Tomato Bleg

currants tomato

From commentor Currants:

I’m wondering why I don’t ever remember pruning tomatoes when I was younger, and whether it’s just the heirloom types that need it, and how does one ever stay on top of it? And what do you do when you’ve missed them, as is evident in the photos?

Also, looks like the one below (it’s a Japanese Black Trifele) has some disease–it’s the only one with it, and every single one I’ve ever gotten (from Territorial Seed) has had the same thing (but none of the other tomatoes from there do).

I’m about to give up on these kinds of tomatoes. I rarely get very many tomatoes and they’re a lot of work. Or maybe it’s just that I R DOIN IT ALL RONG. Always. Any ideas?

I’m curious myself to see what better gardeners have to say about this — I never bother to prune my tomatoes, because I’d rather play find-the-fruit and put up with messy, sprawling plants than make the effort to keep them tidy…

currants tomato 2

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32 replies
  1. Ol'Froth says:

    I always pinch out the suckers and train the vine up a trellis because I think keeping the plant more “open” helps cut down on fungal and mildew diseases. I get my seeds from Territorial or Johnny’s, and rarerly have disease problems. Rabbits and groundhogs, on the other hand…..

  2. Donna says:

    I’ve been pinching tomatoes since I was a little girl in the late 60s, so it’s not new. That said, I now pinch down low on the plant, but let later suckers grown, mostly because it’s so hard to keep up.

  3. currants says:

    @Ol’Froth: So you start your tomatoes from seed, then? I get most of my seeds from Johnnys, and for the past couple of years have been ordering plants from Territorial because I haven’t had time to grow my own.

    My tomatoes (all my nightshades actually) are rotated every year–they’re in raised beds, and with 6 beds, they won’t hit the same planting space for another 5 years. And I’m pretty careful with throwing away trimmings (i.e. not in the compost pile).

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Tomatoes are one thing I hands down with out a doubt can grow. (if only I could do half so well with eggplant) As usual, it all starts with the soil: Lots of organic matter. I compost the hell out of where they are going to grow every year. Also, it is a different location every year (rotate your crops). When I put my plants in the ground (this is the first year I successfully started some from seeds) I dig a hole, put a handful of blood meal in, half a handful of bone meal in, mix it up well with the soil, then put the plant in the hole, fill in around it, tamp, then build a 1-2 inch high circular berm around the plant for water.

    They get HUGE. Right now my tomas are all 5-7 feet tall and sprawling all over the place with fruit growing everywhere. Every one else’s around here are 2-3 feet tall.

    Once in the ground I build a trellis to hold what will be tonnages of plant matter. Start with the tall cages (48″?), then an inverted “Vee” structure of 1x1s along the length of the toma bed (the cages in between each Vee) with a 1×1 spine at the top and angle bracing at the ends. A 1×1 across the top of the cages and the cages wired to that.

    A lot of work, but the storms that came thru last wkend with the 60 mph winds and the 2 1/2 inches of rain and the hail, damaged every plant, but destroyed none, and one week later you can’t even tell. I really should prune, but it feels like I am throwing out babies when I do it. That and I am afraid I will do it wrong.

    Anyway, the compost makes for healthy soil, the blood meal (nitrogen) makes for big green plants, the bone meal (phosphorous) makes for strong roots and lots of flowering. I have no idea how much poundage I will get out of my 30 plants, but I suspect 500 or 600 pounds is at the low end of what I can expect.

    And yes, a month from now I will be a canning fool.

  5. Jeffg166 says:

    All my plants grow from whatever got thrown into the compost pile last year. Most are the grape type. I tie them up to the side of the compost bin. They are on their own and do reasonably well.

  6. shelley says:

    I used to do the pinch/pruning thing, but after hearing from some tomato experts who know their onions, decided it’s pretty much an old wive’s tale. More foliage means more energy production for the plant and helps to shade the fruit and prevent sun scald. And more branches mean more flowers and setting fruit. The one case where you might prune is if you’re trying to grow a prize winning monster for your local county fair.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:


    because I think keeping the plant more “open” helps cut down on fungal and mildew diseases.

    and you are absolutely right about that. Any hints on how to do it right?

  8. Tom says:

    Like the other responders my seeds or plants come from Johnnys or Territorial. Disease, especially late blight, has always been a problem, but I’ve never attributed it to seed infection, nor do coop extension agents.
    This year I tried two new things: 1) abundant fertilizer, and 2) grafted plants (6). Here we are at the end of June and nearly every plant (six varieties, 18/20 plants) has fruit set, never seen here before in my zone 6 NY garden.
    Grafted plants provide a stronger, disease-resistant stock and an heirloom scion. I am a convert.

