate tomato.

When to prune a tomato plant. You can prune a tomato at any time, when it is small or when it has grown large. If you know you want to contain the size of a tomato plant prune early. A tomato plant can first be pruned when it is just 12 to 18 inches tall.

Tomato pruning objectives:

  • Prune to create one to four strong stems.
  • Prune each stem to about the same length. Prune to keep the plant at a manageable size.
  • Prune to keep leaves and stems off the ground by removing the leaves and stems below the first set of fruit.
  • Prune so that leave do not shade other leaves. (Sunshine must hit leaves for photosynthesis to occur. Photosynthesis is necessary for the production of plant sugars which are required for plant and fruit growth.)
  • Avoid pruning away leaves above fruit clusters; these leaves protect fruit and stems below from sunburn.
  • Prune to allow air circulation to the center of the plant. Air circulation helps deter diseases and insects.

Tomato pruning step by step:

Begin pruning when the tomato plant is established and strong. Here’s how:

  1. After the plant is 12 to 18 inches tall, allow the first set of blossoms to grow. (Nip away any blossoms that come before.) This first set of blossoms will become the plant’s first fruit cluster.
  2. Remove all of the leaves and suckers below the first blossom cluster. They are not needed.
  3. Decide if you want one main growing stem or more. Single stem tomatoes do not require much space and can be grown close together. However, single stem tomatoes produce fewer fruits than multi-stemmed plants. (Most tomato growers allow plants to develop two or three and sometimes four growing stems.)
  4. To grow a two-stemmed plant, allow a growth tip or shoot to grow from the leaf axil or “V” above the first blossom cluster. This will become the second stem.
  5. To grow a three-stemmed plant, allow the growth tip to grow from the leaf axil directly above the second stem. Main growing stems should not be separated by more than a leaf node. This will insure that the plant grows strong from its base.
  6. When you decide to prune, do not pinch away the growth tip too soon. Allow two sets of leaves to develop on a sucker or side shoot before pinching out the growth tip. Pinch above the two sets of leaves; these leaves will protect fruit and stems below from sun damage.
  7. Re-check the plant once a week to pinch out new unwanted growing tips.
  8. When the plant reaches the desired height–usually no taller than its support, 4 or 5 feet is good–consistently pinch out all new growing tips. In a week or so time, the plant will quit trying to put out new growth at the topmost part of the plant and concentrate on new growth and fruit below. Continue to pinch out any new growth that you do not want. Keep training this way and the plant will develop a more compact shape, and it will begin to flower and set fruit more heavily throughout its height.
  9. Whenever you are in doubt, do less pruning than more. As you gain experience, pruning will grow easier and become intuitive.

To be clear, the growing tip is not the actual highest point of the plant but the new growth just below in the “V” of the leaf axil, where one shoot branches off from another. It is this new growth that you are pinching away.

Growing tips–also called terminal buds–have specialized plant cells called meristem. Meristem cells produce a hormone called auxin that inhibits cells below the topmost growing tip from dividing and creating significant new growth. By pinching out the meristem tissue at the topmost growing tip of the plant, auxin is no longer produced and the meristem tissue in the axils below will start new cell division. This directs the plant to concentrate its growing efforts and sugars on the foliage and fruit below.

Pruning tomatoes:

How to prune or pinch out new growth. Use your thumb and forefinger to pinch out the growth tip or sucker. Pinch out new growth when it is small, between 2 and 4 inches long. Simply break or pinch the new growth off after flexing it back and forth. If a sucker is thick and does not pinch away freely, use a retractable knife blade to slice it away. Prune before suckers are too large, otherwise you will leave a large pruning wound through which tomato disease may enter. Prune when the plant is dry; tomato diseases are often spread in drops of water.

(Just so you know: there are two methods of tomato pruning, “simple pruning” and “Missouri pruning.” In the simple pruning method, you pinch out any sucker or shoot sucker not destined to be a stem. Pinch it at its base. Using the Missouri method, you pinch off the growing tip after you have allowed two sets of leaves to form on the new shoot. This is the method described above. The Missouri method is used to regain control of a plant that has gone largely unpruned and become unwieldly.)

Pruning overgrown or leggy plants. You can prune or top a tomato plant that is out of control, leggy, or threatens to overwhelm its support–a stake, a trellis, or cage.

To prune an overgrown tomato, step back and take a good look at the plant. Determine which stems are the strongest stems. Prune to establish these stems as the main stems, usually two to four stems. Prune away no more than one-third of the total plant. To prune away more may send the plant into shock.

When you begin, first eliminate stems that are broken or diseased. Next, carefully cut away stems that are not part of the final vision you have for the plant. A few big cuts, will quickly open up the plant and give it form.

Once large stem cuts are completed, prune from the top systematically pinching or cutting the plant back to the desired height. As you work your way down, continue to step back and visualize the plant pruned. Eliminate unwanted foliage as you work your way down. You may have to prune away some blossoms and undeveloped fruit. Keep in mind that the plant will be stronger and more productive in the long run. Don’t worry, the plant will rebloom.

A heavily pruned tomato will need a couple of weeks to recover. Once its wounds are healed and the plant recognizes its new growing point, it will begin to produce new foliage and flowers.

Pruning at the end of the season. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to set blossoms and produce fruit until they die when the first frost comes. To get the most fruit from your plant, begin pinching away new suckers and blossom clusters four weeks before the average first frost date. The plant will direct the energy it was using for new growth to the ripening of fruit already on the plant.

Supporting tomatoes:

Support your tomatoes. Both determinate and indeterminate tomatoes will benefit from support. For indeterminate tomatoes, support is essential.

It is best to set tomato supports–stakes, trellises, or cages–in place early, before you begin to prune, about 2 to 3 weeks after transplanting. This will allow you to train the tomato to its support, to prune so that the plant takes full benefit from its support.

• Stakes. Stakes are commonly used to support single stem plants. Place the stake 3 to 4 inches away from the newly transplanted tomato and train its main stem up the stake. Tie the plant to the stake with loose garden twine or a stretchy horticultural tape. A determinate tomato will need a stake 3 to 4 feet tall (early-season tomatoes that ripen in 70 days or less will not need staking or pruning), a indeterminate tomato will need a stake 5 to 6 feet tall. Use one- to two-inch square wooden stakes or metal stakes. Staked, single trunk tomato plants can be spaced as close as 12 inches apart.

