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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

KNOL: Three Finger Method to Pruning Tomatoes

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I have over 50 garden videos. Why not join my YouTube Garden Video Channel? Video 2 of 6 on pruning tomatoes and removing suckers Tomato Stem Pruning: Single Double and Triple Stems I have read a lot of articles on tending and pruning tomatoes but they never included clear pictures. What is a sucker branch? How many leaves should you remove? I had a lot of questions that pictures would have answered. I provide the pictures in this Knol. You can see exactly what you should do to tend to your tomatoes.  I also provide  basic guidelines to pruning which I call the three finger method.


Three Finger Method to Pruning Tomatoes

by Gary Pilarchik LCSW-C

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What is the Three Finger Method?

Make a peace sign and extend your thumb at the same time. You should have your thumb, index finger and middle finger extended. Your ring finger and pinky should be closed. The three extend fingers represent a tomato plant. Your thumb is a leaf branch (the branch to keep), your index finger is the sucker branch (the branch to remove) and your middle finger is the tomato stem. I drew a picture to further explain the principle. When in doubt and in the garden, throw out those three fingers and compare it to the tomato section in question.

Temporary: Will be scanning original

Identify the Sucker Branches and Remove Them

The branches aren't really sucker branches but giving them a name makes it easier to explain pruning. If they continued to grow they would grow into a vine branch - a branch from the main stem. A tomato plant is pruned to typically maintain one vine (sometimes two) and that will help to develop a strong healthy tomato plant. Sometimes I maintain two vines when I plant a new variety of tomato. That is just my preference. You may chose to let the main stem of your tomato branch into two or three vine branches. Pruning tomatoes theoretically reduces the number of tomatoes a plant will generate. However, pruning typically means the tomatoes that do grow - grow larger and it significantly helps to prevent diseases and mildews. If you don't prune there is a greater chance for disease and you might lose the plant and all those extra theoretical tomatoes.
If the sucker branches are left to grow it gives an illusion of a healthy green leafy tomato plant. In reality, come another month, a gardener ends up with a plant that is hard to tend and contain in the garden. An unpruned tomato will have more leaves than needed and the plant will be at greater risk for disease. It sounds counter intuitive but less is more when pruning and tending a tomato. I am pointing out two sucker branches in the picture below. You will notice a third sucker branch if you have a sharp eye.

Pruning Tomatoes June 09 Gary Pilarchik 

These sucker branches are large and that is what makes pruning difficult. It's not that they are hard to remove but that they look so healthy, many gardeners are tempted to let them grow. Don't. Prune them with a knife or snap them off if they are small enough. When my tomatoes are first growing, I am a little slower to prune them. I let some leaves, I would normally remove, hang around a bit in May. After that, they are gone. I do it to provide more photosynthesis to the newly planted tomatoes. It may or may not make a difference but it works for me.

Pruning Tomatoes June 09 Gary Pilarchik 

The sucker branches have been removed. The tomato still looks fine. You will notice my fingers point to the empty spaces where the sucker branches were and you now only see two leaf branches. I will be removing the bottom leaf branch in the next section below.

Remove the Bottom Leaves & Decrease the Risk of Disease

Many diseases come from garden soil. Spores lay in the soil and wait for a living host. The living host is your tomato plant. The spores want to splash onto the leaves during a watering or hard rain. I remove up to two feet of bottom leaves.  In my area I battle blights, so I prefer a large gap between my soil and plant leaves. Some gardeners suggest removing the leaves up to the first cluster of flowers. I recommend you remove enough leaves to create a minimum of a one foot gap between the tomato leaves and soil. Heavily mulching the soil beneath the tomato plant also helps prevent soil born diseases from spreading.
The bottom leaves need to be removed in stages. As the tomato grows, you can remove more bottom leaf growth. In the picture below you will notice I removed the the bottom right branch when compared to the picture above. The plant is actually big enough to remove the other branch. I will probably get to that this week. Pruning and tending to tomatoes is almost and every other day process.

Pruning Tomatoes June 09 Gary Pilarchik 

Here is another one of my plants pictured below. It gives you an idea of plant size and the amount of space I keep between the leaves of a tomato plant and the ground. If you enlarge this picture you will also notice two branches coming off the main stem. This is one case where I am growing essential two vines or allowing the main stem to branch into two.  I will prune and maintain both of them. It is a new variety of tomato. It is called Goliath. With an name like that, I figured I need two vines worth of tomatoes. That decision may come back to haunt me.

Pruning Tomatoes June 09 Gary Pilarchik 


Maintaining a Single Vine

You may want to maintain more then one branch on your tomato plants. Pruning doesn't mean you can only have a single vine. It means cutting back growth. The picture below provides a good example of single vine pruning. Starting from the bottom of the tomato plant, moving upwards, a pattern forms: stem, leaf branch, cluster of flowers, leaf branch, cluster of flower and the growing tip of the tomato. Or...
  • Growing tip (the tip of the vine and additional developing branches)
  • Flower cluster
  • Leaf branch (sometimes 2 branches)
  • Flower cluster
  • Leaf branch (branches below this one have been pruned away)
  • Bare stem
In my hand is the sucker branch and I removed it from the joint between the stem and leaf branch. You probably now recognize a pattern in tomatoes which is about every other leaf branch comes a flower cluster. In a single pruned that is the pattern that is maintained. A plant should be tended up the stake by loosely tieing it to the stake. You can see how I tie the plants by enlarging different pictures in this Knol. Over the full growing season, this plant will look like a single vine growing up the stake. There will not be any branching off the main stem for this plant. Try both methods and see what you like. You may prefer maintaining two vine branches vs. one vine.

Pruning Tomatoes June 09 Gary Pilarchik 


Why Prune Tomatoes?

Tomatoes don't have to be pruned but I recommend you do. Tomatoes will still grow if the plant is left to sprawl across the ground without any care. That is what they are designed to do.  However, If  tomatoes are left to sprawl, they will be more susceptible to disease and mildews. More garden space is needed for a sprawling tomato plant and you probably won't get that many more tomatoes then a well pruned and tended tomato plant.
You prune a tomato plant to greatly reduce the risk of disease and mildews such as blights and powdery mildew. A pruned tomato plant creates a gap between the soil and leaves. It is harder for spores to splash to the leaves and take hold. A pruned plant has less leaves which allows air to circulate through the entire plant. This circulation quickly drys leaves. Dry leaves are a good strategy in reducing the spread of disease and mildews.
You prune a tomato plant because you will still get a large harvest of tomatoes without sacrificing space in your garden. A tomato that grows up a stake and has its growth managed, allows more room for more vegetable plants. In my book of a gardening the more space the better. In super summary, you prune to have healthier larger tomatoes and more garden space. It's that simple.

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