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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Three Finger Method to Pruning Tomato Plant Suckers

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Three Finger Method to Pruning Tomato Plant Suckers
(Some Benefits of Pruning)

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.

Keep in mind you typically only prune indeterminate tomatoes and not determinate tomatoes. You prune indeterminate tomatoes as to help keep and maintain the tomato vine that would naturally, if left alone, grow out of control.

Tomato Pruning - The Rusted Garden Blog

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. It would flower and set tomatoes along with the main vine.

A tomato plant is pruned to typically maintain one vine (sometimes two of more) 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 or produce. 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 diseases and you might lose the plant and all those extra theoretical tomatoes. You want to maintain good airflow through your plants and let the sun dry them quickly after rains. Pruning suckers helps with this.

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 unmanaged tomato will have more leaves than needed and the plant will be at greater risk for disease as mentioned. They can grow and become unruly. It sounds counter intuitive but a little less (removing branches) 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.

Tomato Suckers - The Rusted Garden Blog

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. You want to slowly prune your tomato as to keep it managed but not remove so many leaves that you slow its growth or put it in a bit of shock.

Pruned Tomato Sucker - The Rusted Garden Blog

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 also remove bottom branches when the tomato is large enough. This creates a splash barrier and helps prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.

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 the main growing vines.

A Pruned Tomato - The Rusted Garden Blog

Why Prune Tomatoes?

Tomatoes don't have to be pruned but I recommend you do prune them. 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.

Better air 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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  1. Great method you have shown here. When I started out i remember having trouble figuring out where to pinch the tomato plants. This would have helped heaps

    1. It gets a bit complicated looking at all the vine branches. I figured this might be a way to teach the idea. Hopefully your hands are always with you when you are in the garden.

  2. Hi Gary, you mention that determinate tomatoes are not usually pruned. Could you please expand on this?


    1. Sure. Determinate tomatoes grow to a set height. At that point they produce all the tomatoes at once. Once the fruit is done the plant dies. Since the stop growing and set all fruit at once, you can let them grow.

      Indeterminates just grow and grow and grow and you are managing that growth.

      Hope that helps.


  3. This is so helpful!

    Last year was my first year growing tomatoes. Where I live in New Jersey, EVERYONE grows tomatoes, so growing them in my garden felt a bit like overkill because people just give them away all the time. Last year I decided I wanted to try and grow some really fun varieties instead of the usual Jersey tomato. I grew some Cherokee Purples, some Green Zebras, and a few grape and cherry varieties.

    I was afraid to prune them at all for fear of not getting any fruit. Boy oh boy was I mistaken. They went crazy! They sprawled everywhere, even rooting themselves along the branches that had sprawled along the ground. It was a mess! It got to the point where I was almost afraid of them, it was like they had a mind of their own. I ended up with a fair amount of tomatoes, but also a lot of tomatoes that had fallen to the ground and rotted because I couldn't even see through the jungle of branches and leaves. Tomato plants are much, much less fragile than I thought they were.

    This year, I definitely plan on pruning them aggressively and without guilt. Thanks for the tips!

    1. I know the hardest thing is pruning healthy green but you described what happens perfectly. Come July and August, they wont be that monster in the yard. Good luck with the garden.


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