Pinching growing tips on tomato seedlings?

jcheckersJanuary 15, 2012

Every spring usually after I've transplanted my tomatoes, I find myself strolling through the garden center at Walmart and Home Depot just to look at what plants are available. I'm always invious of the short, stocky and 'pricey' 4" pots of tomatoes. I've wondered if the growers pinch the top growth of seedlings in order to produce a bushier plant.

A couple of weeks ago I googled 'Pinching growing tips on tomato seedlings'. As I expected it pulled up dozens of articles on pruning suckers (a totally different subject, I don't prune but think it might be beneficial to growers with shorter growing seasons.)

I did however find an article called "Tomato seedlings without a greenhouse" by Bob Wildfong of Seeds of Diversity Canada.

The following is an excerpt of that article.

Potting deeply

Tomato seedlings have the remarkable property that they grow roots from their stems wherever they contact soil. You can bury the stems right up to the leaves, and they will happily just grow more roots. To help keep my tomato seedlings compact, I repot them once or twice while they're indoors. At the two-leaf stage, I dig them out and carefully replant them at the very bottom of a small container. By filling the container, burying the stem so that only the leaves stick up above the soil, the seedling is shortened and it becomes stouter and stronger. If you have room for larger containers, you can keep re-burying seedlings to shorten them until planting time arrives.

When you plant in the garden, you have one more chance to shorten the seedlings. Even if your tomatoes are very long and stringy, plant them so that only the top four or five leaves are above the soil. This helps prevent the stems from blowing and breaking in the wind, and it adds to the root mass. The seedlings will grow very quickly once they take hold, and the lost height will be made up before you know it.

Pruning without mercy

The easiest way to shorten tomato seedlings is also the most difficult for beginners. You have to do this a few times before you can really have faith that the little plants will grow back. Believe me, you can prune your beloved seedlings quite hard, and they will thankfully grow back healthier and stronger.

My favourite method of pruning tomato seedlings is to pinch the tops when they have three good, strong leaves and a fourth emerging about 3-4 weeks old. Tomato seedlings have alternate leaves one leaf grows out one side of the stem, then another grows out the other side a little further up, and so on. The original seed leaves fall off soon after the true leaves start to grow: don't count these. When you see the fourth leaf beginning to unfurl on a little stem, snip or pinch it off above the third leaf. What happens?

Nothing seems to happen for about a week, which is good because the plant is growing a stronger stem and roots instead of more leaves. Then you should see more strong growth at the top and sides, which you can pinch or train as you wish. This happens anyway later in the plant's life (many people call the side growth suckers) and there are many theories and religions based on suckering (whether or not to, and how and when to do it). I won't get into that right now.

By the time you plant your seedlings, they will be stockier, fuller and healthier than the long, stringy tomatoes that they might have been.

Good care and good weather are still the most important ingredients for a good harvest, but early in the year we have more control over our plants and it feels good to put healthy seedlings in the newly-prepared garden. I hope your spring is full of promise, and your harvest is full of delicious lovely tomatoes.

Bob Wildfong

The seeds I started last Sunday have begun sprouting this last Friday night and I'm thinking of experimenting with some of each of the indeterminate varieties I've started.

My question is Has anyone had any experience with this and or What do you think? Thanks in advance.


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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Keith, For 3 or 4 years I potted up my plants into progressively larger pots while they were indoors. Because I raise 200-300 tomato seedlings every spring, it was very time-consuming and costly.

Did it help? It is hard to say. I had great production from those plants, and early production too, but I also have great production and early production from plants that are only potted up one time when they go from the seedling flat to individual cups.

I stopped doing it because I did not feel it made enough of a difference to make it worthwhile.

I do not pinch back plants nor do I sucker. While either method might be useful to people in cooler climates who grow in conditions that allow fruitset to occur without ceasing all summer long, I do not believe they are helpful methods for those of us here in the hotter parts of the country.