• Trellises. Trellises for tomato plants are supports similar to horizontal wire supports used to support berry canes. Trellises are useful when you are growing several multi-trunk tomato plants in a row. Drive a stake just to the outside of every other plant, about 4 inches from the main stem. Run heavy twine or wire between the posts. As the plants grow tall, gently move their branches to the cross wires and loosely tie the stems to the trellis. Grow the tomatoes to the top of the support and then remove or top new growth. As plants grow wide, you can string twine between the posts to contain the plants and keep them from sprawling, or you can tie stems along the cross-wires like grapes.

• Cages. Cages are useful for multi-stemmed free-standing tomatoes not growing in a row. Square or triangular cages may offer more balance than round cages. Use a stake to anchor light cages and keep them from toppling. Prune the tomato to fit the confines of the cage and top the plant when it reaches the top of the cage.

Pruning Tomato Plants – Tips On Removing Tomato Plant Leaves

As you read and learn about a specific plant’s pruning needs and preferences, you may develop some pruning anxiety. This is especially true of pruning shrubs, which have all sorts of strict rules like, “prune immediately after flowering,” “only cut back during dormancy” or “cut the flower stem above an outward facing bud or above a five-leaflet.” With such specific pruning rules, you may feel like you need to set up a diagram next to a shrub to prune it properly.

Not all plants are fussy about pruning, though. Most annual and perennial plants are much more laid back when it comes to pruning habits. Forget to deadhead them? They’ll forgive you. Cut it back too short? No worries, it’ll fill back out in no time. One of my favorite forgiving plants to care for are tomato plants.

Can I Cut Tomato Leaves?

Yes, you can. Many years ago, before I really knew anything at all about plants or gardening, I bought a small starter Sweet 100 tomato plant. I planted it in a large pot on a sunny balcony and in just a few weeks it sprawled all over the balcony railings, covered with fruit blossoms. Then one night a particularly nasty storm blew it off the balcony, ripping many of its stems off, battering and bending what remained. I was heartbroken and figured that was the end of my tomato plant. Still, I placed it in a safer spot and cut off all the broken and damaged stems.

After I removed all the damage, it was as small as it had been when I purchased it. I didn’t have much hope that I would get any tomatoes from it, but every evening I found myself sitting next to it, enjoying the summer breeze and carelessly picking at any suspicious looking leaf on the plant. The way it responded to my pruning reminded me of the mythical hydra, sprouting new stems, leaves and flowers wherever I snipped and pinched.

Your tomato plant won’t really instantly grow three new stems in the place of every stem you cut, but it will reward your pruning efforts with a bounty of delicious fruit. Regularly pruning tomato plants will help the plant produce more fruit. Plants need foliage to create energy from photosynthesis, but the growth and development of foliage uses up a lot of the plant’s energy that could be used for fruit production. Removing dead, diseased or just unnecessary leaves and stems from tomato plants increases the fruit.

Cutting Leaves on Tomatoes

When it comes to cutting back tomato plants, there are some things you need to know. Tomato plants fall in to two categories: determinate or indeterminate.

Determinate tomato plants are shrub-like. They grow to a certain height, then stop growing up and instead fill out and grow bushier. Determinate tomato plants also go to flower and fruit all at once. Patio, Roma and Celebrity are a few popular varieties of determinate tomato plants. Because they fruit in a shorter time span and grow as more compact plants, determinate tomato plants need less pruning.

When you first plant a determinate tomato, you should prune off any flower sets that form before the plant is 18-24 inches tall. This will redirect the plant’s energy from flower formation to developing strong roots.

As the plant grows, prune out any crossing, crowded, damaged or diseased stems and foliage to keep the plant open, airy and free of pest and disease. Removing tomato plant leaves that grow just beneath the flower sets will send more energy to fruit formation.

Indeterminate tomato plants are more like wild vines. These grow as long as they can go and continually bear new fruit sets. You can save space in the garden and focus on fruit production by growing indeterminate tomato plants vertically up poles, arbors, trellises, fences or as an espalier. They can be trained and trimmed easily to grow as single stemmed, heavy fruit bearing plants by removing excess tomato plant leaves and sucker stems that form along the main stem.

Many heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and Better Boy tomatoes are popular varieties of indeterminate tomato plants. In late summer, they can be top pruned to redirect the plant’s energy into ripening its last fruits.

When pruning tomato plants, or any plants, focus first on removing foliage, fruits or stems that show any sign of disease or pests. Then sanitize your tools and wash your hands to prevent the spread of any pests or disease that may have been present.

Sometimes, your tomato plants seem to grow at a pace that is completely out of control. I have seen this happen in my garden before, and you may also be seeing it in your garden this year. You are probably also wondering, just as I did, why this tall growth of tomato plants happens.

So, why are your tomato plants growing so tall? Tomato plants will grow tall and thin (spindly) due to a lack of sunlight. Tomato plants will also grow tall without flowers or fruit due to over fertilization, especially when high levels of nitrogen are present. Finally, tomato plants will grow tall if you have planted an indeterminate tomato variety (some can reach heights of 9 feet or taller!)

Of course, there are ways to prevent the problem of extremely tall tomatoes. If you are already experiencing this problem in your garden, there are ways to fix it without losing your crop. Let’s take a closer look at why tomato plants grow so tall, and the steps you can take to address the problem in your garden.

Why Are My Tomato Plants Growing So Tall?

As mentioned before, tomato plants can grow tall due to a lack of sunlight, over fertilization due to excessive nitrogen, or simply because they are an indeterminate variety. Let’s start off by examining what happens when tomato plants experience a lack of sunlight, and how to solve this problem.

Your Tomato Plants Are Tall And Thin Due To A Lack Of Sunlight

According to the University of New Hampshire, tomato plants require full sunlight, growing best in areas that receive full sun for most of the day.

