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How to prune tomatoes like a pro


Tomatoes are sometimes considered no-brainers to grow -- fruitful, rambunctious weeds that can thrive on indifference. That may be true for bush tomatoes, the varieties that politely grow to a certain size and then set out their fruit at about the same time.

Growing-Tomatoes-FeatheryBut so-called indeterminate tomatoes, which include most heirlooms,  require more attention. These plants easily can out-grow their welcome, sending out vines with minds of their own.

I needed advice for the dozens of adolescent plants in my Echo Park garden, so I attended a tomato workshop conducted by Judy Frankel, a graduate of the UC Cooperative Extension's Master Gardener program, who raises tomatoes and citrus in her backyard in Rancho Palos Verdes. Frankel runs the Rancho Palos Verdes Fruit Exchange and has about 35 tomato plants in the ground. The garden seems to have fewer because most are under such attentive control -- staked or caged, then pruned aggressively by removing the spotted, the diseased, the deformed and the useless.

“I have a rule,” Frankel says, snipping off drooping, fungal-splotched foliage from the base of one plant. “No ugly leaves.”

It’s a philosophy that can have big rewards. Indeterminate tomatoes are famously flavorful and can be charmingly robust, surging 10 feet high, bushy as a hedge -- and totally out of control. But with loving discipline -- a little cutting, a little staking -- that vigor can be channeled into some serious edible weight. To learn how, click to the jump ...


Pruning tomatoes is commonly focused on getting rid of the suckers, the feathery side shoots that emerge between a leader stem and a branch, eventually forming more branches. Though they help to give the plant structure, they consume much nutrition but may not actually yield any tomatoes. Amputating a large sucker can seem severe, but just remember: You can replant the sucker. (Leave it in water, set in a dark place for a couple of days, until roots develop.) And you will likely get a more abundant harvest.

“I once got 500 pounds of fruit off one plant,” says Paul Tryba, a Long Beach grower at the workshop.

Encourage the leaders (and the fruiting clusters) by first removing all leaves and non-fruiting branches that contact the ground. Then you can pluck off the suckers -- all the small ones and about one-third of the remainder. Philosophies vary on how severely to prune at one time, but the process of shaping and controlling growth should be ongoing. A plant can survive with just 10% of its foliage, but it won’t be pretty.

To stop the forward progress of a meandering main stem, you top cut, or “terminate,” just above the last fruit cluster. This will not hurt lower lateral growth. A dual or triple leader is sometimes encouraged, especially when you're growing a variety such as Brandywine, which produces so little fruit.

Pruning is only half the battle, of course. Now that the extraneous suckers and leaves have been removed, you'll need to provide some sort of support for the plant. (Think cages or staking.)

Sungolds are Frankel’s favorite variety, and in a Texas tomato cage she has a 5-foot-high plant going, a thick, twisting vine adorned with clusters of tiny yellow flowers or perfect little green tomatoes. It’s something between plant porn and garden art, approaching bonsai in the severity of the pruning.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo credit: Ann Summa


Emily Green on the perils of growing heirlooms as volunteers

Tree trimmings as tomato cages

Comments () | Archives (11)

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What's the difference between a sucker, a side shoot, and lateral growth? I can't tell the difference from this article, making me think I could mistakenly cut off desirable lateral growth, thinking it was sucker or side shoot. Help?

Not sure about the side shoot or lateral growth, but a sucker is the stem that grows in the inner elbow, or crook, of two other stems. The last photo in the article above shows someone about to snap off a sucker.

click to the jump????

This would be so much better with illustrations or photos of what the heck you are talking about.

Well I guess the thing to do is go see Judy in RPV.

Just before the picture there is this line: "To learn how, click to the jump …"
What does that mean? There is nothing there to click. And what is a jump?
As far as I can tell, all I have to do to find out how to prune properly is to continue reading the article, as I would have anyway. Is there some trick I am missing?

Thought it was pretty understandable: the last pictures obviously shows a 'sucker' being removed, isn't it?
I had "instinctly" started to prune my modest poted-tomatos that way, last weekend.
thanks for the confirmation Mr.J.S.

A few years ago, we visited Canada and found them to be zealous gardners of every square inch of public property. Near a butterfly conservatory we found some beautiful gardens.The tomatoes were vining up spiral stakes - not reaching out to strangle their neighbors like mine do. I've been trying to accomplish this, but have not been successful. Does anyone have some advise on this?

I'm stumped.

The "jump" simply refers to the back half of the post. If you were to look at the blog's main page, latimes.com/home, you'll see that for longer posts, you have to click "keep reading" to get all of the text and photos. That's the "jump," and we're just trying to make sure readers scanning latimes.com/home don't miss the additional text. If, however, you found this item through a direct link to the post (such as Facebook or some other blog), then you're seeing the entire text already -- no additional clicking or "jumping" needed. Enjoy! If you like our garden coverage, bookmark latimes.com/home. We try to deliver profiles, how-to articles and event listings all week long. Thanks for reading.

Yes! It's hard to know which is a sucker and which is a lateral until you've been into the tomato plants! But here's the main rule: there is only one leader (generally) and all other side shoots are suckers. They grow right above almost every leaflet. Don't remove the leaflet; just remove the sucker growing out of its crotch.

The general guideline is: retain the leader and the first sucker that shows up above the first fruiting cluster on the main leader. Or wait until you see a sucker (above the first fruiting cluster) that is a hefty size and keep JUST THAT SUCKER. I cut off all but one sucker on some of my plants.

Having said that, it's best to keep several laterals (or "suckers") on the following varieties: Brandywine, most cherry tomatoes, grape and pear tomatoes. But don't go crazy; only keep maybe 3 or 4 suckers on the plant and prune all the rest.

Then there are varieties which send out new suckers RIGHT OFF THE END OF A FRUITING CLUSTER! How dare they! So cut the frilly end off that fruiting cluster!

Some varieties (like Champion) send out tons of suckers at their base, right near the ground. No matter which tomato variety it is CUT ALL THE SUCKERS THAT COME UP BELOW THE FIRST FRUIT CLUSTER, AT THE BOTTOM, leaving only the leader! Otherwise, you may never see a decent tomato on that plant.

Does this help?


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