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Agree to disagree on pruning tomatoes

Cutting the plants back severely reduces yield, research shows


Tomato plant
Here's a Cherokee Carbon hybrid tomato plant, in ground
about 4 weeks. At the most I'd trim off that shoot at lower
right, but not until the plant is bigger. And maybe not even then.
This is a good producer of purple-black tomatoes, and I want
all the foliage -- and fruit -- I can get. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Gardening has a lot of topics that provoke strong opinions among gardeners. Near the top has to be the idea of pruning tomato plants.

Over the years I've hardly pruned my plants at all. In fact, I never did until the first year I grew the hardy and prolific Juliet tomato. I was complaining to a friend that this plant was trying to take over the entire tomato bed, and she replied, "Well you know, you can prune them."

Since then, Juliet gets an occasional haircut, but the trims come only along the bottom.  And that holds true for any other plant that aims to send rampant shoots across the garden.

But prune from the top? Horrors! A fellow community gardener asked me about that just today. And why would I want to cut off the growing tip of my plants? When the heat is coming and they need all the foliage they can get?

Some community gardeners do prune extensively, to a stake or a string, and then put shade cloth over the whole area to keep the tomatoes from being scorched. This seems to me like more work and less tomatoes. And I found University of California information that backs me up. Quoting here from the Integrated Pest Management website :

"Pruning your tomatoes

"Pruning is not always necessary. However, when pruning your tomatoes, remember these main points:

"Plants with two or more stems produce more tomatoes with better foliage protection from the sun than plants with one stem. However, tomatoes pruned to one leader will bear earlier but with less yield overall. Choose the stems you want to keep and pinch out the others as they develop. A dense leaf canopy may reduce the incidence of black mold and cracking but may increase the incidence of other fruit molds such as gray mold.

"Severe pruning to one stem will reduce your total crop greatly and also is likely to increase the incidence of some diseases or disorders.

"Before removing suckers or side shoots on a tomato plant, wait until two leaves develop and pinch above them." (See graphic at right for illustration.)

This science-based information likely won't change the mind of anyone accustomed to pruning. Earlier tomatoes but less yield? No, I'll stick with my full-foliaged plants, thanks very much, and enjoy my crop when it does finally come in.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist for week of April 7

The warm wave coming this week will shift weeds into overdrive. Get to work!

* Weed, weed, weed! Whack them before they flower.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden is really hungry. Feed shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash. Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias. Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom. April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce and cabbage seedlings.

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