Tomato plants need full sunlight, so they may grow tall and thin (spindly) when trying to reach for the light if they are not getting enough of it!

If your tomato plants are not receiving enough sunlight during the day, they will grow “spindly” (tall and thin) instead of thick and strong. This happens because the plant is stretching itself out to grow as tall as possible.

This can happen if there is not enough sunlight getting to the plant in its current location. It can also happen if other nearby plants are blocking sunlight from the tomato plant.

You don’t want your tomatoes to grow spindly, since this will decrease the tomato yield at harvest time. So how can you prevent tall and spindly tomatoes?

First, plan ahead and check the location of your garden to make sure your tomato plants will get enough sunlight during the entire growing season.

If there are any trees directly overhead, trim the branches or cut down the entire tree. If that is not practical, then consider moving the tomatoes to another spot in your garden. You can even move the entire garden to a brighter spot in your yard to take advantage of more hours of sunlight.

Also, make sure that your garden is not too close to a house, barn, or garage. Otherwise, the structure can block sunlight during the day and cause your tomato plants to grow tall and spindly.

Finally, you should regularly check the amount of sunlight your tomato plants are getting during the growing season. If there are taller, leafy plants nearby (including other tomato plants!), they may be competing with the tomatoes by blocking some of their sunlight.

To prevent this problem, be sure to use adequate spacing between tomato plants. The spacing for tomato plants will vary depending on the variety, but a good general rule is 1 to 3 feet (30 to 91 centimeters) between plants, with more space between rows.

Remember to leave enough space (1 to 3 feet) between your tomato plants. The distance will depend on the variety, so check the seed packet or catalog to make sure.

For more information, check out this article from on tomato plants from the University of New Hampshire Extension.

Your Tomato Plants Are Tall Without Flowers Or Fruit Due To Over Fertilization

Tomato plants may grow very tall if they are over fertilized, especially with nitrogen-rich fertilizers. The idea is that the nitrogen (the “greening nutrient”) causes the stems and leaves to grow large and thick, at the expense of flowers or fruit.

Excessive nitrogen can cause tomato plants to produce lots of green while neglecting to produce fruit. Of course, you should also make sure proper pollination is happening!

This sometimes makes for a tall tomato plant with few flowers or fruit. Of course, a lack of fruiting can be due to inadequate pollination. For more information, check out my article on how to hand pollinate tomato plants.

You can also try blossom set spray, which causes flowers to set fruit, even if pollinators are nowhere to be found. You can check out blossom set spray on the Gardener’s Supply Company website.

To avoid the problem of over fertilization, try using low-nitrogen fertilizers for your tomato plants. For more information, check out my article on low-nitrogen fertilizers.

Your Tomato Plants Are Tall Because They Are An Indeterminate Variety

This is a common problem, since indeterminate tomato varieties will grow as long as they are able to do so (generally until the first frost of the season). In an area with a long growing season, this means that some indeterminate tomato plants will reach a height of 10 feet or even taller!

This makes it difficult for anyone to harvest the fruit on the top part of the plant. It also makes it more likely that the plant will fall over in the wind, or due to the weight of its own stem, branches, and fruit.

Luckily, there are several solutions for this problem – you can use some or all of these ideas as the situation warrants.

Let Your Indeterminate Tomatoes Grow Up And Then Down

If your tomato plants are growing too tall, then simply double the amount of space they have available to grow! Let them climb up one side and down the other side of an arbor.

An arbor is a garden feature that is often used at the entrance to a garden. However, you can place an arbor anywhere in your garden and allow your tomato plant to grow up and over the structure.

An arbor can create a “living arch” in your garden, and you can use it to support indeterminate tomatoes so that their height does not get out of hand.

This makes it much easier to harvest any fruit on the uppermost branches. For more information, check out my article on arbors.

You can also let your tomato plants grow up and over an A-frame trellis. An A-frame trellis serves the same purpose as an arbor, but with a pointed top instead of a flat or arched top.

For more information, check out my article on trellises.

As an added bonus, you can plant shorter, shade-tolerant plants (such as lettuce or spinach) beneath the arbor or A-frame. This will save space in your garden and allow your plants to help each other to grow!

Provide Taller Supports For Your Indeterminate Tomato Plants

You can also use taller stakes instead of cages if you need more height to allow your tomato plants to grow. Remember that cages are more useful for determinate tomato plants that only grow to a height of 3 to 5 feet.

Indeterminate tomato plants will need tall stakes for support – tomato cages are generally insufficient for such tall varieties.

Also, remember that you will need to drive a good portion of the stake into the ground to keep it steady, so that it does not fall over from the weight of the tomato plant. This means that you will want a 10-foot tall stake, driven 2 feet into the ground, in order to give a tomato plant 8 feet of pole to climb.

For more information, check out my article on how to support tomato plants.

Prune (Top) Your Indeterminate Tomato Plants

Sometimes, even the use of arbors, A-frame trellises, and tall stakes are simply not enough. Your indeterminate tomato plants may just be too tall, and you cannot give them the space they need to grow.

In that case, you can “top” them, or prune the top part of the plant away, to prevent them from falling over after they outgrow their supports. Topping prevents the tomato plant from getting too tall. As an added bonus, you can make new plants out of the trimmings from the trimmed tops of the plants.

In order to top your tomato plant, cut off the top part of the main vine (the part that is growing higher than you would like). You may be able to snap off the top of the stem using your fingers and hands.

If not, sanitize a knife or pruning shears with alcohol to use for cutting. Clean the knife or shears with alcohol between each new cut, to avoid spreading disease between your plants (better to be safe than sorry!)

If you use pruning shears to top your tomato plants, be sure to clean thoroughly with alcohol between cuts to avoid the spread of diseases.

One important thing to remember is that you should not remove too many leaves at once when pruning your plant. Otherwise, you might expose the fruit on the tomato plant to sunscald.

Sunscald occurs when intense direct sunlight causes white or yellow spots on the fruit of tomatoes (or peppers). For more information, check out this article about sunscald on the Joe Gardener website.

Finally, if you want to get new tomato plants from this topping exercise, simply plant the trimmings deep in the soil to create new plants.

For more information, check out my article on why to plant tomatoes deep in the soil.


