pruning large branches

njitgradJune 13, 2013

Is it recommended to prune large branches? If so, what instrument and technique should I use? I only intend to do this on those branches growing downwards and are touching or approaching the soil.

For those branches angled downwards that I want to trim, what if the plant is a determinate?

What do I do about a second LARGE main stem growing from beneath the soil parallel to the first main stem? Keep it, hack it?

Pics of my various tomato plants....

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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

It depends on why you are pruning them. What the purpose is? It is generally recommended to remove any branches lying or brushing the soil and you want to do it ASAP while still relatively small. Any pruners of sharp knife or scissors will do. You can even just snap them off by hand.

Any other pruning you do is strictly optional and not required for any reason and will cost you production of fruit.

There is a FAQ here (not to mention 100's of discussions about it) on pruning well worth reading. Determinate varieties are not pruned except for those ground branches. Indeterminate pruning depends on the support structure and spacing you used. With proper support and spacing, none is needed.


Here is a link that might be useful: Pruning FAQ and discussions

    Bookmark   June 13, 2013 at 6:05PM
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The only reason I would be pruning them is to keep them from making contact with the soil.

I read the FAQs but most of them have general information...I'm looking for specifics such as:

1) I'm concerned about snapping the larger branches off by hand because I might not make a clean break. If using a hand pruner do I need to treat the blades with something beforehand? I use my pruners for shrubs and small tree branches.

2) How far from the stem to prune? Straight cut or angled?

3) What about the case where a second stem has grown from beneath the soil level? Leave it be, or will it compete with the first stem resulting in a combined mediocre yield?

4) What is considered proper support and spacing for indeterminates? Again the FAQs don't go into specifics. You said that if you have proper support and spacing, pruning is not needed.

5) How can pruning cost production of fruit in your opinion? So far I have read that there are two methods, one to increase fruit size, and one to increase fruit yield. It's still not clear to me which method leads to which, nor how either of these methods could cost fruit production. I'm interested in learning what you have to say about this.


    Bookmark   June 14, 2013 at 10:24AM
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kathyb912_in (5a/5b, Central IN)(5a/5b)

1 & 2) I think you're over-thinking the process of snipping a few branches. :) If you're worried about not making a clean break with your hands, use kitchen shears or a pruner. If you're worried about the cleanliness of your pruner or shears, wash them first or wipe them down with bleach or rubbing alcohol. If you're still worried about doing it wrong, snip a few branches and wait a couple days to make sure nothing bad happens to the plants. Then do the rest.

3) What is the variety of the plant with the second leader has come up at soil level? If it's an indeterminate, I'd say pruning it or leaving it is completely up to you. If it's a determinate variety, leave it alone. If you keep it and there are leaves on that stem that are too close to the ground, snip them off the same way you'd do the leaves on the main stem. (When they're little, you can just pinch them off with your fingers.)

4 & 5) Spacing for your plants in containers is somewhat irrelevant, assuming there is enough free space between the bags for airflow. For the raised bed plants, it depends on the variety and size of the plant. It also depends on your goals -- if you want as much fruit as possible and you have the space to let them get as big as they want to be, don't prune. If you have limited space and don't want your indeterminates spilling over into the path and blocking your access to the bed (which may be the case in your narrow raised beds), prune as needed to keep them in bounds.

Since each of the new leaders (what some people call "suckers") produces tomatoes, pruning them by definition reduces the number of fruit a plant produces. (Assuming that you have a long enough growing season for the fruit on the mid-season branches to ripen, which you should in NJ.) But some people have different goals -- given a limited amount of space, they'd rather plant several different varieties and prune each to 1-2 leaders to keep the plant narrow; they get fewer fruit per plant, but can grow multiple varieties in the same space, so it's a good trade-off for them.

I won't speak to the "the fruit is larger if you limit the number of branches" because I don't know whether there is any truth to that statement or not. I've never noticed that to be true on the plants I've pruned, but neither have I done a controlled study in my garden (prune one, not prune another of the same type, and compare the size of the fruit).

BTW, your garden looks great. What varieties are you growing? Looks like you have a good assortment.

This post was edited by kathyb912_IN on Sat, Jun 15, 13 at 14:09

    Bookmark   June 15, 2013 at 2:05PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

What specifics that are not covered in the FAQs are covered in great detail in many discussions here. But the FAQ does make clear that you do not prune determinates, that no pruning is required, and that stakes and cages are the most common methods of support.

Millions of pounds of fresh tomatoes are grown annually without pruning even one leaf from the plant. It is strictly an optional practice that IMO usually results from mis-information or a lack of understanding of how tomato plants grow and produce fruit.

#1 and #2 Agree you are over-complicating the process. It is simple to just cut off the branch flush to 1/4" out from the stem with any sharp knife or scissors. Clean the shears as you wish. Most don't worry about it. The stress to the plant is caused by pruning, not by the method or tools used to do it.

#3 as mentioned, your choice if it is an indeterminate. If it is a determinate leave it alone.

#4 Proper support is pretty common knowledge - stakes or cages or Florida weave and height is determined by the type of plant. Most use 6-7' stakes or 5-6' CRW cages - many discussions here about them all.

