Give your tomatoes a weave.
Pruning and supporting tomatoes.

tomato-pruning-2

Please enjoy this photo of me literally smiling up at nothing. I am not looking at anything or anyone. I am alone in my garden but wanted a photo of me with my tomatoes for the blog but when I took a shot of me smiling directly into the camera I looked like a lunatic.  Hence … the smiling but looking away from the camera.  But now that I’ve told you what I did  I not only look like a lunatic but have proven I’m acting like one as well.   Which isn’t far off from how I normally feel doing most of the stuff I do so no harm done to my psyche.

Last week was tomato pruning week for me at the community garden.

I normally don’t prune my tomatoes.  I don’t get rid of the suckers I don’t try to contain them I just let ‘er rip.  The odd time I’ll whack off a branch that’s gotten unwieldy.

Letting your tomatoes do their thing is something you can get away with if you grow hybrid tomatoes. Even if you don’t prune hybrid tomatoes they stay a reasonable size and don’t under any circumstances try to choke hold your neighbour’s dog.  Heirloom tomatoes on the other hand are kind of like the magic beanstock of the tomato world.  You go to bed one night and the next morning you wake up and it’s grown 10 feet tall and is  tangled with neighbourhood dogs, children and their tricycles.

An heirloom tomato can literally grow to 10 feet tall and just as wide if you let it.  If you have a lot of space that isn’t a problem.  If you don’t … it is.

So this year I’ve decided in order to fit more tomatoes in to my community garden I’d have to prune them into submission.

Let’s start with the basics.

Tomatoes first grow a main stem. That’s the centre stem that all the leaves are coming out of.  Fine.  Easy to recognize especially when the tomato is first growing.  But given a couple months of growing that stem will suddenly become 3 or 4 or 5 stems.  THOSE are the suckers.

I’m sure you know about suckers.  They’re the stems that grow in between the main stem of the tomato and a leaf.  And those suckers are the things that turn your tomato plant from a respectable, manageable vegetable (yeah, yeah, fruit … whatever you weirdo … everyone calls tomatoes a vegetable) into a ginormous space sucking dink.

They start out innocent enough. Suckers just look like tiny little shoots to begin with.  Something small and feathery and dignified.  The sort of thing a hippie bride would fashion into a vegetable tiara for the big day.

 

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But they get big FAST.  Within a few weeks those little suckers will get thick and strong enough to crack the skull of that hippie bride wide open.

So to save room in your garden (and hippie brides everywhere), get rid of the suckers.

You can either get rid of none of the suckers, all of the suckers or  some of the suckers.

*Getting rid of none of the suckers will create a big tangle of a tomato mess.  You’ll have a lot of tomatoes, but they’ll be small.  Also, there’s less air flow in the plant and more leaves that make it more susceptible to disease like blight.

* Getting rid of all of the suckers will give you the least amount of tomatoes.  You’ll get large tomatoes, but not many of them. Also, tomatoes get their sweetness partly from the leaves so the less leaves there are the less delicious your tomatoes will be. Technically speaking.

* Getting rid of most, but not all of your suckers is the way most smart people like you and I go.  Leaving 1 or 2 suckers along with the main stem will give you a strong plant, less susceptible to disease and a good amount of tomatoes.  It will result in the healthiest tomato plant.

Don’t forget. This is just for heirloom tomatoes.  Those of you growing hybrids don’t need to worry about this.

Now.  Because tomato plants and their suckers are sometimes difficult to see in real life let alone in a photograph I’ve drawn these handy photos to show you what I mean.

 

Tomato plant with all the suckers

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Tomato plant with all suckers removed.

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Tomato plant with 2 suckers and main stem.

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Those suckers will basically turn into another tomato plant. They’ll get as large as the main stem and produce tomatoes just like the main stem.

This is how I did the 21 tomato plants in my community garden.

 

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This is one of my tomato plants.  Specifically it’s one of my San Marzanos.  This is a sauce making year for me.  Every other year I can tomatoes so every other year I have to grow 15-30 paste tomato plants to make the sauce with.

 

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As you can see it’s a bushy bush filled with suckers.  They’re hard to see when you first glance at the plant but if you lift the leaves of your tomato plant you’ll be able to identify where the suckers are.