  9. shelley says:

    Love this NewsMax headline”

    Patriots Founder: We’re Forming a Human Chain to Stop Illegals

    Will they be singing “Hands Across America”

  10. currants says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Can you post pics? Kind of need the visual to understand the V structure, but I can see it’s useful (high winds here take down the tops, because my 60″ supports aren’t enough).
    I put my grape tomatoes in with the asparagus this year figuring I’d let them go and climb all over the tops, and so far so good.

    I’ve got plenty of compost in, and oyster shells randomly along with egg shells crumbled underneath, and an organic tomato fertilizer, but I’m taking notes for next year from you. The first year I started mine from seed I ended up with an absolute jungle (and not much fruit), then read about pruning, which began the misery.

    I love gardening but I suddenly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing with tomatoes, which is weird. (My garlic is gorgeous, on the other hand. And –fingers crossed– nematode-free.)

  11. currants says:

    @Tom: Hmm. I have two of the same type (Momotaro, I think?), one each grafted and standard, because I was curious about the difference. Will see in a few weeks, I think.

  12. currants says:


    because I think keeping the plant more “open” helps cut down on fungal and mildew diseases.

    and you are absolutely right about that. Any hints on how to do it right?

    Seconded, please, thanks!

  13. RoonieRoo says:

    I’m wrapping up my tomato season here in Central Texas. The past month I have been harvesting between 10 to 20 pounds of tomatoes every single day from a total of 18 plants. I spend every day roasting and saucing tomatoes to put up.

    I only “sucker” or cut back the bottom growth on my tomatoes the first month of their growth. That is to raise the canopy in a sense to help stave off disease from the splash back from the dirt during rains.

    But other than that I don’t pinch them after that first month because with our sun, the tomatoes do much better with the shade to keep the fruit from getting sunscald as they mature.

  14. karen marie says:

    Currants, do you plant your tomatoes in dirt that grew something else, or do you always plant them in the same dirt every year? Tomatoes are funny in that way. The mildews or whatever get in the soil and subsequent crops will be sicker. I miss my garden!

  15. currants says:

    @karen marie: No, I move them every year (raised beds). I usually try to plant other things with them–basil didn’t work very well last year, but this year I’ve got carrots with them (read that somewhere about companion planting…AFTER I planted peas next to my garlic).

  16. draftmama says:

    We raise heirloom organic vegetables and sell the starts at our Farmers Market and on the web. I learned many years ago that the reason for pricking out the suckers is that the plant needs to conserve its energy for making maters, not making foliage. We string up our tomatoes in 8′ high frames and consistently get HUGE crops. I have a handout which goes with every tomato plant in the mail as well as those we sell at market and out of the greenhouses. The other reason to keep the foliage down is that more sun gets to the fruit so they ripen faster, and a lot of the heirloom plants have pretty weeny leaves which lets the sunshine in.

    We raise plants for people in zones 4 and 5 and our whole farm is operated on a sustainable basis. Its difficult to get a good tomato and pepper crop in our neck of the woods (Montana) but we start so early we’ve got a lot of our valley growing great RED tomatoes!!!

    If you’re interested email me bodefarm at bresnan dot net. THINK SUN!!

  17. Marvel says:

    Just a guess, but the black spots/steaks may be evidence of early blight, a fungal disease. I don’t think there are any tomato strains that are resistant to EB, and perhaps some are more suseptible than others. The fungus is soil-borne, so in addition to rotating nightshade-family crops (e.g., tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant) and clearing diseased plant material from growing beds, pruning the lower branches & staking young plants (to keep the leafy parts above any soil-splash associated with watering) may help prevent/control this disease.

    Re general pruning: I usually prune a little early-on (removing new leaflets/suckers that grow between the main stalks and established leaf stems) to help the little brutes focus their enegies, and then spend the next two months just feeling guilty for not pruning. Works for me.

  18. satby says:

    I pinch off new growth after I have some fruit setting, and cut off suckers near the base, but after about the middle of summer my plants are on their own too, I’m just not going to slave in the sun to keep up. I do use an organic approved copper fungicide when I see rare hints of disease, and haven’t had much of a problem.

  19. currants says:

    Draftmamma, Marvel and satby, thanks for your comments. Maybe I should research early blight–could be there’s something else I could add to/plant in the soil in the off-tomato years that would help. And I can think about making a moveable 8ft frames to follow the tomatoes…next year.

    Meanwhile, the early-pruning and then letting them do what they will sounds like a plan (that works with available time and heat/humidity-dampered energy).

    Thank you all!

