by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener
The main goal of pruning and staking tomatoes is to keep the fruits off the ground and protect them from sunburn. Pruned plants produce bigger and earlier fruits because more of the plant energy is channeled into the fruit production and ripening and not into the branches and leaves. Pruning is a good cultural practice that can slow and control the spread of disease.
Bush or determinate tomatoes grow to about 3 feet and stop growing when fruit sets on the top bud. All the tomatoes ripen at about the same time, in 1 to 2 weeks. They will need a limited amount of staking and are perfect for container growing.
Some say to prune a determinate and some say not to. Me, I like to prune. A determinate tomato will produce only so much fruit. Keep in mind that if you do prune, you are taking away some of the fruit producing branches. I like to prune suckers and branches at the bottom 5 to 10 inches, depending on the size of the plant, to increase air flow at the base of the plant and reduce the risk of attracting insects and disease with the possibility of fruits resting on the ground. I would rather deal with fewer tomatoes than insects and disease. Pruning the bottom branches also makes weeding and fertilizing at the base of the plant easier. You might like to consider pruning leaves in the middle of your plants to increase air flow and keep foliar diseases from forming.
Indeterminate tomatoes will keep on growing and producing fruit until the first frost. They will require a large amount of space to sprawl. It is recommended to pinch suckers on an indeterminate plant throughout the growing season to prevent the plant from getting too heavy and unmanageable.
Suckers are described as leafy growths that often appear between the crotch of the main stem and the branches. Remove a sucker when it is about 4 inches long. Letting a sucker grow much longer could result in damage to the plant when it is removed. Grasp it between your thumb and second finger, then bend it to the side until it breaks. Perform this task early in the day while the plant tissues are crisp. A knife or pruner can be used but must be cleaned with a solution of bleach and water (two capfuls of bleach to one gallon of water) to ensure a disease free cut. Remove and discard the pruned branches to the compost pile. Any stems or leaves that turn yellow should be removed right away and never place diseased foliage in the compost pile.
Staking or caging tomato plants is a must. It helps to keep the plant healthy and keeps the fruit from rotting on the ground. While there is a wide variety of supports available, I have found that a section of a metal cattle panel resting on concrete blocks works very well to support growing plants.
As always, Happy Gardening!
More information about gardening and related subjects is available online at www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/garden_pubs The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.
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