How to Prune Tomatoes

Tomatoes pruned to a single stake1

Sharing is caring!

Pruning a tomato means removing unneeded growth tips from the plant. These growing tips are sometimes called shoots or suckers. Growth tips are the new growth–the small leafy-bud growth–located in the “V” or crotch between two stems.

Pruning or pinching away new growth allows a tomato plant to concentrate its energy on the development of fruit rather than new foliage. Plant sugars used to make new growth are instead used to concentrate flavor and grow larger, healthier tomatoes.

Six reasons to prune a tomato plant

  1. To grow more flavorful tomatoes.
  2. To grow larger tomatoes.
  3. To grow more tomatoes over the length of a season.
  4. To keep plant leaves and fruits off the ground and away from pests, insect damage, and fungal disease.
  5. To keep plants smaller and more compact.
  6. Allow tomatoes on the plant at the end of the season to ripen before the first frost.

Best tips on How to Grow Tomatoes.

Which tomato plants need pruning

Tomatoes can be divided into two growth habit categories: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes usually require no pruning. Indeterminate tomatoes perform best if pruned.

Determinate tomatoes

A determinate tomato grows to a genetically pre-determined size and then stops. Beefsteak and sandwich tomatoes are mostly determinate tomatoes. These tomatoes are bushy and self-topping. All of the blossoms and fruit on a determinate tomato develop at the end of growing tips at about the same time.

Indeterminate tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes grow unchecked. They produce vine-like stems. These tomatoes continually produce new stems, leaves, and fruit until the plant dies. Cherry and salad tomatoes are mostly indeterminate tomatoes. The growth tips of indeterminate tomato plants do not set fruit; fruit is set on side shoots as the plant continues to grow. An indeterminate tomato will have blossoms and fruits at all stages of development throughout its life. Pruning is the best way to contain an indeterminate tomato.

When to prune a tomato plant

You can prune a tomato at any time, when it is small or when it has grown large. If you know you want to contain the size of a tomato plant prune early. A tomato plant can first be pruned when it is just 12 to 18 inches tall.

Tomato pruning objectives

  • Prune to create one to four strong stems.
  • Prune each stem to about the same length. Prune to keep the plant at a manageable size.
  • Prune to keep leaves and stems off the ground by removing the leaves and stems below the first set of fruit.
  • Prune so that leave do not shade other leaves. (Sunshine must hit leaves for photosynthesis to occur. Photosynthesis is necessary for the production of plant sugars which are required for plant and fruit growth.)
  • Avoid pruning away leaves above fruit clusters; these leaves protect fruit and stems below from sunburn.
  • Prune to allow air circulation to the center of the plant. Air circulation helps deter diseases and insects.

Tomato pruning step by step

Begin pruning when the tomato plant is established and strong. Here’s how:

  1. After the plant is 12 to 18 inches tall, allow the first set of blossoms to grow. (Nip away any blossoms that come before.) This first set of blossoms will become the plant’s first fruit cluster.
  2. Remove all of the leaves and suckers below the first blossom cluster. They are not needed.
  3. Decide if you want one main growing stem or more. Single-stem tomatoes do not require much space and can be grown close together. However, single-stem tomatoes produce fewer fruits than multi-stemmed plants. (Most tomato growers allow plants to develop two or three and sometimes four growing stems.)
  4. To grow a two-stemmed plant, allow a growth tip or shoot to grow from the leaf axil or “V” above the first blossom cluster. This will become the second stem.
  5. To grow a three-stemmed plant, allow the growth tip to grow from the leaf axil directly above the second stem. Main growing stems should not be separated by more than a leaf node. This will insure that the plant grows strong from its base.
  6. When you decide to prune, do not pinch away the growth tip too soon. Allow two sets of leaves to develop on a sucker or side shoot before pinching out the growth tip. Pinch above the two sets of leaves; these leaves will protect fruit and stems below from sun damage.
  7. Re-check the plant once a week to pinch out new unwanted growing tips.
  8. When the plant reaches the desired height–usually no taller than its support, 4 or 5 feet is good–consistently pinch out all new growing tips. In a week or so time, the plant will quit trying to put out new growth at the topmost part of the plant and concentrate on new growth and fruit below. Continue to pinch out any new growth that you do not want. Keep training this way and the plant will develop a more compact shape, and it will begin to flower and set fruit more heavily throughout its height.
  9. Whenever you are in doubt, do less pruning than more. As you gain experience, pruning will grow easier and become intuitive.

To be clear, the growing tip is not the actual highest point of the plant but the new growth just below in the “V” of the leaf axil, where one shoot branches off from another. It is this new growth that you are pinching away.