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Anything growing between the stem and a leaf is a sucker.  Even if it’s huge and looks like a branch it’s a sucker.  Make sure to check the bottom of the plant too because there’s probably a dead or dying leaf there that you can barely see with a sucker coming out of it.

Take a look at your plant and establish which suckers you want to allow to grow.  I wanted to maintain space in the middle of my tomato rows so I allows the strong suckers that were on each side of the tomato plant to continue growing.  That way it would grow relatively flat as opposed to round.  You can see the ones I chose to save marked in black in the photo.

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For a healthy tomato plant you ALSO want to remove the leaves on the lower third of the plant.  This is because tomato disease like blight is spread from the soil below the plant splashing up onto the leaves.  Get rid of the lower leaves and you help get rid of the problem.  Mulching with straw or wood chips below the tomato plant helps with that too.

 

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So remove your unwanted suckers.  The big ones and the small ones.  And get rid of any leaves that are touching the ground.  Through the season keep checking the tomato and removing the bottom leaves.  You can remove most of the leaves below the first flower cluster but I like to leave more than that so the plant gets more energy.

 

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After half an hour or so the tomatoes were pruned.

 

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There’s a lot more space in between the plants providing better air circulation for drying out the leaves and therefore less chance of disease.  Plus they’re just more manageable.  And less bossy.  And pushy.  And way less likely to become aggressive towards visitors.

 

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Now I had to tie them up.  No sense waiting for them to get to be 10 feet tall before dealing with that.  Start ’em young.  I’ve never used tomato cages and have always supported my tomatoes with stakes. At home in my front yard where I have 5 or so individual plants I just put a stake behind the tomato and as the tomato grows I tie it to the stake to keep it from toppling over.

But with 21 plants growing in rows there’s a better way.

I’ve been using the Florida Weave for a few years now and I love it.  It’s the easiest, cheapest way to support tomatoes on the planet.  This planet anyway.  I’m not sure how they do it on Mars.

 

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For the Florida weave all you have to do is weave twine around the stakes and plants in a criss cross manner.  I’ve put a stake at every tomato plant but with this method you don’t have to.  You can just stake every 4 feet or so and weave your twine in a figure 8 pattern around the tomatoes, attaching the twine to the stakes you have as you go.

 

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This keeps the tomatoes relatively flat while they’re growing so it gives you room to move in between the rows without feeling like your tomatoes are constantly trying to cop a feel.  It also keeps them supported so they don’t fall over.

 

Quick Tips for Heirloom Tomato Pruning

1.  Remove lower third of leaves to prevent blight.

2.  Remove all but 1 or 2 suckers once tomatoes are close to 2 feet tall.

3.  Check tomatoes once a week and remove additional suckers as they appear.

4.  Never ever wear a tomato vine as a tiara unless you want your head to smell like a salad bar.

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53 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    I never thought tomatoes were so lively, they sound like a wonderful pet

  2. Edith says:

    Hi Karen,

    How interesting! I never knew this about heirloom tomatoes. Your community garden looks like so much fun. You ought to give us a tour of the whole garden sometime. It looks like there will be a huge harvest going into fall.

  3. Paula says:

    This year, I am doing exactly as you are doing except I am trying out the Mittleider Tomato support system. I have over 60 plants (I know – what was I thinking!). My thought process at the time was: try 10 different types growing them all from seed, however; I honestly didn’t think that they would all survive. I can’t throw out a perfectly good plant, so I have lots of tomato plants. I am pruning to one main stem though, so that should help with the oncoming tomato onslaught. I can, too and I did 3 bushels last year.

  4. Kathy says:

    I did t know that more leaves give a better tasting tomato!

  5. Laura says:

    Except i LOVE the smell of tomato leaves!! This was such a useful post. And you are pretty hilarious i have to say!

  6. brenda says:

    i don’t even know what I know now anymore … but I am going to try all of this on my 30+ tomatoes … maybe 40+ (once I planted 78 or maybe 84 tomatoes (I lost count and all the tags by the end of it that year) … this year I put the list of who’s what on a piece of paper and the paper is somewhere … and I can too). Are we really tomato lunatic selfie ladies if we do that? hmmmm … I did not now that either 😉

  7. Lauren says:

    Excellent info! The only thing I have a question about is this: Within the heirloom classification there are mainly two different types of tomatoes – determinate and indeterminate. I have always heard that you can prune the indeterminates if you want, but that it’s NOT beneficial to prune the determinates. Doing so would decrease the harvest because determinates stop growing when the main stem sets fruit. Any insight into pruning determinates versus indeterminates?

