Small Scale Gardening – Time to Prune the Tomato Jungle

From a message that I received through Facebook yesterday:

Hi, Tom!

I am looking for the video I think you posting on thinning inside tomato plants.  I have gone back to your Facebook posts and on your blog (  I only have a 4’x8′ garden and literally threw it together hours before leaving on a vacation.  Tomato plants are a little on top of each other.  When we got back, things had grown, and I could see how congested they were.” – Tracie in Illinois

It’s that time of year, everyone! The summer heat, the rain, your hard work and the plants have created the dreaded “tomato jungle.”  I know exactly what Tracie and the rest of you are going through because I have the same situation here at Small Scale Gardening.

While those healthy branches and leaves are signs of healthy plants, it is also a sign that your work is not finished. It’s time to start pruning tomato plants in your garden!  Have no fear, you can do it (and the plants will thank you for it)!

Suckers and Side Stems

What do you prune?

Productive tomato plants begin to sprout all kinds of branches off the main stem.  You want to prune indeterminate tomato plants, but you DO NOT want to prune determinant (bush-type) tomato plants.  The reason is that determinant tomato plants produce tomatoes all at once, at the same time.  If you trim determinant plants, you might be sacrificing tomatoes.

Indeterminate plants produce fruit all season long (until frost).  You want to prune these plants.  It keeps the plant healthy and focuses all the energy into the fruit.  Remember: we do this gardening thing to grow produce, not to grow full plants (with small or no harvest).

So, back to pruning indeterminate tomato plants.  Obviously you do not cut or break the main stem.  Life is not over if you do, but please don’t cut or break the main stem (it has NEVER happened to me, ahem).  You are looking for specific branches called suckers and side stems.

Suckers are branches that grow in the “armpit” or “V” formed between the main stem and branch (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: There are two small suckers seen here.  The suckers are the small branches in the "armpit" between the stem and branch.

Photo 2: There are two small suckers seen here. The suckers are the small branches in the “armpit” or “V” between the stem and branch.

Suckers can also grow off a fruit-bearing branch (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: Example of a sucker, which is the branch that extends beyond the flowers

Photo 3: Example of a sucker is the branch beyond the flowers


Suckers take energy from the fruit and result in smaller tomatoes.  I tend to focus on the armpit suckers.  Suckers keep coming back, so keep inspecting and pruning your indeterminate plant all season.   Also note: you can transplant older, more mature suckers and actually grow new tomato plants from them, but that is a topic for a future post.

Side stems are low hanging branches that come off the main stem and have leaves that droop onto the ground (see Photo 4).  They usually do not bear fruit and are conveyor belts for insects, fungus, disease and bacteria, especially when water splashes onto their leaves.  Keeping these in check will allow the tomato to grow a strong, thick stem and focus energy into the fruit.  Plus, keeping those leaves off the ground allows you to inspect the tomato stems, help you water and allow you fertilize or mulch without foliage getting in the way.  I typically prune mine so I can see the main stem 6” or 1’ off the ground.

Photo 4: Example of a Side Stem.  Note the branch droops and leaves are on the ground.

Photo 4: Example of a Side Stem. Note the branch droops and leaves are on the ground.

Pruning Tomato Plant Techniques

How do you prune tomatoes?  That depends on what you are pruning!

For smaller suckers, simply pinch the sucker with your forefinger and your thumb close to the main stem.  Carefully rock the sucker back and forth until it snaps.  This works particularly well for the young suckers that are just emerging or are a few inches long.

Older, more mature suckers need more firepower (so to speak).  Use a clippers or a knife to cut off the sucker at its base.  Be careful not to cut off the main stem when you are dealing with older, more mature suckers.  Also, you should disinfect the tool between plants, so you do not transfer any disease.

For those side stems and branches with yellowing leaves, use pruning tools (clippers or knife) as well.  Pruning side stems helps to minimize diseases resulting from water splashing on the leaves and transferring fungus and bacteria.

Wounds remaining from pruning will heal fairly quickly.

Additonal Resources

There are a number of resources out there that show how to prune tomatos plants.  One of my “go to” resources is a gentleman named David in Houston, Texas.  David, or more commonly referred to as “LDSPrepper” on YouTube and Facebook, uses the Mittleider Method of gardening.  You can learn more about the Mittleider Method at the Food for Everyone Foundation website.

LDSPrepper posted a great video covering pruning tomato plants.  You should take a look at that video and subscribe to his channel.  LDSPrepper has a ton of great videos on gardening; I have learned a lot from his videos.

Another great resource is Tomato Dirt Blog.  They have all kinds of great information about growing tomatoes, pruning, problems and preserving tomatoes.  The blog has a great article here that discusses pruning tomato plants.

Give It A Try!

Pruning tomato plants can seem a bit overwhelming a times.  Productive plants seem to produce an endless supply of suckers and side stems.  Start with one plant and work from the bottom up.  I think you will find that your plants will grow stronger and produce even more tomatoes.

This article was written by Tom Garette and first appeared on the Small Scale Gardening Blog.

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