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If there is one crop that for sure, no debating, taste different from a homegrown garden—and, truly, they all do—it’s tomatoes. A homegrown tomato is simply juicier and more flavorful than those hydroponically reared husks we typically find in the supermarket. Garden tomatoes are why tomato sandwiches were invented!

To the point, anyone with a sunny patio, balcony or yard can and should be growing their own summertime tomatoes. It’s better for food miles. It’s better for the planet. It’s better for the plate! And, tomatoes will happily grow in pots or in the ground. They’ll even grow in hanging baskets, with little tendrils of tomatoes cascading down.

It’s wonderful that everyone has now been persuaded to grow their own (In just two paragraphs, no less!), but some of you—likely all of you who aren’t currently growing your own tomatoes—will need a little crash course on what to do. Well, help is on the way, and the topic is pruning.

Bi-Partisan Choice: Determinate vs. Indeterminate

While there are tons of varieties of tomatoes to choose from, from candy-like cherry tomatoes to master slicers like beefsteak, knowing whether you’ve got a determinate or an indeterminate species is much more important for how to care for the tomato plant.

  • Determinate varieties of tomatoes have a time and size limit. They grow to a certain size and provide a huge harvest of fruit more in a short time then tucker out. They are a great choice for those looking to can or preserve tomatoes for winter.
  • Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes continue to grow for the entire season, and they also continue to provide new tomatoes until frosty mornings foil the party. They are a great choice for those looking to eat fresh tomatoes during the warmer months.

In terms of caring for the plant, there is an important difference here: Determinate varieties don’t need to be pruned as it will lower their overall yield whereas indeterminate will provide much more fruit if they are pruned regularly.

Pruning Indeterminate Tomato Plants

Left unchecked, indeterminate tomato plants will actually grow high enough so that they’d require a ladder to harvest, and they will send out branches long enough that they collapse under the weight of the tomatoes they are holding. What’s more, is that the plants expend a lot of energy in all this growth. That energy could be going into producing tomatoes. In comes pruning.

  • Eliminate low-hanging branches. Branches that are growing close to the soil, and have leaves mingling with mulch and whatnot, are potential problems. They often instigate disease and act as on-ramps for pests. Let the plant put the energy higher up. This is especially important before planting the tomato vine.
  • Resist the temptation. Young tomato plants will often flower before they are ready to bear fruit. Hey, we were all young and ambitious once, and seemingly early flowers mean early fruit. But, it can slow down progress with overall tomato production. Prune away the flowers until the tomato plant is at least a foot tall, better yet 18 inches.
  • Suckers are the enemy! Suckers are new sprouts that spring forth from the crotch of existing branches. From the stem, a lovely fragrant, leaf-laden branch has sprung forth, but in the space where it and the stem join—the crotch—a new branch. These should be removed with gusto. They will suck energy from the tomato bearing branch.
  • Only the strong survive. While this might not be a great life motto, in terms of tomato plant production it is. Any yellowing leaves should be removed, as should any dead or dying leaves. Should leaves appear diseased—spotty or scabbed—they, too, can go. This tomato plant’s energy must go into growing tomatoes not saving trouble leaves.
  • Start “topping” before the frost. About a month before the last frost (this will be different for each region), it’s a good idea to start “topping”. This is cutting the last tip off of each main branch of the plant so that it focuses on finishing the existing tomatoes rather than continuing to expand.

How Often to Prune

While it’s a good idea to check on the plants regularly, daily if possible, pruning can be done once a week with great success. It’s also a great time to keep an eye out for hornworms and other tomato-gobbling pests, as well as stake the plants to keep them from toppling over. And, most importantly, there might be ripe tomatoes ready.

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