By now, you have a much better idea of why your tomato plants are growing so tall. You also know how to prevent the problem, and how to treat it if it is already happening this year.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information. If you have any questions about tomato plants that grow tall, please leave a comment below.

Want more information about growing tomatoes? Check out my article on the top mistakes to avoid when growing tomatoes.

Garden Myths – Learn the truth about gardening

A local gardening group was touring a greenhouse operation that grew tomatoes. The tour guide told the visitors that they removed the lower leaves from the plants because “they robbed nutrients from the upper part of the plant that was producing fruit”. In short, removing lower leaves resulted in a better harvest. It is unclear if that means larger tomatoes or more tomatoes.

Some home gardeners remove lower leaves believing that they will get a better harvest. Others don’t bother and claim they get a good harvest without the extra effort. Who is right?

Growing Tomatoes – Should You Remove Bottom Leaves?

Growing Tomatoes – Should You Remove Bottom Leaves?

After doing some significant research I can honestly conclude that the issue is as clear as mud – but an answer is emerging – read on.

Robbing Nutrients

The original claim is that the lower leaves rob nutrients from the plant. The first question to ask is, “what does the term nutrients refer to?”. Are they the basic nutrients used by the plant such as NPK? These are the nutrients that a plant uses to produce sugars through the process of photosynthesis. Or does the word nutrients refer to the sugars produced during photosynthesis?

If the lower leaves are using NPK, then it means the leaves are photosynthesizing and therefore producing sugars. Rather than being a drain on the plant this would seem to be helping the plant.

As leaves die they return most unused NPK back to the plant. Lower leaves will therefore not be robbing the plant of these kinds of nutrients.

It is more likely that the tour guide used the wrong term; instead of ‘nutrients’ they meant to say ‘sugars’. If the lower leaves are no longer carrying out photosynthesis effectively they can become a sugar drain on the plant. In this case the upper leaves would have to make enough sugars for both fruit production and for maintaining the lower leaves.

Greenhouse Production of Tomatoes

Let’s first have a look at the growth of tomatoes in greenhouses. Greenhouses grow mostly indeterminate varieties which keep growing taller and taller. As they grow they continue to produce new fruit clusters.

In greenhouse production (at least in Ontario, Canada) it is common to allow each plant to hold 15-18 leaves which supports 5-6 fruit clusters. This gives a 3:1 ratio of leaves to fruit cluster. A single plant can be grown for 9 months and can reach 50 ft in length. Imagine the ‘module’ of 15-18 leaves slowly moving up from the root system as the plant grows.

Lower leaves are removed to maintain the 15-18 leaf module for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with disease. As plants grow taller, the lower levels of the greenhouse become more humid, increasing the possibility of disease. By removing the bottom leaves the greenhouse operation keeps the floor area cleaner and reduces the risk of disease.

The second reason has to do with available light. As the plant grows, the upper leaves start to shade the lower leaves. With less available light, the lower leaves can reach a point where they draw more sugars from the plant, than they can produce themselves, having a negative impact on fruit production. Greenhouses maximize their growing space and plant as close together as they can. To prevent any impact on production due to a loss of light, they remove lower leaves.

The above information was obtained from Dr. Barry Micallef, University of Guelph, who specializes in plant nutrition and greenhouse operations. Other references indicate different ratios of leaves to fruit clusters. For example, the Alberta government recommends a 1:1 leaf to tomato cluster ratio and a study in Brazil found that a ratio of 3:2 produced the best yields.The ratio does depend on the variety being grown and may also depend on other cultural conditions.

The University of Arizona report on growing tomatoes says the following. Keep in mind that Arizona is hotter, and sunnier than most of North America.

“Some growers prefer to shade tomatoes, while others do not. Theoretically, shading will reduce photosynthesis, and therefore total yield, however, this has not always been shown in controlled studies. In fact, in some studies, total yield was improved using 30% shadecloth. Shading can improve fruit quality, since direct sunlight on fruit can cause yellow or green shoulders, cracking, and russeting. Alternatively, older leaves can be left in place to shade the individual fruit trusses. In areas of high summer temperatures and humidity, shading may be necessary to keep temperatures within a reasonable range.”

Removal of lower leaves does seem to be the common practice in greenhouse production.

Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden

Home gardeners grow both determinate and indeterminate varieties of tomatoes, and these may need to be treated differently.

Determinate tomatoes are genetically programed to only grow to a certain size and they rarely get large enough to have a module of 18 leaves and 5-6 fruit clusters before they stop growing. The lower leaves of these types of tomatoes never need to be removed to maximize yield.

The size of indeterminate plants will depend on where they are grown. A long growing season will produce taller plants. In northern climates we struggle just to get the plants producing fruit before the first frost. The plants never get very tall here and therefore it is not necessary to remove lower leaves to maximize yield. In warm climates where you can grow tomatoes outside for much of the year, it might be beneficial to remove lower leaves once you have 18 leaves but this depends on how close together you plant. If your plants are grown with adequate space between them, light will reach the lower leaves and they don’t have to be removed.

When lower leaves start getting yellow it is a sign that they are shutting down and they should be removed before they become a sugar drain on the rest of the plant. As long as they are green they are photosynthesizing and producing sugars for fruit production.

Tomato Disease Control?

In the last few paragraphs I talked only about fruit production. What about disease control? The common advice for gardeners is that they should remove lower leaves so that soil borne diseases are not splashed up onto plant leaves. This certainly seems to make sense – but is it true?

A number of diseases are not spread by splashing water. Fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt are both fungal infections that take place at the root level, not on the plant itself. Late blight can only live on living tissue and so does not overwinter under ground. However a few diseases can be spread from soil to a plant with splashing water, early blight and anthracnose being examples.

Cleaning up remaining plant material in the fall is the best way to prevent diseases next year. Adding a good mulch is also effective since it prevents diseases from being transmitted from soil to the leaves. In fall you should also remove the mulch along with old plant material – you can’t really separate the two.

