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I admit it. I am obsessed with tomatoes. Every spring, I plan my tomato crop and plant every variety I can get my hands on. I visualize my bounty and still imagine huge returns filling my baskets to the brim. Then a year, the inevitable happened.
I got busy and ended up leaving the tomatoes to their own devices. My harvest has been less than impressive.
Then I discovered the technique of pruning tomatoes to increase my yields. If you prune tomatoes at the right time and in the right way, you get a bigger harvest than you ever imagined.
Whether you’re a tomato lover, an avid grower, or a beginner, let’s take a look at tomato pruning for high yields.
Why prune tomato plants
Pruning tomato plants isn’t just for higher yields, but it certainly helps. There are a few other reasons we should cover before we get to the actual tomato pruning process. When you prune for big harvests, you benefit the tomato plant in other ways.
1. Prolongs the harvest
When you prune your tomato plant, it reduces the amount of energy the plant puts into the foliage and directs that growth to the fruit. This means more fruit over a longer period of time.
2. Prevents disease
With less foliage, airflow passes through the plant more easily. This helps prevent many tomato diseases. Pruning also helps maintain plant health, which in turn helps the plant resist disease and put all of its energy into fruit growth.
3. Larger fruits
That’s right, not only do you get bigger harvests, but you get bigger fruits. With more energy available for fruiting over a longer period of time, your individual fruits should be larger than if you didn’t prune.
4. Stops Excessive Foliage Growth
When a tomato plant is young and before fruiting, it can double in size every 15 days or less. Once the plant produces fruit and begins to weigh it down, the whole plant will sit on the ground if not staked properly.
Once a tomato plant reaches 18 inches in height and has not been pruned, there is a risk that it will fall, break, or have health issues.
An indeterminate tomato plant can cover a large area if left to its own devices. By then he will probably be sick with a bad harvest.
5. Earlier ripening
Pruning your tomato plant means the plant focuses on harvesting fruit sooner because there is less foliage that uses up valuable nutrients, energy and sugars.
How to Prune a Tomato Plant for High Yields
There are different pruning techniques for tomato plants. Over time you will find out which method you prefer and how it affects your harvest and overall plant health.
Remove suction cups for high yields
Sometimes called lateral or lateral shoots, suckers grow along the axis of the stem and branches. If you leave them, the suckers grow like the stem of the tomato plant and produce their own flowers and fruits.
Often though, they serve no purpose other than to grow in size and take life energy from the rest of the plant.
- Remove the suction cups when they measure half an inch or less. At this size, you can pinch them with a finger on one side and a fingernail on the other. Pinch and pull for a clean cut.
- If they are longer than half an inch to about four inches, snap them off, but make sure they are completely detached from the plant before removing them. It’s easy to pull a strip off the rod because you haven’t fully detached the suction cup.
- Cutting with a garden knife or similar is not recommended with suckers as the fine cut may take some time to heal and disease may set in. However, when they get big and thick, it is the best way. Make sure it’s a clean cut near the stem. Leaving a stump will cause the wound site to rot and likely cause illness.
- When the tomato is at its peak growth stage, check and remove suckers at least once a week.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to how you remove cupping. One way is to remove the top half of the suction cup, leaving the bottom half. The theory behind this idea is that you leave some sprout leaves behind to help with photosynthesis and to keep the sun from scorching the fruit and the plant.
The other method is to remove the entire sucker to prevent it from taking vital nutrients from the main plant and fruit. Removing the sucker entirely also promotes the circulation of air and sunlight into the plant.
Pinch the main stalk for heavy yields
Like many vegetables and other plants, tomatoes benefit from pinching off the central leaves of the growing main stem.
You do this to encourage the plant to be thicker and more compact, rather than taller and thinner. Tomato plants with pinched centers grow larger fruit because they put energy into fruit growth, not vine spread.
It is also much easier to stake or tie a pinched plant that is compact.
Find the central vertical stem and cut it to the desired size for the plant. A good rule of thumb is that if the plant is in a tomato cage or held up with a tall stake, cut the plant back once it reaches the same height as the support.
Many tomato plants are so vigorous that you will need to regularly cut or pinch the main growing stem throughout the season.
Thin tomato plants for high yields
Another method of pruning tomato plants for higher yield is to thin or remove some branches. We have already considered removing the suckers or side parts and pinching the growing main stem. These two methods reserve energy to grow more fruits and bigger fruits.
Thinning achieves the same goal by removing some of the excess branches and leaves.
Tomato plants will often become very bushy when you remove the side parts and pinch off the main growing stem. This means that more energy is diverted from producing quality fruit to maintaining the branches and leaves.
Simply remove the branches that have no flowers or fruits. Save just enough for a healthy plant and you will see an increase in the size and number of your fruits.
As you do this, be sure to remove lower branches and leaves, especially those touching the ground, as this is how many soil-borne diseases enter tomato plants.
When to Prune Tomato Plants for High Yields
Timing is key when it comes to pruning tomatoes.
Early in the middle of the season
- Remove suckers or laterals early and throughout the peak of the growth phase.
- Prune or remove the flowers until the tomato plant is at least 18 inches tall.
- Remove any flowers that have developed before transplanting the tomato plant into the garden. This allows the plant to focus on being strong and healthy (for bigger yields) rather than producing fruit too early in the season.
Mid-season to end of season
- Pinch off the main central stem to stop growth and height. This ensures that all the energy and sugars remaining in the plant are directed towards fruit production and growth.
- Continue to prune any excess growth, including the side parts. Remember to prune as close to the main stem as possible without cutting it. This prevents the stumps from rotting and becoming infected.
Not all tomato plants need pruning
Only indeterminate tomatoes should be pruned to create a higher yield. In fact, the size of a determined tomato plant can often create a smaller crop. What is the difference between indeterminate and determined?
Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain height and set their fruits and ripen them at the same time.
Indeterminate is a vine and continues to grow and fruit throughout the season. This is why pruning works for an indefinite period. You use all that growth energy to focus on fruit set and ripening, both in volume and size.
3 Top Tips for Pruning Tomato Plants for High Yields
- Do not prune tomato plants when foliage is wet. This can create an environment for disease and bacteria to enter the cuts. Prune in dry weather and when the plant has had plenty of hot sun,
- Remove the suction cups or laterals when they are as small as possible. Continue doing this weekly (or more often if you have time) throughout the season. You can’t do this once or twice because the tomato plant will continue to produce it, which will affect both yield and fruit size.
- Pinch off the main stem when the plant is at the same height as the cage, stake or desired height. You can wait until the end of the season, but if you don’t, just be sure to keep checking for more growth to pinch off. Also be sure to pinch off the main growing stem at least 30 days before the first frost so that all of the plant’s remaining energy is directed to the fruit for it to ripen and grow larger.
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