With the traditional planting date of Good Friday behind us, the home tomato gardening season in the Panhandle is in full swing.  While tomatoes are the most persnickety veggie we grow, there are several practices you can adopt to help you succeed: selecting an adapted variety; regularly scouting for insects and disease; and watering and fertilizing appropriately.  However, the most overlooked practice for success gardeners can adopt is proper pruning.

‘Big Beef’ Tomato with lower leaves removed. This is an excellent disease reduction practice. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Correct pruning does a couple of positive things for tomatoes.  First, it reduces the incidence of disease by preventing leaf contact with the soil, opening the interior of the plant, and allowing better airflow.  This is important as many plant pathogens reside in the soil and only need a splash of water to travel onto plant leaves.  Also, densely foliaged plants trap warm, moist air in their canopies, creating a perfect environment for disease to flourish.  Letting the plant canopy “breathe” through pruning prevents that negative environment from forming!  Second, correct pruning of “suckers” (extra growth points that can develop into shoots) helps tomato plants develop optimum yield and fruit quality.  By removing suckers, more water, nutrients, airflow, and light are directed to the main stems, where the majority of tomato fruit production occurs.  Failing to remove suckers (especially on indeterminate varieties) can result in reduced yields, increased disease, and generally messy plants!

With the reasons for pruning tomatoes established, the next step is learning exactly what to prune and how to do it in a sanitary matter.

  • Get rid of any foliage that could encounter the soil, generally all leaves occurring on the lower 12-16″ of the plant.  All kinds of nasty tomato destroying diseases, like Early Blight and Bacterial Leaf Spot, reside in the soil and are just waiting to be splashed onto your plants – don’t let that happen.
  • Determine how many primary shoots you want your plant to have.  Leave enough lower suckers to achieve that number (generally just one, two, or three as more than 3 primary stems gets hard to manage), and prune or pinch out all the rest.  To prevent stress from pruning, be diligent in removing suckers when they are still small, 2” or less.
  • Always clean and disinfect your pruners before making a cut on a tomato plant.  This is best accomplished by rinsing the blades with warm soapy water, drying, and following with by a quick alcohol spray.  A 10% bleach solution will also work, but if not thoroughly rinsed after, bleach can corrode pruner blades and other working parts.  If you make cuts on a plant that appears diseased, repeat the sanitizing process before you begin pruning another plant as “dirty” pruners are an easy way to spread pathogens in the garden.

    Developing vegetative “sucker” that will need to be removed. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

While tomatoes are indeed a difficult vegetable to grow, learning to prune them correctly will greatly help to make this a successful season.  If you just keep leaves off the ground, suckers pinched, and pruners cleaned, you’ll be well on your way to less disease, prettier plants, and more tomatoes to pick.  For more information on growing tomatoes and any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.  Happy Gardening!

Daniel J. Leonard