How to Prune Your Tomato Plants

How to prune tomato plants

Do your tomato plants grow huge and out of control each year?

Do they flop over, get taken over by disease, or overwhelm parts of your garden?

Do you want bigger tomatoes earlier in the season?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then pruning your tomatoes should be on your garden task list this season.

The number one reason I prune my tomatoes is that it keeps the plants more compact, which allows me to plant them 18 inches apart (in double rows). I fit a lot of plants in one garden bed. I also don’t like when they get huge and bushy and virtually impenetrable.

Pruning thins out the plant to introduce more air flow, which can help with disease issues. There is some thought that pruning encourages plants to produce more fruit (and earlier) because the plants aren’t putting as much energy into growing leaves and suckers.

What’s not to like about both of those reasons?

So, assuming I’ve convinced you to try it, the first step to pruning is knowing the parts of the plant.

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STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO PRUNING YOUR TOMATO PLANTS

Tomato Parts of Plant

Step 1: Go out to one of your plants and identify the main stem coming out of the ground and follow it all the way up to the top of the plant. This is the main growing point of the plant where it continually gets taller.

Step 2: Next, look for the fruit clusters (tomatoes already forming) and flower clusters (groups of yellow flowers).

The fruit clusters are immature tomatoes that are still forming.

A flower cluster.

Step 3: Identify the leaves – they’re connected to the main stem throughout the plant. Find where a leaf is coming out of the main stem.

A leaf comes from the stem of the plant.

Step 4: Between the main stem and the leaf is another part that usually shoots fairly straight up if it’s larger, or looks like a little leaf if it’s small. This is called the sucker.

The sucker is found between the stem and the leaf.

The sucker will grow to have its own leaves, flowers, fruits and suckers. It’s almost like a whole new tomato plant growing out of the original plant. We’re going to be pruning most of them off.

.Okay, now that you know the parts of the plant, you’re ready to start pruning!

STEPS FOR PRUNING YOUR TOMATOES

Step 1: Identify the lowest flower or fruit cluster on the plant. This is the one closest to the ground.

Step 2: Keep your hand on that cluster. Now look for the sucker immediately under that cluster. This is the strongest sucker on the plant because so much energy is being sent to that part of the plant to grow the fruit. This is the sucker we’re going to keep!

Pruning Your Tomatoes

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I have invariably cut the sucker I want to keep at times, so my tip is to keep one of your hands holding that sucker to remind yourself not to cut it off until you get more comfortable with the process.

Step 3: Now, remove every sucker on the plant besides that one, everything above and below it. I use a small knife (I love this one!), clippers, razor blade, or just my fingers to remove the suckers. Some of them will be big, some of them will be tiny. Take them all!

Tomato Pruning How To

Step 4: Optional. When I’m done with the suckers, I’ll often remove some of the lower leaves on the plant that are touching the ground. This is where soil borne diseases like to start climbing up the plant.

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Prune Tomatoes

I remove all of the lower leaves that touch the ground.

Step 5: If you haven’t installed cages or set up your trellis yet, now is the time to do so. Your plants should be trellised at all times to prevent them from lying on the ground.

Plants and fruit that touch the ground are more likely to form diseases and get eaten by pests. My two favorite trellises are here and here.

Step 6 Throughout the next few weeks you can return to your plants when you think of it and prune off the new suckers. Once I start harvesting tomatoes I no longer prune the plants.

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How to prune tomatoes

Important notes:

You should only be pruning indeterminate tomato plants. Determinate plants don’t need pruning. You’ll need to look up your varieties online if you don’t know which type they are.

Never work with your tomato plants when they’re wet. If disease is present you’ll spread it around.

Tomato fruits can get sun scald, or sun damage (especially in hot climates). Don’t over prune your plants. It’s okay to leave some greenery to shade the fruit.

Tomato plants are pretty tough and you can’t do much damage. Just try not to cut off the main stem, or growing point (and even if you do, things will be okay).

If you’re not sure pruning is for your or just want to experiment, prune just a few of your tomato plants and compare them to the rest throughout the season.

Want to see how to make the best tomato trellis ever? I show you how in this popular post.

Want to read more summer gardening posts?

Video Tour of My June Garden

What Happens When a Plant Bolts?

The Easiest Way to Preserve Your Tomatoes

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Comments

  • Susan Sundlin

    Thank you, I’ve read this elsewhere but you explained this the best, I will read again and check out my healthy looking plants, don’t think I have any fruit yet but lots of green.

    • I’ll check on your pruning progress when I see you in a few weeks!