Standard recommended spacing for tomato plants is 3'. Some prefer 4 feet. If heavy pruning is done they can be closer but that is the standard as most all varieties will normally be at least that wide.

As to how pruning can reduce production, as Kathy said, prune/cut off a secondary leader - what some call suckers - and you remove all the fruit that would have been produced by that leader. The less secondary leaders on a plant, the less fruit it produces.

So far I have read that there are two methods, one to increase fruit size, and one to increase fruit yield.

Don't know the source of those claims but ample research shows that any increase in fruit size that results from pruning is marginal. A few fruits may be slightly larger but the majority will be of normal size as it is the genetics of the variety that determines fruit size.

And to my knowledge there is no way that pruning could increase yield when compared to an un-pruned plant much less any proof of that claim. It would defy the very nature of the plant and how it grows and produces fruit.


    Bookmark   June 15, 2013 at 10:00PM
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Your tomato garden is beautiful and I really like the flowers you incorporated into the garden.
I can't tell by looking how tall your supports are. This year I made some supports out of remesh that are almost six feet tall . One of my tomatoes is now at least a foot taller but at almost 6 feet the cage is tall enough so the plant can cascade down if it needs to.
What about your supports? Are they tall enough or do you have add-on stakes or caging?

    Bookmark   June 16, 2013 at 9:41PM
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fcivish(Zone 6 Utah)

Why? That is my question. Why.

Did the "Good Tomato Fairy" come to you and say, "Trim these branches?"

I understand the idea that touching the ground MIGHT possibly promote more disease, but I have serious questions about the science of this (with airborne spores and tomatoes actually GROWING out of the ground, I think the only thing that touching the ground does is make it WET and DIRTY).. Most people will tell you that tomato infections show up first on the very bottom of the plant or the top of the plant, but not on the 'runners' that touch the soil. Or at least that is what I think.

Branches hanging down might make a more bushy, less 'open' plant, affecting sunlight on the main stem (though probably not as much as you think) and restricting airflow (which might promote possible infection, but probably won't make any difference in container grown plants such as you show, which are already being babied, and nurtured, and WATERED by something other than a sprinkler system.

Second or third stems emerging from the ground DO NOT decrease total amount of tomatoes, in my experience. Like stems hanging down they DO tend to make a bushier, less open plant, and decrease airflow, but, again, is this really harmful in your case?

I'm just having trouble wrapping my head around, "Why?"

First of all, remember that tomatoes, in the wild, are GROUND PLANTS. They DO NOT generally climb on trellises, cages, or even other trees and plants.

Admittedly, our home/garden tomatoes are essentially THOUSANDS OF GENERATIONS removed from the wild, BUT, they still have most of that innate behavior and genetic makeup.

Secondly, farmers grow their tomatoes as ground plants. They do NOT use trellises, stakes or cages, and they do not trim their plants, EXCEPT in truly artificial environments, such as greenhouses.

So, why would you want to go against these natural and common, genetically programed tomato behaviors? I personally believe the tomato is generally going to be better at growing than we are at trying to direct it's growing. In most cases, stakes, cages, trimming, etc are not NECESSARY, instead they are a convenience chosen by us, for our own purposes. And in the end, you MIGHT be able to increase production and decrease disease, by your own efforts, but most likely nature will do better on its own.

I'm not really a 'natural' or 'organic' hobbyist by any means. I will use fertilizers, chemicals and other techniques the way that we developed them But I do tend to use these things in moderation because I fully believe most organisms have natural characteristics which fit well into their environment, and we mess with them excessively to little or no purpose, most of the time, and to our own peril in excessive cases.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2013 at 9:36AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

fcivish - all good questions. Why do any pruning at all is something we discuss (and preach against) here almost daily. Yet despite all that info available both here and at many other reputable sources, some folks continue to insist on doing it.

Some reasons some people give for doing it:

1) my grandpa, dad, a neighbor, a friend, etc. said I have to
2) I planted too close together
3) I used too small a container
4) i can't find any way to support it
5) I read it "somewhere"
6) I heard it will make bigger tomatoes
7) I don't want to have to wait so long for them to get ripe
8) I didn't know the plant would be so "big", "tall", "wide", "shady", etc.
9) etc.


    Bookmark   June 17, 2013 at 10:47AM
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I think you're all right... I tend to over-complicate things. I did however end up trimming the lower branches before I got most of the replies to this thread, as well as the secondary main stem (off my Super Steak as it turns out). All of my plants are indeterminates, except my Independence Day plants which I ended up not touching anyway as it turns out.

To answer Kathy.... I am growing Pineapple Heirloom, Black Krim, Black Zebra, Abe Lincoln, Super Steak, two cherry varieties and some hybrids. Basically two of each. I wanted a nice mixture of hybrids and heirlooms in my first season starting from seed. I'll adjust accordingly next year depending on my results this season.

The cages are only about 3 feet tall so I think I will end up getting longer 6' bamboo sticks rather than adding a second set of cages on top of the first.