Another way to prevent diseases from the soil is to remove the lower couple of leaves. Splashing water from the soil will not rise up too far, so removing a couple of leaves can be effective to prevent some diseases. If these leaves are removed too soon, it will delay the production of the first fruit cluster because the plant needs a certain amount of excess sugar built up before it starts to fruit.

The best approach is to mulch under the tomato plant. Leave the lower leaves on the plant. If you tend to have disease problems you can remove a leaf or two after the first fruit is set. If you don’t have disease problems, leave the leaves on for a while longer.

My experience is that the wilts and early blight infect the plants, but don’t interfere significantly with the harvest. Keep in mind I am in a northern climate, zone 5, and I don’t grow heirlooms – yet. Late blight just kills the plants so quickly that removing leaves once you see the disease will make no difference. I rarely remove the lower leaves.

For the purpose of fruit production there seems to be no benefit in removing the lower leaves in the home garden so long as the lower leaves are still green and getting enough light. Once they yellow remove them. If disease is a problem for you, there is a benefit to removing the lower leaves to combat diseases that are splashed up from the soil.

The following are excellent references for growing tomatoes:

1) Diseases and disorders of Tomatoes:

2) Growing Tomatoes and Pruning Tomatoes:

3) Photo Source: Dan Klimke

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Pruning tomatoes is the best way to keep your plants healthy, and maximize yield. In this post, I’ll tell you why you should trim tomatoes, which types need it, and when to do it. Then I’ll show you exactly how to prune tomatoes step-by-step.

If your tomato plants grow huge every summer, but don’t produce much fruit, then it’s time to bring out your pruning shears. Getting into the habit of trimming tomatoes on a regular basis will give you the best yield.

Some people are intimidated by the thought pruning plants. But don’t worry, I’m going to make this super easy for you! Below I will walk you through everything in detail.

Here’s what you’ll find in this guide to pruning tomatoes…

  • What Types Need Pruning?
  • Do Tomatoes Need To Be Pruned?
  • Why Should They Be Pruned?
  • What Are Tomato Suckers?
  • When To Prune
  • Tools To Use
  • How To Prune
  • FAQs
    • How much should I prune?
    • How do I make my plants bushy?
    • When should you top the plants?
    • Should I cut off dead leaves?
    • When should I thin my plants?
    • Should I pinch off the flowers?

What Types Of Tomatoes Need Pruning?

Before we jump into the details of trimming tomatoes, it’s important to understand that there are two types to consider: determinate and indeterminate. Learn how to tell the difference here.

The reason it’s important to know the difference between them is because they don’t require the same amount of pruning. Pruning determinate tomatoes is super easy…

  • How to prune determinate tomatoes – Remove the suckers at the bottom of the plant, only up to the first flower cluster. Do not prune the top branches, or it could negatively impact fruit production.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that! However, pruning indeterminate tomatoes is a bit more complicated. So, the rest of this post is all about that.

Large tomato plants overgrowing the cage

Do Tomato Plants Need To Be Pruned?

Pruning isn’t required in order to grow a healthy crop of yummy tomatoes. If you’re happy with how your plant looks, and the number of tomatoes it’s been producing, then there’s no need to trim it.

But if it’s overgrown and hasn’t been producing many tomatoes, then it’s time to give it a good trim.

Why Should Tomato Plants Be Pruned?

Regularly pruning tomatoes is very beneficial to the plant, and can result in even more fruit. Here are a few reasons why it’s to important to trim tomatoes regularly…

  • Results in higher yields – If you don’t prune tomatoes, they’ll spend a lot of energy on growing leaves and suckers. This can take away from fruit production, meaning you won’t get as many tomatoes.
  • Prevents disease – Thinning tomatoes improves airflow, and helps to prevent fungus issues. Proper pruning will also help to prevent blight, and other soil-borne diseases.
  • Keeps them looking nice – Unpruned tomatoes can look overgrown and weedy. Plus, when they outgrow their support, they can quickly flop to the ground.
  • More ripe tomatoes – Timely pruning encourages the fruit to ripen faster. That means you won’t be stuck with a ton of green tomatoes that don’t have time to turn red before frost.

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Done pruning the bottom of my tomato plant

What Are Tomato Suckers?

Tomato suckers are the extra growth that appears between the stem and a branch joint. If left to grow, suckers will become another branch that can develop flowers, and even tomatoes.

The reason to remove them is because they compete for the energy available to the plant. This extra growth can cause the fruits to be smaller, and lower overall tomato yield.

Once you remove the suckers, your plant can dedicate more energy to producing tomatoes, rather than wasting it on the weak sucker growth.

Suckers can also make the plant look overgrown, and cause it to become very heavy. So pinching them out on a regular basis allows you to control their size and shape.

A sucker on a tomato plant

When To Prune Tomatoes

It’s best to start pruning tomatoes when they’re small, as soon as the flowers begin to form. Then keep up with it on a regular basis throughout the summer. This will allow them to produce as many tomatoes as possible.

Then in late summer, you should get more aggressive with it. At this point, you can top the plants, and pinch out any new flowers. This will help the fruits ripen much faster, so you’re not stuck with a bunch of green tomatoes when frost comes.

Tools For Trimming Tomatoes

You can simply pinch off small suckers on tomatoes with your fingers. If you don’t like the smell on your hands, then use a pair of micro-tip pruners.

It’s best to cut off larger suckers, stems, and leaves using pruning shears to avoid damaging the main stem. Personally, I like using precision pruners for the job.

Whatever cutting tool you decide to use, always be sure to clean and sharpen them before pruning tomatoes. That will help to prevent any damage or disease issues.

Related Post: How To Build Sturdy Tomato Cages

Pinching tomato plant suckers

How To Prune Tomato Plants

You don’t have to worry too much about over pruning, tomatoes can handle a pretty heavy trim. But it is important to know how to prune tomatoes in order to ensure you’re doing what’s best for their health, and to maximum fruit production.

Here are the steps for trimming tomatoes…

Step 1: Trim out the dead leaves – Remove any dead or yellowing leaves that you see. This is an easy first step, and will help to clear the clutter so you can focus on pruning the rest.

Step 2: Remove the bottom leaves – It’s important to remove all of the leaves that are touching the ground. This will help to prevent infection from soil-borne diseases, like blight.