    • Carswell says:

      Indeterminates – which most heirloom tomatoes are – just keep growing as long as the season lasts. Each sucker can grow, flower and set fruit as the season progresses. That’s why you can prune them.

      Determinates – which are hybrids – are the ones that grow more bushlike and pretty well stop once they’ve set the first flush of fruit.

      • Carswell says:

        Forgot to add – Karen’s plants above are indeterminates – which grow best on tall poles like that.

      • Karen says:

        (there are some determinate heirlooms as well Carswell … normally they’re what’s referred to as the New Heirlooms, like Green Zebra) ~ karen!

    • Karen says:

      Yup. That’s true. All heirlooms are either determinate or indeterminate but all indeterminate are heirlooms. However having said that MOST heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate. Very few are determinate. When I refer to not pruning hybrids, I should have also referred to not pruning determinates. There’s no need. So treat determinates the way I say to treat hybrids. Just let them do their thing. ~ karen!

      • Julie says:

        Sorry Karen, not all indeterminates are heirlooms…many hybrids are indeterminate as well…I grew tomatoes commercially for a couple of seasons, and those were definitely hybrids…and definitely indeterminates!

        • Karen says:

          Yup you’re right. ~ karen!

          • Daphne says:

            SuperSweet 100 F1 is a hybrid. And an indeterminate. And a monster if you let it grow. I grew one once. I had to decapitate (is that good English?) it when it reached the ceiling of my greenhouse (3m). It strangled its two neighbour maters on its way up and to the sides. But maybe we must look at cherry tomatoes as a whole different kind of tomato plants.

  8. Sandi says:

    The word “sucker” has begun to sound very weird in my head.

    • Karen says:

      Ha! ~ karen

      • Jan Lane says:

        Karen, have you ever rooted the removed suckers in a glass of water on the window sill? I have tried this this year and now have 3 new blooming plants. If it works I will never buy tomato plants again!!!

        • Karen says:

          I have indeed. 🙂 I did it to try to grow cherry tomatoes on a windowsill in the winter, not to harden off and plant out in the spring but I don’t see why you couldn’t. ~ karen!

  9. IRS says:

    Whenever I prune tomato plants, I love the smell of the leaves. It always makes me want to eat them as a salad green, but I have always read that they are poisonous. Recently, I read for the first time that they are NOT poisonous. So which is it? Does anyone here know the answer? Ms Karen, any thoughts?

    • Mary W says:

      I believe they are part of the nightshade family and the leaves are poisonous. People used to think tomatoes were poisonous and didn’t eat them but found they could. I know that poke weed berries are very poisonous but the tender spring leaves are used in salads. The older leaves are poisonous. Potato and squash leaves are poisonous and I used to rub them over my horses backs during the summer to keep the biting flies away and it worked. But this had to be done every day since it rained here in FL every day.

    • Karen says:

      I don’t eat tomato leaves but my guess is they aren’t actually poisonous. Or if they are, it’s along the lines of green potatoes. They contain a trace amount of poisons but you’d have to eat an insane amount to actually get sick from it. I myself have tasted tomato leaves and didn’t keel over. ~ karen!

      • IRS says:

        Thanks for weighing in Karen. This actually reminds me of rhubarb, which you have written a lot about. We have all been told that the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous, but I have wondered how that actually works. If you cut the leaf off right where it meets the stalk, in order to maximize your rhubarb yield, it seems rather strange that Mother Nature would have the toxins stop at that exact point. Few things in nature are that precise. And then of course there is the question of certain greens/plants that are toxic when raw, but not when cooked. I learned that the hard way when I ate some lovely sprouted red kidney beans. I spent a LOT of time in my bathroom that day, uttering words that even I rarely use.

        • Daphne says:

          Well, you wont die from eating a small tomato-leaf salad, but your stomach will give you a very hard time the following hours/days. One of the reasons most animals stay away from your tomato plant. Except for the chickens, of course, and slugs. Both animals with steel guts.

