Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tomatoes gone wild

Unless you did row cover, your tomato plants are probably still a bit small, so they will start to take off now with the summer heat coming on.  Be warned - they can get out of control very quickly!  My row cover created such a great greenhouse environment that when I took it off, I was faced with all this lush growth:

Tomato bed before pruning
Now why would you want to prune out all that lovely growth?

Tomato's are just sugar factories.  When the plant has maybe 10 - 15 leaves, it is producing too much sugar for the main growing tip to handle, so that signals the plant to start creating new growth - as suckers.   
I usually try to get the suckers off before they get to this size

You can see where an old sucker was snapped off, and now another sucker is forming

Suckers form in the angle between the leaves and the main stem. If left alone, these suckers will grow just like the main stem, producing flowers and fruit. If you let them go too long, and then you go to prune and see blossoms, it is really hard to prune it.  Be strong - you need to.  Perhaps it will help to know that fruit produced on the suckers is usually smaller and the stem is weaker and more liable to break if you let it stay on.

Suckers appear from the bottom of the plant up. As you move up the plant, the sugar concentration gets weaker, so the suckers will be weaker also - but you still need to take them off.  I have found suckers at the bottom of the plant that I mistook for the main stem that looked stronger then the plant!  

To prune, just snap it to the side, and it should just come right off.  Once in awhile, you are going to get one that just went too long - but it is important to prune also:
In this case, don't try to snap it - it won't.  Don't cut - you could leave the plant open to disease.  Pinch off the growing tip of the sucker.  Or, cut just above the first couple of leaves.  this will stop the growth, and keep any disease away from the main stem of the plant.
When you have stems that start growing out below the first flower cluster, they can weaken the whole entire plant.  You want to create a strong main stem that is capable of sustaining this plant over the next four to five months.  So remove all the suckers, and I remove all the stems below the first flower cluster.  I also trim back leaves that are touching the ground.  Leaves touching the ground are a bridge for bugs to get into the plant, and make the whole plant susceptible to bacteria and pathogens in the soil.  

I also prune back some of the long branches - I measured one branch coming off of a plant at two feet long!  You want to keep enough leaves to continue photosynthesis (sugar-production) but not have so many that the leaves in the shade don't produce any sugar - just use it.  You need to have a certain amount of air flow around the plants.  You could partly achieve this by not planting them too close together ( as I always seem to do).  But it is hard to tell when you set out those little seedlings how big they are going to get!

A plant that is properly pruned and staked will put most of its sugar production into the fruit, because the only thing competing for the sugar is your main growing tip.  So make sure to prune out all those suckers!  You should get a plant that steadily produces fruit until the the first frost ( and later if you are using row covers).

So - make sure that your tomatoes are staked and not laying on the ground - that each main stem is secured to a support.  Make sure plants have room - even if you have to cut back a few leaves.  Another important note is to never work on tomato plants when they leaves are wet.  Always wait till the dew, rain, mist, etc., has dried before working on your plants.  Otherwise they can become prone to disease and are more likely to break as you work with them. 

Note the pile of trimmings - this is just from a 6-ft section on one side of the bed!
 Here is the same section first pictured above - after pruning:
Tomatoes after pruning
A week later, these plants were all about a foot taller.  Taking off the suckers put more energy into the main growing tip and they just took off.

It is a constant battle with tomatoes to keep the suckers pruned off.  I check them every time I walk past them, and always seem to see some I missed.  You just don't want to go a week without checking.  And make sure you keep that main growing stem staked and growing up.  

So, out to the tomatoes to check for suckers and attach more ties.


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