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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 March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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