Growing tips–also called terminal buds–have specialized plant cells called meristem. Meristem cells produce a hormone called auxin that inhibits cells below the topmost growing tip from dividing and creating significant new growth. By pinching out the meristem tissue at the topmost growing tip of the plant, auxin is no longer produced and the meristem tissue in the axils below will start new cell division. This directs the plant to concentrate its growing efforts and sugars on the foliage and fruit below.

Pinching out new growth

Pinching out new growth is a way to control a tomato plant’s growth.

Use your thumb and forefinger to pinch out the growth tip or sucker. Pinch out new growth when it is small, between 2 and 4 inches long. Simply break or pinch the new growth off after flexing it back and forth. If a sucker is thick and does not pinch away freely, use a retractable knife blade to slice it away. Prune before suckers are too large, otherwise, you will leave a large pruning wound through which tomato disease may enter. Prune when the plant is dry; tomato diseases are often spread in drops of water.

(Just so you know: there are two methods of tomato pruning, “simple pruning” and “Missouri pruning.” In the simple pruning method, you pinch out any sucker or shoot not destined to be a stem. Pinch it at its base. Using the Missouri method, you pinch off the growing tip after you have allowed two sets of leaves to form on the new shoot. This is the method described above. The Missouri method is used to regain control of a plant that has gone largely unpruned and become unwieldy.)

Pruning overgrown or leggy plants. You can prune or top a tomato plant that is out of control, leggy, or threatens to overwhelm its support–a stake, a trellis, or a cage.

To prune an overgrown tomato, step back and take a good look at the plant. Determine which stems are the most vigorous stems. Prune to establish these stems as the main stems, usually two to four stems. Prune away no more than one-third of the total plant. To prune away more may send the plant into shock.

When you begin, first eliminate stems that are broken or diseased. Next, carefully cut away stems that are not part of your final vision for the plant. A few big cuts, will quickly open up the plant and give it form.

Once large stem cuts are completed, prune from the top systematically pinching or cutting the plant back to the desired height. As you work your way down, continue to step back and visualize the plant pruned. Eliminate unwanted foliage as you work your way down. You may have to prune away some blossoms and undeveloped fruit. Keep in mind that the plant will be stronger and more productive in the long run. Don’t worry, the plant will rebloom.

A heavily pruned tomato will need a couple of weeks to recover. Once its wounds are healed and the plant recognizes its new growing point, it will begin to produce new foliage and flowers.

Pruning at the end of the season

Indeterminate tomatoes continue to set blossoms and produce fruit until they die when the first frost comes. To get the most fruit from your plant, begin pinching away new suckers and blossom clusters four weeks before the average first frost date. The plant will direct the energy it was using for new growth to the ripening of fruit already on the plant.

Tomato articles at Harvest to Table:

How to Plant and Grow Tomatoes

How to Choose a Tomato for Your Garden

Heirloom and Hybrid Tomatoes

Tomato Seed Starting Tips

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Growing Early Season Tomatoes for Great Taste

How to Prune Tomatoes

Grow Tomatoes on Stakes

Epsom Salt, Milk, and Organic Fertilizers for Tomatoes and Peppers

How to Prevent Blossom Drop – Tomatoes and Peppers

How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes

How to Ripen Tomatoes

Nine Ways to Cook and Serve Tomatoes

Tomato Harvest Ketchup Recipe

Garden Tomato Bruschetta

Tomato Sauce–Basic, Herbed, or Vegetables Added

Corn, Herb, and Tomato Relish

How to Make Tomato Juice Simply

Basil and Tomato Soup

Tomato Varieties Harvest Time

Tomato Flavor Explained

How to Home Can Tomatoes for Beginners

How to Sun Dry and Oven Dry Tomatoes

How to Freeze Ripe Tomatoes

Tomato Growing Problems Troubleshooting

How to Prevent Tomato Blossom Drop

How to Identify Early Blight, Late Blight, and Leaf Spot

Tomato Hornworm Organic Pest Control

Garden Planning Books at Amazon:

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

How To Grow Tips

How To Grow Tomatoes

How To Grow Peppers

How To Grow Broccoli

How To Grow Carrots

How To Grow Beans

How To Grow Corn

How To Grow Peas

How To Grow Lettuce

How To Grow Cucumbers

How To Grow Zucchini and Summer Squash

How To Grow Onions

How To Grow Potatoes

Tomatoes Trained to Single Stakes

Grow Tomatoes on Stakes

How to Grow Blue Marguerite — Felicia