Our sole focus here has got to be to get the plants into the ground as soon as possible in springtime so they can grow and set fruit before the temperatures arrive that impede pollination and fertilization. If you are pinching back your plants, you are setting back fruit production, and frankly, we cannot afford to do that here.

What works in one specific climate does not necessarily work in an area with a different climate. In other words, what works for him in Canada will not give the same results here.

When I lived in Texas, I had a pretty unfriendly next-door neighbor who really wouldn't even say hello in return if you said hello to her, so I was not inclined to offer her my unsolicited garden advice. I watched quietly all summer long during the one and only summer she attempted to grow tomatoes as she staked her plants to 6' tall stakes and religiously removed every single branch and every single bloom. She basically had a 6' tall stem with very few leaves and no fruit.

After we had been harvesting ripe tomatoes for weeks, her husband came over and asked me what she was doing wrong. I remember that my first words to him were "Where do I begin?". After I explained that by removing all the limbs, she was removing most all the leaves and that was impeding photosynthesis and growth....and that by removing all the flowers she was removing the fruit since the flowers are the first step in fruit set....well, do you see where our conversation was going? I told him that she must be reading a book written for "yankees" and that the techniques they recommended do not work in our climate.

Before he left our house, he pondered the situation and then told me he thought it best if he not mention to her everything he'd learned and maybe we could just forget he stopped by. I grimly nodded and agreed. Neither one of us wanted to be on the receiving end of her frustration. We moved here shortly after that, so I do not know if she ever tried growing tomatoes again. Although this might seem like an extreme example, it is exactly what happens to people when they try to apply long, cool-season techniques to short tomato-season places. While we have a long growing season overall, we really have a very short window of opportunity in which to get fruit set on our tomatoes. If you are pinching back your plants, you're making that window of opportunity even shorter than it already is.

Clearly I am totally opposed to pinching back plants, and I feel almost as strongly about suckering. Since every leaf that grows contributes to photosythesis, and since every leaf that grows shelters the enlarging tomatoes from the direct sunlight and helps protect the fruit from sunscald damage, I almost never remove a sucker for any reason. Some people do sucker the plants if they want larger (but fewer) fruit, but I'd rather have 6 medium-sized tomatoes than 2 big ones, for example.

If you want to learn about getting good fruit set or earlier fruit set in our miserably hot climate, I suggest you look for information from gardening experts in Okalahoma, Texas, etc. because those folks are growing in the same conditions you are. People who garden in other parts of the country where the weather never gets hot enough to impede pollination and fertilization do not understand how differently we must do things here.


    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 12:37PM
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Right on! The only advice in that article that I follow is burying the stems both when I pot up--once--and when I plant into the garden, as early as I dare, holding some plants back as replacements in case a hard freeze takes them out.

This is off topic, but I just posted to another question that got me thinking about it. So many popular garden books don't seem to be practical for us. Take the practice of building deep raised beds in small sizes. 4x4 beds a foot deep sound like a great idea, but when I tried it, they had to be hand watered frequently. (The drainage was TOO good.) I hated that, so ripped them out. Last summer I still had several--17--beds that were 4x12 and just one landscape timber high. Still had to be watered by hand. So we are ripping 10 of them out and redoing the orientation of the beds to make 4 beds 4x25 in the ground. That way I can lay a doubled 50 ft soaker hose in each bed and water all four beds at once with the splitter that DH made--or turn off any hose to water only what needs it. That will still leave me 7 small beds to water by hand, but that I can deal with.

Like Dawn said, reading books written in other parts of the country can lead to a bunch of frustration.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2012 at 1:30PM
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Since my initial interest in 2012, I've continued to experiment with pinching. Last year mother nature pinched one that was covered up to protect from a late frost. The top of the plant was touching the lid covering the bucket it was planted in and was burnt by the frost. The plant was set back at first but then new growth came on with two terminal leaders instead of one and it became one of my best producers in what was a mediocre year.
This year I started several varieties of indeterminates both hybrid and heirloom very early, December 20th. The following photos show four of the pinched plants that have been potted up twice. They are now in four inch pots and are now 4-6 inches tall. The pinching triggers the formation of suckers from the nodes and show at least three terminal growth tips. My belief is that these pinched plants will give me a huge head start by already have 3-4 growth tips when they are transplanted later this month.

