How to prune tomatoes like a pro


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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.

But 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


Emily Green on the perils of growing heirlooms as volunteers
Tree trimmings as tomato cages