  10. Beckie says:

    I always used to grow hybrid tomatoes of a determinate variety. A few years ago I had an indeterminate heirloom tomato plant we ended up naming her Audrey, after The Little Shop of Horrors. (to compound confusion, my late mother’s name also happened to be Audrey. This has nothing to do with my tomato plant story) So, anyway…Audrey apparently liked where she was planted and she grew…and Grew…and GREW. I had 12′ tall 1×2″ stakes, she grew taller. I lashed 2 stakes together (so I had maybe 22′, in total, to account for the part stuck in the ground and the part where the stakes overlapped) she grew taller.

    I was already needing to stand on a ladder to tie up the top part, I couldn’t go any higher with the stakes, so I lopped off the top of the plant whereby Audrey decided to grow out in the fashion of a weeping cherry tree and became a sort of tomato plant canopy that hung over the garden gate.

    That was the year I learned the difference between a determinant and indeterminate tomato plant.

    She gave me about a dozen tomatoes…and a story.

    I now prune…and keep the top in check. Thanks for the reminder. I need to get on that, pronto!

  11. Laura Adams says:

    Thanks for the information about suckers, something that has always been a bit mysterious to me. Now I know. Do you continue the weave technique up the post as the plants grow?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Laura! Yes. I should have mentioned that, lol. As the plant grows you continue with your weaving. 🙂 ~ karen!

  12. michelle r says:

    Great tips about the tomatoes but it will only take me a few minutes to prune mine as I have only one plant…..On another note, wonderful article in the Costco magazine, I didn’t know your father made his own screws. No wonder you’re a DIY diva!!!

  13. Bre says:

    I have a gardening friend who refers to the suckers as “crotch tomotoes.” The crotch tomatoes gotta go. And now you’ll never not remember which stems get pruned. 🙂

  14. Karin says:

    Now let’s see those green stained thumbs from pinching off all the suckers! At least that’s what always happens to me and I smell like a tomato for the rest of the day. I too tried the Florida weave one year but my tomato plants grew at such different rates it was hard to do. One plant would be ready for the next weave and another would barely be up to the previous weave. If a sucker has started to flower can your pinch it back or should you let it grow? I got lazy last week…

    • Karen says:

      Hi Karin. It makes no difference. If you want to pinch off the sucker that’s flowering, pinch away. It’s usually better to pinch them before they flower just because they’re smaller and removing a smaller branch is easier for the plant to heal. ~ karen!

  15. Carlette says:

    Thank you SO much! I’ve been growing tomatoes for about 7 years, and pinching off little suckers and letting the tomatoes take over the whole yard. I had memories of my grandmother’s tidy little compact plants and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. This made it much more clear.

    For reference, I pulled out a plant at the end of the season that had gone up its stake, and back down, and crept along the ground, it was about 12 feet long, and the base was as thick as my wrist! And I have thick, cornfed, farmgirl wrists.

    As soon as it stops raining, I’m going out there and taming those little bastards!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Carlette – Once you get nearer the end of the season you can also pinch off the top of the plant. This will both stop unwanted top growth and help ensure that the tomatoes that are on the vine will ripen before the frost gets it. (do this about a month before your potential first frost date) ~ karen!

  16. You can turn those suckers into a tea — not to drink, but to give back all their nutrients to your tomatoes. I’d explain how, but you’re a smart cookie who can google it for yourself and I’m badly in need of my first coffee (yes I read you before coffee. That’s how much I care.)

  17. mayr says:

    A most excellent post with equally excellent comments. Thanks so much for this info.

  18. KowboyK says:

    Here in Cali, my tomatoes are already 7′ tall & I have been harvesting a few here & there since the first weekend of this month. A good friend recently tried to show me how to prune, but your directions are much easier to follow. These behemoths are gettin a haircut tonight after work!! Thanks for the all the pictures & drawings, they made it all make sense.

  19. Jenifer says:

    Where are all of your weeds??? Do you weed your garden daily? I have to lay lay down thick pads of wet newspaper and then cover with straw…NOT a fun process or buy rolls of ugly plastic and even then….Plus, we’ve had a ton of rain lately which helps the weeds and prevents me from pulling them. (I cannot weed in the rain. I’m a big baby.)

    How do you not have more weeds?

  20. Nancee says:

    Great post! I have 2 tomato plants that sprouted in my worm bin. I put one in the bottom half of a small water bottle and put it on my kitchen window ledge and forgot it. The darn thing keeps growing! I don’t like growing tomato plants, but now that I have 2 that refuse to go away, I’ll keep your tips in mind.
    And I won’t be taking any photos of myself…I already know I look like a lunatic as well.