On January the 11th I started my determinates and more of the same indeterminates and none of these will be pinched.

Call me stubborn, but I have to find out for myself!


    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 2:29PM
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Well .... I don't know bout pinching, but I'm glad I'm not the only one who hoards cottage cheese containers :) My wife and daughters give me heck bout bein a pack rat.

I've got bout hundred of them in the garage. I drill a drain hole with my drill press , and they make a great pot.

I even buy the same brand cottage cheese :) , even the 2% fat. Hiland makes a good creamy cottage cheese :)

1 Like    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 5:13PM
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LC, Nope. You're not the only one. Cottage cheese containers make good pots. And Hiland, like Braums, doesn't treat their cows with rBGH.

1 Like    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 5:23PM
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Interesting idea! I'd love for you to be the guinea pig this year and report back on how it works so we all know if we should copy you! :) My problem isn't with leggy seedlings as much as it is with small root systems - I hate trying to pot up and finding 2/3 of my soil mix left in the container. I'm guessing it's because I usually start late (just started tomatoes this week, in fact) and the roots just haven't had time to go very deep by the time the top growth looks crowded.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 5:42PM
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I pinched a number of my peppers, and they did split off to make two terminals. Will be interesting to see if this increases pod production.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2014 at 12:25PM
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Live near Denton, removing all suckers as I see them on 40 tomato plants. 36" apart plants and every third plant have 6' t-post using Florida weave with twine applying as vines get taller keeping plants fairly vertical. Have great stand and many blooms/tomatoes as of today.
Noticing few green tomatoes with holes hoping this doesn't get worse. Some holes look like someone used a 1/2" drill bit but cannot find any evidence of worms or defecation. What is this?

    Bookmark   May 15, 2014 at 8:20AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

warren31, Can you post a photo of the holes you're seeing in fruit? Usually if I see holes in my fruit, it is either birds pecking the fruit to get water or caterpillars. Since you're not seeing defecation, that kinda rules out caterpillars almost 100% of the time.

There's also a chance it is disease-related, but if that is the case, you ought to see some discoloration around the hole. I'll link the TAMU Tomato Problem Solver's green fruit disorder page. Maybe something in one of the photos will look like what you're seeing. I was thinking specifically of bacterial speck if the holes were very narrow.

I don't pinch plants back and likely never will, but I remove the lower foliage to improve air flow once the plants are several feet tall. I just did that on the largest plants, which were put in the ground in late March, last week. We've been harvesting fruit for a little over two weeks now and I've only had one that was pecked by birds, which isn't bad considering we're in Extreme Drought.


Here is a link that might be useful: TAMU Tomato Problem Solver-Green Fruit

    Bookmark   May 15, 2014 at 12:39PM
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I'd love to hear how your pinching experiment turned out. I am in W. Washington where we have a short growing season. I just uppotted my tomato seedlings and am thinking of pinching the tops of them next week, as it's still a few months before it will be time to put them outside. Hope to hear the results of your experiments.


    Bookmark   Thanked by jcheckers    February 25, 2015 at 11:34AM
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Hello Lynne,

On Saturday when I have more time, I'll post some photos and tell the story of last year's best ever tomato crop. Thanks for your interest.


1 Like    Bookmark   February 26, 2015 at 4:28AM
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Hello again Lynne,

Snowed in in OKC, (2-3") and just came in from potting up more tomato and pepper seedlings in the garage. First a couple of photos of this year's pinched seedlings. I started seed for these on Dec. 20th. the winter solstice.