I have to say that growing the tomatoes in the geopots is so much better than using rigid containers. I tried three plants in rigid containers last season and all failed.

Two other major factors in my favor this season versus last season is that I am using a 50/50 growing mix (Promix BX and compost) for my containers and I trimmed several enormous branches from my elm trim that were limiting the amount of sunlight my garden received. This also happens to be the first season I grew tomatoes on the side of my garage, which as you can see is working out quite well so far.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2013 at 11:12AM
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It is always interesting to me to see how hard some individuals will "push" for their point of view on certain issues. After growing fruit trees and vegetables for over 60 years...I have found there are certain practices that are just correct and true. Some other practices are really "fuzzy" and a bit "unproveable". The issue of pruning tomatoes is a hot button on this site. One might have to agree that pruning will give you less fruit. As for size of fruit...let me simply ask this question: If a given mass of root structure supplies 30 growing tomatoes...will those fruits have the same vitality and energy as the same root structure supporting only 10 fruits? Some "experts" disagree, but I know what common sense is telling me. Either is not a deal-breaker. I am confident that excellent growers with excellent results are doing some things differently.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2013 at 11:39AM
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You can add one more to the list

I work in industry & 1-2 stems or heads is the standard.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 12:12AM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I believe in MANAGING plants. As we decide how to feed them water them, care for them in terms of diseases .. we can also decide and controls their size and growth habits to our own advantage. A tomato plant does note foresee a cold season ahead, as if it thinks that can grow forever. That is why always aims to grow MORE AND MORE BRANCHES so it can grow MORE fruits/seeds. But we, the gardeners, have our own agenda. We are not there to guarantee the survival of its specie but pick fruits from it. So then the plant's natural goal is not exactly the same as ours. Then there are the economics of our resources, i.e. land, water and our efforts that we aim to maximize our benefits. That is why commercially they have come up with plants with certain size, growth habits and fruit sizes that are easier to manage for better productivity.

So here is an example of my case: Say, I have a super 100 cherry that if left unchecked will take over my backyard. It is just the beginning of flowering. It has over 60 flowers and buds already, the largest fruit it has is the size of a pea. It is already over 3ft tall. I have controlled it so far to have just one more lateral branch. I am not sure how long it will take for those 60 fruits(aprox) to ripen. I am sure by then another 60 or more buds and flower will be produced. Then by sometime in September the weather is going to cool down. And it will be very unlikely for any flower from thereafter become a ripe fruit.

Knowing these general things, I decide to control (prune) The sweet super 100(just an example). It has happened to me many times in the past that in the fall I had to pull up tomato plants with dozens of green tomatoes on it. How much green tomatoes did I need to pickle ??!! heh!

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 3:44AM
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I don't think anyone would argue that managing plants is a good idea.
And I think I've seen it said that there is no 'one size fits all' rule on pruning.
I'm not pruning at all and hope for a bigger crop this year. Rather than cut down parts of the plant midseason, this year I planned, built nice big cages, spaced appropriately, and now don't have to prune and can enjoy the benefits of not doing so.

I think though that some people have the idea that they 'ought' to prune 'just because'. That is not management and it is worth the repetition that pruning is not in fact necessary.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 8:14AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

It is always interesting to me to see how hard some individuals will "push" for their point of view on certain issues.

How would you have us respond to the many questions we get about pruning? What reply would you prefer when no reason or explanation is given for why they are asking about pruning. Or when the OP ask (as in this case) is it recommended)? Or worse yet went the OP says something like "I read somewhere...", or "a neighbor says I have to..."? Or when xFozzyx says "I work in industry & 1-2 stems or heads is the standard." Does that mean the the standard for all tomato growers is pruning plants? Not at all because he/she is only talking about greenhouse hydroponics, not the commercial tomato growing industry where plants are seldom if ever pruned or the home garden.

Does the point that pruning is never required but may be optional in certain situations get pushed? You bet. Because the myth that pruning is required, that you can't grow tomatoes unless you prune the plants, is such a pervasive myth.

After growing fruit trees and vegetables for over 60 years...I have found there are certain practices that are just correct and true.

Several long time regulars here have just as many or even more years of experience. But the one thing most agree on is that there are NO practices that are correct and true for all gardens or all gardeners.


    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 2:39PM
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Well, I'm glad that I brought this subject up (once more, so it seems). I didn't intend for it to get to where it is, but at least I have a better understanding of various schools of thought from accomplished gardeners when it comes to pruning (or not). Thank you all for the input, I'm definitely keeping this discussion bookmarked. Now its time to find out what's been munching on my eggplant, pepper, and string bean foliage. Stay tuned and keep your eyes peeled for another action-packed thread.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 2:56PM
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amerique2(7b TN)

Just have to say how beautiful your tomatoes and neighboring flowers look. And your marigolds planted inside your raised beds. I see an irrigation system for the raised beds. Are you watering the potted tomatoes by hand? Good job!

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 3:35PM
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Thanks, although next year I may just plant more tomato plants instead of flowers because they seem to love it there. The potted plants are watered by hand but we've had so much rain in June here in NJ that I haven't had to water at all pretty much.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2013 at 3:50PM
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