  21. SunGold says:

    A day late & a dollar short – this morning I read two blogs that exactly describe how to do something I did LAST NIGHT, but the blogs show how to do both much more efficiently. Aargh! Does this mean that I should don my Procrastinator’s Cape and do nothing until I read “my” blogs?

    Question: How do you pound in your stakes? I get on a ladder and pound my 8′ juniper stakes with a 3-lb mallet, but they look drunken and wonky. I can’t seem to get them straight. My soil is sandy, so no obstructions in the ground. . .

  22. kate-v says:

    Always used to watch in amazement and some amusement as my elderly great aunt went out into the garden in her dress and apron (both just came to just above her ankles), gloves and huge sun hat to prune tomatoes through out the season. Of course she really had nothing but heirloom tomatoes, having saved seeds from one year to the next for just the tomatoes she wanted for her various recipes. She continued even when she had to use a walker to get up and down the rows. She removed suckers and leaves – left only the fruit, Often, while sitting on the porch she would ‘spy’ on the tomatoes and when she could see a leaf would send us out to pull it off. She also canned duck and pheasant in mason jars by processing them in the oven; something my mother was horrified at and would not allow us to eat any thing canned that way. But aunt Opal ate that stuff for years and years with no ill effects. sweet memories of summer time…

  23. Anita says:

    Funny, informative and effing fabulous.
    I need to go and take care of some suckers now.

  24. Mindy says:

    There are worse things I could smell like.
    I’ve never done this. The sucker removal. But this year, I’m growing ten heirlooms. I’m gonna put a bra on and go do it right this instant…..

  25. Darla says:

    Amazing! I have been growing tomatoes for years and never knew the little suckers should be pruned. Mine are already three feet tall with a birds nest in one. I think tomorrow will be sucker pruning day! Don’t worry, I will leave enough support for the birds nest.

  26. Jan in Waterdown says:

    The last time I grew tomato plants at the back of my yard, the damn deer kept pruning them for me so all I got was tons of leaves and ONE tomato. I nurtured that lonely little orphan baby until it was red and ripe and plump for the pickin’. When that day finally came, a raccoon had beaten me to it and taken a big bite out of the bottom! Stupid wildlife.

    • ronda says:

      same here, last year. the raccoons got my one and only green pepper too! my whole yard is smaller than Karen’s garden, and what with the raspberries exploding everywhere, there’s no room for more.

  27. Marna says:

    Wonderful post! I haven’t had the best of luck with tomatoes over the past 5 years or so, I had totally forgotten about pinching off the suckers. I only have a few plants but will get to them in the morning, thanks for all the info. 🙂

  28. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    My tomato plants in containers are doing great..I pinched off suckers when I transplanted them into the big pots..

  29. Evalyn says:

    I love tomatoes, but after working amoung the plants, my arms get itchey and burn a little. So, I wipe my arms down with cider vinegar and it stops the effects of the tomato plant. The vinegar will burn for a moment if you have any scratches, but it remove the tomato residue and end the irritation. This also works if you get a reaction to blackberry scratches or stinging nettle.

  30. Lisa says:

    The real gem in this post is the Florida Weave technique! I use tall tiki torches as tomato stakes, and after a point I can’t light them any more unless I cut the tops off the tallest tomatoes. But if I can move the torches in between the plants…. this is genius.

    Karen – any monarchs yet?

    • Karen says:

      Not yet. They’re out in full force laying eggs, I just haven’t brought any inside yet. You light your tiki torches in your tomato plantings? THAT’S genius! ~ karen!

  31. Carolyn says:

    Can those suckered be rooted so you can share plants with friends?

  32. Debbie says:

    Although I don’t eat tomatoes I love growing them for my family and friends. I’ve heard so much about removing suckers. But because I live in the Northeast and our growing season is very short what I do is remove the stems below the suckers allowing the suckers to flower. True this will give you smaller tomatoes but lots of them. I always try to plant both indeterminate determinate tomatoes. Using the determinate plants for my larger end of the season larger tomatoes and the indeterminate plants as my smaller salad tomatoes as well as rooting and planting the stems for new plants. So far 5+yrs of doing it with success.

  33. Debbie says:

    Buy the way I loved the tip on the Florida weave. Using it for my 2nd round of beans and cukes. Also worked great for my BlackBerry plant.

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