Cutting back the lower leaves

Step 3: Pinch out the suckers – You don’t need to remove every single sucker. That can become very tedious, especially if you haven’t done it before. I usually try to remove the largest suckers towards the bottom first, then pinch out some of the smaller ones on top if I have time.

Step 4: Prune back extra leaves – This final step is optional, but good to do for overgrown tomato plants. Prune off or trim back some of the largest leaves to further thin it, control the size, and stimulate fruit growth. Don’t trim off too many leaves though, plants need their leaves to grow.

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Removing leaves from tomato plants

FAQs About Pruning Tomatoes

In this section, I’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions about pruning tomatoes. If your question didn’t get answered after reading through this article, and the FAQs, ask it in the comments below. I’ll answer it as soon as I can.

How much should I prune my tomato plants?

If you’re unsure of how much to trim tomatoes, start by removing all of the suckers. If it still looks overgrown, then you can prune out a few of the leaves to control the size, and thin it more. But be sure to keep most of the leaves on the plant.

How do I make my tomato plants bushy?

Indeterminate tomatoes naturally grow tall rather than bushy. So, if you want bushier plants next year, try growing a determinate variety. Otherwise, pinching the new tips of the main branches will encourage them to grow bushier.

When should you top your tomato plants?

You can top your tomatoes in late summer so the existing fruits have time to ripen. I start doing this anywhere from 4-6 weeks before our average first frost date.

Should I cut dead leaves off my tomato plant?

Yes. It’s good practice to prune off the dead leaves regularly to keep your plant healthy, and prevent the spread of disease.

When should I thin my tomato plants?

You can thin them as needed throughout the growing season in order to control their size. See more details in the “When To Prune Tomatoes” section above.

Should I pinch off tomato flowers?

Pinching the flowers will allow the plant to focus it’s energy on ripening the tomatoes that have already started growing. I recommend pinching off the flowers in late summer (4-6 weeks before frost), since brand new tomatoes won’t have enough time to mature anyway.

Pinching off tomato flowers

While pruning tomatoes is not required, it’s the best way to get the maximum yield from your plants. Once you get into the habit, trimming tomatoes on a regular basis becomes second nature. And you’ll be able to grow the biggest crop of tomatoes in the neighborhood!

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Share your tips for pruning tomatoes in the comments section below!

Cutting leaves off tomato plants?