    • Such an easy tutorial to follow. Thanks. I have a hoop house full of tomatoes. I will go out and do some more pruning today. Yes, and when the time comes I will freeze my tomatoes. Great idea,!!!

  • Renee Benell

    Thank you! This was very helpful and informative!

    • You’re welcome, Renee! Let me know if you have any follow up questions. Just post them here.

    • My plants are not very tall but are getting a lot of small tomatoes on them! Will this be alright? I used to pull the blooms off when I thought they were 2 small. Will these tomatoes be any good?

  • Love this! This is probably the best how-to on this I’ve seen – uncomplicated with great pictures. I do this when I remember lol but at least always remove the greenery several inches up from the ground like you recommend. I have even used some of the pruned sections to start another plant at times. Once things warm up tomato stem sections sprout roots *really* quickly and get going right away.

    • Jordana – I’ve never tried rooting the plant somewhere else! I’m usually out of room by that time. It would be fun to try sometime though.

  • Uh oh…..I pruned today before I read this article. I cut off the sucker
    I was supposed to keep. On the plus side we made the cages that are shown and put them up.

    • Hi Mary- As I say in the post, tomato plants are difficult to mess up to badly. They’ll be fine even though you cut off that sucker. Glad to hear you made the cages. Keep me posted on how you like them!

  • Christine Yesko

    Megan, You mentioned about saving the main sucker you cut off, but what do you do with it? Do you plant it, please explain, thank you for all your information, very helpful.

    • Christine – I think you misunderstood. You keep the main sucker under the lowest fruit cluster. Every other sucker you cut off. I just throw them in my compost. If you have tomato disease you should put them in the garbage instead. Good luck!

  • Micah Martinez

    Thank you for this!

  • Thanks I always have trouble with tomatoes i hope this we help me a lot I live in Queensland when is the best time to plant. Thanks.

    • Hi Wayne- Great to hear from you! Because Queensland is such a different climate than where I live I suggest you find a local source for the exact timing for tomato planting. Hope the pruning helps this year!

  • How do you differentiate between determinate and indeterminate plant.

    • Great question, Haysook! You need to know the variety of the tomato. Then you can look it up online on a seed company’s website to see which category it falls into.

  • Carolyn Cook

    I have pruned tomatoes as long as I can remember. Mom told me how as a child. However, this is the first time I have heard of not pruning the first one. I’m 65 years old now and will try not pruning the first one this year. Very interesting!!!! Thanks!!!!

  • I really like the way you explain the method. ‘I’ve learned some things the hard way but this sounds so practical. I have so much growth that it’s hard to see the fruit. I’ll try this today. Thanks.

  • My brother gave me his 2.5′ x 2.5′ x 2.5′ tall wood box to grow 4 tomatoes surrounding a 5 gallon bucket to pour water in. He made a round cage to set about 3′ above the top of the box. He pruned some suckers last year and still had so much foliage he had trouble finding the fruit.

    I’m thinking I will prune as you suggest but will cut the stem at a certain height (3 feet) and let the suckers grow at that stage. May keep me able to get to the fruit that makes throughout the growing season.

    • Hi Lonie- You could also try growing indeterminate varieties if you want your plant to be shorter. They do set fruit in a short period of time though, so if you want a continued harvest indeterminate are your best bet.

  • I’ve done both methods – letting them grow big and bushy, and pruning them way back. I think the volume of fruit is slightly greater when I let them grow big and bushy, but it’s certainly easier to manage working with a lot of plants when they are pruned back quite a bit.

    I have not seen any positive effect on blight from pruning back, nor from any ground cover; that seems to be a function of less humid air in summer.But again, easier to manage any plants that might be suffering if there is less foliage.

    I typically work with anywhere from 30-45 plants a season, so I have a good sample set.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Dawg! It’s interesting to hear that you don’t see a difference between mulching and not mulching.

  • Megan, since we are keeping the lowest sucker (and it acts like its own separate plant); should we prune the suckers it may create?

    • Great question, Ricky. It usually let those suckers go, but sometimes if the plant starts getting out of control near the end of the season I’ll cut them off again.

  • […] ripen your tomatoes and increase the quality of your harvest. Be sure to investigate further into tomato plant anatomy and pruning. Find out what works best for the tomato plants in your […]

  • Hi Megan, I loved your story. Extremely informative. I never knew you could prune tomatoes, I will definitely give it a try. My question is how do we know if the tomatoes are determinate or indeterminate?

  • Rhonda Barnes

    How do you know which tomato plants are determinate or indeterminate?

  • Why do you keep the lowest sucker? Thanks!

  • On heirloom tomatoes, you can put the suckers in soil and start a new plant.

  • WHY do you keep the sucker near the fruit?

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