It’s hard to believe that the first week of June is nearly in the books! But as the temperatures start to warm up, and the garden begins to take off – it means it’s time to start pruning our tomato plants. With everything from salsa, pasta sauce, tomato juice, ketchup, barbecue sauce and more to create from our crop – we do everything we can to make sure to have a successful harvest – and pruning is a huge part of that! (see: our favorite tomato canning recipes)
Taking the time to prune tomatoes now makes a huge difference in the overall health and productivity of our crop for the entire season. Pruning not only keeps the garden neat and clean, it more importantly allows for better circulation, less disease and higher yields for our plants.
The 2 Steps To Prune Tomatoes
Step 1 – Creating Space at the Bottom
Much of the rot and disease that affects tomatoes comes straight from the soil, and the very first step is to clear out some space at the bottom of each plant to eliminate many of those issues.
For determinate varieties that tend to grow short and bushy, we trim off the first few branches at ground level to leave about 4 to 6″ of space – cutting them right back to the base of the main stem using our Fiskar Pruning Sheers. For the larger growing indeterminate tomato varieties – we clear out anywhere from 10 to 12″ at the bottom of each plant.
The space created by trimming this lower level of branches allows for excellent air circulation and light to the plants. That air flow and light keeps mold and disease in check, and makes it much harder for crawling ground insects and pests to get an easy lift up to the plants! It also makes it much easier when it comes time to water – letting us have easy access to the root zones of our plants. Beyond our tomatoes, we practice this same bottom pruning step with our entire pepper crop as well.
Once that space at the bottom is cleared out, we then apply a good 2 to 4″ layer of straw or shredded leaf mulch. Not only does it help to prevent weeds, it keeps the soil moisture and temperature regulated – and keeps soil borne disease spores that might infect our plants from ever splashing up during heavy rains.
Step 2 – Pruning The Middle and Tops
As the plants begin to take off and grow in the early summer months – we begin to start pruning some of the middle branches of our tomato crop as well. We start by pruning back any “wild branches” that cross over into paths – and then clear out a bit of the foliage in the middle sections to let light and air to the tomatoes that have formed on the vines. We tend to choose the branches with little to no flowers on them – clearing them out so that more productive branches can continue to develop strong.
At all times, we stay on the lookout for any branches or leaves that may show signs of black spot or mold – removing them immediately. This proactive approach has really helped any disease from spreading quickly from plant to plant. It is important to note that we do not put any of our tomato trimmings in our compost piles. It is one of the few plant materials we choose not to compost – for us, there is just too much chance with tomatoes to spread disease.
Our last bit of pruning usually comes in mid to late summer, when we begin to top off any of our tomato plants that start to grow a little too tall for our supports. It keeps harvesting the ripening fruits much easier, and prevents splitting and cracking of branches that become too heavy to support.
A few final notes on pruning – be sure to use a sharp pair of hand pruners or heavy-duty garden scissors. Dull blades can tear the plants causing damage.
In addition, it is always best to prune tomatoes (or peppers) early in the morning or late evening to avoid the heat of the day when plants are at their highest stress level.
Happy Gardening! Jim and Mary
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