Ms. Knott, information on growing tomatoes, pruning the suckers and such. Save on buying book. Tomatoes: AGrowing Guide Avegetable garden isn’t complete without tomatoes. Since tomatoesare America’s favorite garden vegetable, it’s no surprise that there arehundreds of varieties to choose from. Home garden tomatoes range from bite-sizecurrant, cherry, and grape tomatoes to huge beefsteak fruits, in nearly everycolor except blue. You can grow tomato varieties that produce fruit extraearly, and there are varieties for every type of climate, including many thatare resistant to one or more common tomato diseases.Don’t forget tomatoes especially developed for slicing, canning, juicing, orstuffing, too. Types Discovering which tomato varietiesare best for your garden will involve some experimenting, and your climate andpersonal taste will play a role, too. Some early types such as ‘New Girl’ and’First Lady II’ will be ready to pick about two months after you set plants inyour garden, while main-season hybrid and heirloom varieties can take up to 80days. To extend your harvesting season, be sure to plant some of each type. Many standard cultivars are adaptedfor a variety of uses, including slicing, canning, and salads. The large, meatyfruits of beefsteak tomatoes are especially popular for slicing. Italian orpaste tomatoes are favorites for cooking, canning, and juicing. Sweet bite-sizetomatoes in a range of colors are very popular for salads or as snacks. Tomato plants are vines, and theyhave two basic ways of growing, called determinate and indeterminate. The vinesof determinate varieties (sometimes called bush tomatoes) grow only 1 to 3 feetlong, and the main stem and side stems produce about three flower clusterseach. Once flowers form at the vine tips, the plant stops growing. This meansdeterminate types set fruit over about a two-week period and then stop, whichmakes them excellent choices for canning. Indeterminate tomatoes have sprawlingvines that grow 6 to 20 feet long. Most produce about three flower clusters atevery second leaf. They keep growing and producing unless stopped by frost,disease, or lack of nutrients, which means you can keep picking fresh tomatoesthe whole season. Pruning is necessary, however, or they will put too much energyinto vine production. Planting Nurseries and garden centers offer a wide range of dependable,disease-resistant varieties such as ‘Jet Star’, ‘Celebrity’, and ‘Sweet 100’,and many sell transplants of popular heirloom tomatoes such as ‘Brandywine’,’Green Zebra’, and ‘Cherokee Purple’ as well. But if you want to take advantageof the full range of available cultivars, you’ll have to grow tomatoes from seed. Unless you plan to preserve a lot of your crop, 3 to 5plants per person is usually adequate. Unused seeds are good for 3 years.Specialty mail-order suppliers also offer individual tomato plants for sale,which could be a good option if you don’t have space for growing your own fromseed. At 6 to 8 weeks before the averagelast frost, sow seeds ¼ inch deep and 1 inch apart in well-drained flats. Seedswill germinate in about 1 week when the soil temperature is 75° to 85°F; at60°F the germination process can take 2 weeks. In most places, a sunny spotindoors, such as a south-facing window, provides the warm, humid environmentyoung seedlings need. If you don’t have sunny windows, use a heating coil forbottom heat and a fluorescent or grow light overhead. Lack of adequate lightwill make seedlings leggy and weak. Once the seedlings emerge, keep thetemperature no higher than 70°F, and water regularly. Once a week, feed withcompost tea or fish emulsion, and discard any weak or sick-looking seedlings.When the second set of leaves—the first true leaves—appear, transplant toindividual pots or deep containers (such as plastic cups), burying the stemsdeeper than they stood previously. Whatever container you use, make sure it hasdrainage holes in the bottom. After this initial transplanting, give theseedlings less water and more sun. As the weather warms, harden off the plantsbefore planting them in the garden. Again, discard any weaklings that mightharbor disease. If you buy a four-pack or six-pack of transplants from agarden center, it’s a good idea to transplant them to individual pots andharden them off for a week or two before setting them out in the garden.They’ll have a more vigorous root system and you can make sure that the soil iswarm and the weather settled before planting day. Except in extremely hot climates, plant tomatoeswhere they will get full sun. To lessen shock, though, transplant seedlings ona cloudy day. Make the planting holes larger than normal for each seedling;cover the bottom of the hole with several inches of sifted compost mixed with ahandful of bone meal. For magnesium, which promotes plant vitality andproductivity, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts into each hole? Disturb thesoil around seedling roots as little as possible when you set them in contactwith the compost. Set the transplant so the lowest set of leaves isat soil level; fill the hole with a mixture of compost and soil. Or you canbury the stem horizontally in a shallow trench so that only the top leavesshow; make sure you strip off the leaves along the part of the stem that willbe buried. Many growers claim this planting method produces higher yields.Press down the soil gently but firmly to remove air pockets, and water well. If you’re planting a bit early, or in generalwant to speed the growth of your tomatoes, you can shelter them with acommercial device such as a Wall O’ Water or simply wrap tomato cages withclear plastic. Spacing between planting holes depends on how yougrow your tomatoes. If you’re going to stake and prune the plants or train themon trellises, space the seedlings 2 feet apart. If you plan to let them sprawl,space them 3 to 4 feet apart. Letting plants sprawl involves less work, but itrequires more garden space. And unless protected by a very thick mulch,the plants and fruits are also more subject to insects and diseases due tocontact with the soil—not to mention being more accessibleto four-legged predators, such as voles. If you plan to train your tomato plants on stakes or in cages,install the supports before planting. Pound 5- to 7-foot-long stakes 6 to 8inches in the ground or insert the cages (it’s a good idea to secure cages withstakes, too). As the vines grow on staked tomatoes, tie them loosely to thestake at 6-inch intervals with soft twine or strips of cloth or panty hose. There are also ready-made tomato cages, but theyare expensive to buy and usually aren’t tall enough. For details on making yourown tomato cages, see “Super Sturdy Tomato Cages”. Any slight frost will harm young tomato plants, andnighttime temperatures below 55°F will prevent fruit from setting. In case of alate frost, protect transplants with cloches or hotcaps, because cold damageearly in a tomato’s life can reduce fruit production for the entire season. Growing guidelines Cultivatelightly to keep down any weedsuntil the soil is warm, then lay down a deep mulch to smother the weeds andconserve moisture. Give the plants at least 1 inch of water a week, keeping inmind that a deep soaking is better than several light watering. Avoid wetting thefoliage, since wet leaves are more prone to diseases. A weekly dose of liquid seaweed willincrease fruit production and plant health, as will side-dressing with composttwo or three times during the growing season. If you stake your plants, you maywant to prune them to encourage higher yields. Pruned tomatoes take up lessspace and are likely to produce fruit 2 weeks earlier than unpruned ones; theydo, however, take more work. Pruning tomatoes is different from pruning treesand shrubs—the only tools you should need are your fingers. You’ll be removingsuckers, which are small shoots that emerge from the main stem or side stem atthe base of each leaf. Leave a few suckers on the middleand top of the plant to protect the fruit from sunscald, especially if you livein a hot, sunny area, such as in the South. Sunscald produces light graypatches of skin that are subject to disease. When the vine reaches the top of thestakes or cage, pinch back the tips to encourage more flowering and fruit. Helpful hint for pinching tomato suckers Use your thumb and forefinger to snap off the small, tender shoots that sproutat the base of tomato leaf stems. If you need to use scissors or pruningshears, you’ve waited too long. Problems Although tomatoes are potentiallysubject to a range of pests and diseases, plants that are growing in rich soilwith adequate spacing and support to keep them off the soil usually have fewproblems. Here are some of the common potential tomato problems: The tomato hornworm—a large, white-striped, green caterpillar—is an easy-to-spot pest. Just hand pick and destroy, or spray plants with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis). If you’re hand picking, check to see whether horn-worms have been attacked by parasitic wasps first—if they have, the wasp larvae will have pupated, forming structures that look like small white grains of rice on the back of the hornworm. Leave these hornworms be so the wasps can spread. Also, plant dill near your tomatoes. It attracts hornworms, and they’re easier to spot on dill than they are on tomato plants.Aphids, flea beetles, and cutworms may also attack your tomato plants. Hard-to-spot spider mites look like tiny red dots on the undersides of leaves. Their feeding causes yellow speckling on leaves, which eventually turn brown and die. Knock these pests off the plant by spraying with water, or control with insecticidal soap. If you are new to growing tomatoes, check with your county extension agent to find out what diseases are prevalent in your area. If you can, choose varieties that are resistant to those diseases. Such resistance is generally indicated by one or more letters after the cultivar name. The code “VFNT,” for example, indicates that the cultivar is resistant to Verticillium (V) and Fusarium (F) wilts, as well as nematodes (N) and tobacco mosaic (T). Nematodes, microscopic wormlike creatures, attack a plant’s root system, stunting growth and lowering disease resistance. The best defenses against nematodes are rotating crops and planting resistant cultivars. Verticillium wilt and Fusarium wilt are two common tomato diseases. Should these wilts strike and cause leaves to curl up, turn yellow, and drop off, pull up and destroy infected plants, or put them in sealed containers and dispose of them with household trash. Another disease, early blight, makes dark, sunken areas on leaves just as the first fruits start to mature. Late blight appears as black, irregular, water-soaked patches on leaves and dark-colored spots on fruits. Both blights tend to occur during cool, rainy weather. To avoid losing your whole crop, quickly destroy or dispose of affected plants. The best defense is to plant resistant cultivars. Bicarbonate sprays can also help prevent the disease from infecting your plants.Blossom drop, where mature flowers fall off the plant, is most prevalent in cool rainy weather or where soil moisture is low and winds are hot and dry. It can also be from a magnesium deficiency or from infection by parasitic bacteria or fungi. Large-fruited tomatoes are particularly vulnerable. Fruit set can sometimes be encouraged by gently shaking the plant in the middle of a warm, sunny day or by tapping the stake to which the plant is tied.Blossom-end rot appears as a water-soaked spot near the blossom end when the fruit is about 1/3 developed. The spot enlarges and turns dark brown and leathery until it covers half the tomato. This problem is due to a calcium deficiency, often brought on by an uneven water supply. Blossom-end rot can also be caused by damaged feeder roots from careless transplanting, so always handle seedlings gently. Try to keep the soil evenly moist by using a mulch and watering when needed. Prolonged periods of heavy rainfall that keep the soil constantly moist can cause leaf roll, which can affect more than half the foliage and cut fruit production significantly. At first, the edges of leaves curl up to form cups; then the edges overlap and the leaves become firm and leathery to the touch. Keeping soil well drained and well aerated is about the only method of preventing this problem. Fruit with cracks that radiate from the stems or run around the shoulders are often caused by hot, rainy weather or by fluctuating moisture levels in the soil. Such cracks, aside from being unsightly, attract infections. To avoid them, make sure you don’t overwater. Tomatoes—like eggplants, potatoes, and peppers—are related to tobacco and subject to the same diseases, including tobacco mosaic. Therefore, don’t smoke around such plants, and wash your hands after smoking before handling them. Plan your garden so that nightshade-family crops, such as peppers and tomatoes, are separated by plants from other families. Harvesting Oncethe tomatoes start ripening, check the vines almost daily in order to harvest fruits at their peak.Cut or gently twist off the fruits, supporting the vine at the same time to keepfrom damaging it. Most plants can survive a lightfrost if adequately mulched, but at the first sign of a heavy frost, harvestall the fruits, even the green ones. To continue enjoying fresh tomatoes, cut afew suckers from a healthy and preferably determinate plant and root them.Plant in good potting soil in 3-gallon or larger containers. Keep in a warm,sunny spot, and with a little luck and care, you can enjoy fresh tomatoes rightthrough winter. Ripe tomatoes will keep refrigeratedfor several weeks, but their taste and texture will decline. Green ones willeventually ripen if kept in a warm place out of direct sunlight. To slowlyripen green tomatoes, and thereby extend your harvest, wrap them in newspaperand place in a dark, cool area, checking frequently to make sure that none rot.Sliced green tomatoes are delicious when lightly dipped in egg, then in flouror cornmeal and black pepper, and fried. Tomatoesin Small Spaces Even if you don’t have much room togrow vegetables, you can still enjoy the taste of a fresh-picked tomato.Tomatoes are easy to grow in containers, making them perfect for decks, patios, or balconies. Ifyou have the space, try growing full-size tomatoes in large fiberglass tubs orwooden barrels. For people with less room, there are dwarf cherry tomatocultivars, such as ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Pixie Hybrid II’ that can grow in6-inch-deep pots.All container tomatoes need lots of sun, plenty ofwater, and a rich, well-drained potting mixture. Compensate for the restrictedroot zone by applying liquid fertilizer, such as compost tea, lightly but frequently, increasing both waterand nutrients as the plants grow.