This one is a Sungold variety, If you look closely at the "V" where the side branches grow off the main stem, you will see the suckers have formed all along the main stem, even on the cotyledon leaves.

This one is a Betterboy variety and you can see the same along with the new terminal tip just above where it was pinched. Both of these plants were pinched 4 weeks ago. These and others will be potted up deeply into the 4" pots and will be set out in the garden as soon as the weather allows in the next month.

Last year was the first time I went all in and pinched all of my indeterminate seedlings and was also the first time I had a couple of transplants with buds on them already. I also followed Dr. Sam Cotner's advice from The Vegetable Book a Texan's Guide to Gardening and only set transplants in about 2" deep. Before I had always planted transplants several inches deep.

Here are a couple of photos from last year.

This one was taken on June 4th, about 9-10 weeks after transplanting. The white tops of the T-posts are at about 5' high.

This one was taken on June 22nd and is a coworker. As you can see the plants have grown into a tomato hedge and are 7' tall, they continued to grow taller then across the tops of each other.

Pinching will set your seedlings back about 3-4 weeks and keeping them cool, about 50 degrees if possible will help keep them from getting leggy.

While my experiment is by no means scientific, it has made a believer out of me. Last year I took sacks of tomatoes to work every couple of days, gave them to friends and family and had so many for us that they went bad on the kitchen table before we could eat them.

If you decide to pinch, I suggest you only pinch a few of each variety you grow and mark them on a map of your garden where they are planted. Also this is for only indeterminate (vining varieties) not determinate (bush varieties). If bush varieties are pinched they will produce less, at best, and might not produce at all.

Best of gardening luck to you!


1 Like    Bookmark   February 28, 2015 at 3:19PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Hi Keith, I just wanted to say your plants look great! Congrats on your success with pinching and on having such a wonderful harvest.

Also, I'm always happy when I see the legendary Dr. Sam Cotner mentioned here. I'm on my fourth copy of his book, having totally worn out each successive copy and replacing it once it started falling apart. Any book used so much that it falls apart in one's hands is well worth reading. Being a gardener, when the new copy arrives, I always compost the scattered pieces of the one that has fallen apart, and I believe in my heart that Dr. Cotner would approve of that. The late Dr. Cotner knew more about raising vegetables in our climate than anyone else could ever hope to know in one lifetime. His book is as useful to me now as it was when I first read it, which must have been sometime in the 1980s I guess. I ought to have it memorized by now. I have newer veggie books written for Texans (there aren't many written directly for Okies) that are very, very good and a couple that are excellent, but his book is and always will be my favorite.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2015 at 6:52PM
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Thanks for the update, Keith. Your plants are very impressive. Here it is rare for the temp to hit 90 degrees outside. We put our tomatoes outside in June. I started Amish paste on Feb 3rd (left) and Cherokee Purple (right) on Feb 6th. Here are a couple of photos of one of each of them today (Mar 3). Is it still too soon to pinch them? If not, where would I pinch them?

    Bookmark   March 3, 2015 at 12:01PM
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Hello Lynne,

From your photos it looks like the 4th true leaves are emerging now. This is from the excerpt above in my original post:

My favourite method of pruning tomato seedlings is to pinch the tops when they have three good, strong leaves and a fourth emerging about 3-4 weeks old. Tomato seedlings have alternate leaves one leaf grows out one side of the stem, then another grows out the other side a little further up, and so on. The original seed leaves fall off soon after the true leaves start to grow: don't count these. When you see the fourth leaf beginning to unfurl on a little stem, snip or pinch it off above the third leaf.

When the 4th true leaf is about 1 /2"-3/4" long, I snip it off using cuticle scissors. By your still being 3 months from transplanting, you probably will have to repot them deeply a couple of more times to keep them from getting too tall and leggy. Good Luck!


"The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies." -- Gertrude Jekyll

    Bookmark   March 4, 2015 at 4:11AM
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