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.
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
Tomato plant with all suckers removed.
Tomato plant with 2 suckers and main stem.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After half an hour or so the tomatoes were pruned.
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.
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.
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.
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.