I received an email from a California reader last week, wanting to know if she should remove the first buds or flowers from her tomato plant. She read in an Internet forum that this is a customary practice, although the person counseling her was unable to tell her why it should be done.

To Pinch or Not to Pinch

California master gardener Fred Hoffman, host of radio’s “Get Growing with Farmer Fred,” claims that we should keep our hands off of these first flowers. A lot of fruit trees and plants have a normal shedding period, a process known as “June drop,”

Tomatoes are no different, and will lose some flowers naturally in May and June. Those that survive this natural shedding are your future tomatoes — and should NOT be removed, according to Hoffman.

History of the Myth

So, where did the myth start?

Although it’s impossible to know for certain, Hoffman believes that it began on Internet gardening forums, somewhat like a game of “Telephone.” One gardener may have mentioned a study where university researchers removed the flowers, but neglected to mention that these winter tomato plants were being grown hydroponically, in a greenhouse.

“Gardener B then tells Gardener C: ‘Pruning tomato flower buds is recommended by Texas A and M.’ Gardener C then goes online and writes: ‘Remove flower buds on tomato plants to increase the number of tomatoes,’ Hoffman surmises.

New Tomato Plant

So, when should one pinch, snip or otherwise prune a tomato plant? When you purchase tomato starts online or at the nursery, experts advise that you choose plants that don’t contain either blossoms or fruit.

If you have no choice but to purchase a plant that contains either, or both, you’ll need to pinch them both off. This will allow the tomato plant to focus solely on producing a strong root system, which is vital for the young plant.

If the tomato plant is leggy – with tall stems and sparse foliage – pinch off the lower leaves and plant the stem horizontally. It will form roots along the length of the portion of stem that is buried.

Staked Tomato Plants

If you plan on staking your tomato plants you’ll want to remove all but three main stems and remove all suckers. If you use a cage you’ll want to prune away any stems that reach too far outside the cage.

Remember, pruning your tomato plants, even with the best intentions, will lower your yield. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have an unruly plant and lots of tomatoes than a neatly trimmed one with no fruit.

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  • After the plant is 12 to 18 inches tall, allow the first set of blossoms to grow. (Nip away any blossoms that come before.) This first set of blossoms will become the plant’s first fruit cluster.
  • Remove all of the leaves and suckers below the first blossom cluster. They are not needed.
  • When you decide to prune, do not pinch away the growth tip too soon. Allow two sets of leaves to develop on a sucker or side shoot before pinching out the growth tip. Pinch above the two sets of leaves; these leaves will protect fruit and stems below from sun damage.
  • Re-check the plant once a week to pinch out new unwanted growing tips.
  • When the plant reaches the desired height–usually no taller than its support, 4 or 5 feet is good–consistently pinch out all new growing tips. In a week or so time, the plant will quit trying to put out new growth at the topmost part of the plant and concentrate on new growth and fruit below. Continue to pinch out any new growth that you do not want. Keep training this way and the plant will develop a more compact shape, and it will begin to flower and set fruit more heavily throughout its height.

To practice your tomato pruning and a variety other gardening skills, sign up for one of our classes held throughout the year. Explore our class offerings here.

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