  20. draftmama says:

    To the issue of growing your maters in the same place every year, we don’t really have a choice. It is very windy in the Helena valley and we have 8 raised beds all framed for the plants in our front yard where they are more protected than out in the big gardens. In the fall I just let all the chickens out every day and they work over those beds better than we could. The also fertilize them! We put a layer of compost, with straw on top, down in the late fall, which sort of rots under the snow, and again in the spring the chooks work their magic. After I’ve planted the tomatoes (with a big scoop of compost at the bottom of each one) I then sprinkle alyssum seeds on the beds. This attracts bees (pollinators) and lacewings, which eat the bugs we used to have on the tomato plants. Smells lovely too! Friends and visitors to the farm are astonished at the prodigious crops of tomatoes we have. This is Montana after all :)

  21. satby says:

    @currants: You know, everyone says rotate your crops and I know that’s best, but most years I end up with them in the same place too, either by design or because a lot of volunteers started growing. As I said, occasionally I get hints of blight, but with a preemptive dose of copper fungicide and some attempts to keep them from sprawling all over and not drying out after a rain, I really don’t have much of a problem. But again, I’m a really low maintenance gardener, so stuff has to be able to grow without much coddling from me.

  22. currants says:

    @satby: Low maintenance are us, over here. I’ll look into the copper fungicide, since @draftmama: I can’t really deal with chickens right now. (I mean, they’d be permitted here, but I’d have to build a bulletproof space for them to be at night, because we have, in addition to racoons, fox, mink and coyotes, a local resident fisher. And this is honest-to-goodness suburban Boston.) Mind you I’d LOVE to have chickens (or at least the eggs), but I’d need to hire a builder, not to mention a different job.

  23. draftmama says:

    @currants: Couldn’t live without our chooks! They have a huge run between two insulated (and in winter, heated) coops, so eggs all year long. But the run has hardware cloth on the bottom, used to be covered with sod, long gone, and chicken wire all around and on top. We have a couple chicken hawks who sit on the fence and stare at them lol. Skunks can’t get under either so we’ve never lost a one. The farm is actually my full time job so I’m spoiled rotten.

  24. auntie beak says:

    second question first: you have septoria leaf spot. it’s a fungal disease. best organic practice is to 1) make sure you have plenty of air circulation around the plants, 2) MULCH, 3) try not to get the leaves wet. the reason mulching is so important is that a lot of these diseases are soil borne, and every time you water from overhead (or it rains), the spores in the soil splash up onto the leaves. cover the soil, cover the spores.

    all that said, fungal diseases are just more prevalent in cooler, wetter conditions, and there are tomato varieties that are just more susceptible than others. and there are some cases of fungal problems coming in on seed; basil downy mildew is a prime example. it can happen. i suggest you contact the good folks at territorial and just ask if they’ve had any problems with that specific seed.

    the problem with growing heirlooms is that they have not been bred to be resistant to the most common diseases and fungi. of course, who wants to grow boring old resistant hybrids? i have the same problems with cherokee purple, which is my all time favorite tomato, and i’m lucky to get 3 or 4 fruit per plant every year before they pass away from early blight, or septoria, or verticillium wilt, or you name it. i still grow it because one my greatest joys in life is the taste. they are seriously that good.

    first question: suckers. the main reason to sucker tomatoes is to get earlier, larger fruit. and, as several commenters have also mentioned, it increases air flow and thus reduces the fungus and disease problems. i have tried it both ways, and frankly, it’s a pain in the butt to be out there suckering all the time. and i’m all about trying to spend as little time as possible in the garden. i’d rather be hiking.

    and in case anyone’s wondering, i am a member in good standing of the university of rhode island master gardener association, and have been since 1990.

  25. auntie beak says:

    oh, and crop rotation is mostly just not practical for home gardeners. we just don’t have the space. i try not to grow nightshades in the exact same spot every year, but really, it’s just not a big deal. the garden is too small and the diseases are present throughout.

  26. tybee says:

    @auntie beak:

    i have the same problems with cherokee purple, which is my all time favorite tomato, and i’m lucky to get 3 or 4 fruit per plant every year before they pass away from early blight, or septoria, or verticillium wilt, or you name it. i still grow it because one my greatest joys in life is the taste. they are seriously that good.

    same here. the fruit is worth the struggle.

  27. Ol'Froth says:

    @currants: The “suckers” grow from, for lack of a better term, the “armpit,” where a branch comes off the main stem. It looks like a little tomato plant. Just pinch it out. I also agree with others who said when the plant gets tall enough, those suckers aren’t as important to pinch out, since the base of the plant will be open, helping with air circulation. Compost as noted, also helps!

    I made a trellis for my plants out of electrical conduit. I pounded a couple of 3′ pieces of rebar on either side of the raised bed leaving about a foot above ground, slipped 6′ of conduit over the exposed rebar, and added a top rail of conduit. I then hung garden netting over the conduit, and train the plants through the netting. My tomatos are now about 6.5′ tall and brimming with green fruit.

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