How to Prune Your Tomato Plants Like an Expert

How to prune indeterminate tomato plants

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

Do they flop over, get taken down by diseases, 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 indeterminate tomatoes” should be on your garden task list this year.

Plants being attacked by tomato diseases is one of the biggest struggles I hear from fellow gardeners during the summer. Pruning your tomato plants thins out the foliage to introduce more air flow and sunlight, which can help with disease issues.

As the season progresses, tomato plants often turn into an impenetrable jungle which can swallow up small children, family pets, and trusty garden tools. I haven’t seen my sister in three weeks, ever since I sent her out to pick some tomatoes for a dinner salad…

harvesting tomatoes after pruning the plants

This jungle can contain lots of tomatoes hidden within its tangle, many of which never see the sunlight and therefore won’t ripen in a timely manner. If you’ve had trouble with tomatoes that take forever to ripen to a juicy red, they might not be getting enough sunlight. Pruning will help with that.

And let’s be honest, it’s much more pleasant to harvest tomatoes from a plant that’s neat and tidy, not one that’s sprawling and climbing all over the garden.

When you think about the incredible amount of growth indeterminate tomatoes put on in just one season it’s easy to see that they’re putting a lot of energy into growing more and more leaves and suckers. They just don’t stop!

As the tomato harvesters, we’re happy for them to put on that green growth to a certain extent, but it does seem a bit excessive at some point. We’d rather them turn their attention to actual tomato production instead of showing off how big and bushy they can get.

There is some thought that pruning your tomato plants will encourage them to produce more tomatoes overall by redirecting that energy into fruit production.

The number one reason I prune my tomato plants 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, which saves me space for planting vegetables I love even more than tomatoes (hard to believe, I know!).

If you’ve never had the pleasure of pruning indeterminate tomatoes, you should definitely try it this year. And if you’ve thought about it, but the whole concept confuses you, I’m here to walk you through it step by step, complete with a video I filmed in my garden.

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tomato pruning

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How to Prune Indeterminate Tomatoes

Before we start, I want to be extra clear that we’re talking about pruning only indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. These are the ones that keep growing taller and taller and putting on more fruit until your first frost.

Determinate tomatoes only grow to a certain height, which is much shorter than indeterminates, and then ripen their fruit in a short window of time. If you’re not sure which kind you’re growing you need to look the variety up on the internet to figure out if it’s determinate or indeterminate.

Identifying the Parts of the Tomato Plant

Your first step is to understand and identify the different parts of the tomato plant so you don’t inadvertently cut the wrong thing off. I’ve done it!

Step 1: Stand in front of your plant 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. You do not want to cut this off during this process.

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

 

how to prune indeterminate tomato plants

The fruit clusters are immature tomatoes that are still forming.

how to prune tomato plants

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.

tips for pruning tomatoes

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.

how to prune tomato plants

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 basically like a whole new tomato plant growing out of the original plant. We’re going to be pruning most of them off, suckers!

Here’s a review of the parts of the tomato plant.

parts of the tomato plant for pruning

.Now that you know the parts of the plant, you’re ready to start pruning your tomato plants!

Step-by-Step Pruning of Indeterminate Tomatoes

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

Step 2: Keep one 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!

tomato suckers

The sucker you’re keeping is the one under the lowest fruit or flower cluster.

One time someone I know (not me, I swear!) cut the sucker they were meant to keep, 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 lowest one. Yep, you read that right! Take off every single one above it and below it. I use a small knife (I love this one!), clippers, razor blade, or just my fingers to remove the suckers. Depending on the size of your plant some of them will be big, and some of them will be tiny leaves. Take them all!

Don’t be afraid! You’re not hurting the plant. Just make sure you’re only cutting suckers.

 

Tomato Pruning How To

Step 4: Optional. When I’m done pruning the suckers, I’ll often remove some of the lower leaves on the plant that are touching the ground. Many tomato diseases come from the soil, so I like to make sure no leaves are touching the ground in an attempt to slow down the progress of the diseases.

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Prune Tomatoes photo

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.

Use the tallest trellis or cage you can possibly find and use these clips to secure the plant to the trellis. You can make your own following a design I use here and another option is 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 unless they start to get on my nerves, at which point I just hack off large pieces willy nilly.

There is a fine line between pruning well and cutting off too much of the plant, especially if you live in a hot climate. The tomato fruit do need some shade or they can get sunscald, or sunburn.  After one or two prunings you may decide to leave some of the top suckers to create some shade for the fruit.

You can also top your tomato plants later in the season if you want to get really crazy.

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tomato trellises

One of my favorite tomato trellising methods – concrete reinforcing wire cages.

Congratulations – you did it! Here are a few additional tips to help you through the process of pruning your tomatoes.

A Few More Things to Know About Pruning Indeterminate Tomatoes

You need to wait until your plants have been in the ground for a few weeks and have put on new growth before you start pruning. I generally prune my tomatoes about four weeks after planting.

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 a 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 you or you like the ideas of garden experiments, prune just a few of your tomato plants and compare them to the rest throughout the season.

Alright, it’s time to go out there and give it a try! Part of the fun of gardening is trying new things and adding skills to your repertoire. This is one I use every year and find invaluable in growing healthy and productive tomato plants. Plants with less disease, more fruit, and less chance of swallowing up my sister.

 

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More tomato posts:

5 Ways to Prevent Tomato Disease in Your Garden

Easy Way to Preserve Tomatoes – No Canning Involved!

How to Choose Which Tomatoes to Grow

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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.

    • Glad you found it helpful, Margaret! Let me know how it goes.

      • A tip if you desire. Several years ago I started using steel “T” fence posts in my garden using nylon rope that Lowes etc. have to wrap your purchases on your trailer etc. Posts are 5′ apart and tie on the nylon twine wherever needed. Works great for pole beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. NO CAGES! Keeps everything off the ground.
        Thanks,
        Warren

  • 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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  • Growing your own particular natural tomatoes and vegetables can be extremely fulfilling. For me, there’s nothing superior to getting my hands in the dirt and having the capacity to deliver sound natural tomatoes and vegetables for my family and companions best the rundown.

  • Hi and thanks for the great tips. What are your thoughts on clipping leaves and pruning as it might expose the plant to disease and pests (I just read that somewhere). One lady even said to plant the tomato deep, but leave the branches on even under the soil. Thanks!

  • I accidentally broke the main stem partially through
    on 1 tomato plant (approx. 16 in. off the ground). Will that plant produce or should I replace it? Thank you!

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