To Prune? Or Not to Prune?

Friday, July 2, 2010

I was inspired to write this entry about pruning tomato plants after reading Farmer Fred Hoffman's take on the issue. Bottom line? I'd listen to Fred. Fred doesn't prune. He doesn't advocate the pruning of tomato plants. In fact -- he's got the scientific research to back up his claims. I've been burned far too many times by ignoring that man's good advice --  so whatever he says? Take it to heart. It's the real truth.

But -- at the same time -- I am also reminded of a very good gardening friend by the name of Tom Matkey. Tom was fortunate enough to recently retire from the rat race of a 9-5 job -- and now splits his time sitting on a beach in Hawaii or tending his tomato plants in the backyard of his Craftsman home in the Southern California community of Glendora.

Where did I meet Tom? Where I meet most of my gardening friends on the internet: which is usually some chat room dealing with one of my most favorite subjects in the whole wide world: Heirloom Tomatoes.

Tom had posted up some pictures of a unique looking tomato cage that looked strangly like 3/4 inch PVC. I wrote to him and asked, "is that really PVC?" Sure enough -- he wrote back -- and it was PVC indeed.

Tom had come up with a unique design for a PVC cage that just looked -- well -- rather ingenious. I'd had some troubles keeping my plants standing straight up in those dinky wire cages the previous year -- a situation that he also faced. That's when he informed me that those dinky wire cages are like a modern-day slinky -- and will fail the moment you need them the most.

So -- being the good gardener that I am -- I copied (ripped off) Tom's cage idea and continue to use it to this very day. I've never lost a plant since -- not even during a rare windstorm in late August. The PVC cages stand up to every challenge that has been thrown at them. As a matter of fact -- this will be my third year of using the PVC cage design -- which you can access here or read more about here.

But there's another tip that Tom also passed along with his cage design: Tom prunes his tomato plants. He doesn't just prune. He REALLY prunes. I mean -- a HARD PRUNE. As Tom explains: "I never let my plants get beyond four leaders (stems). Every other leader that develops gets pruned off immediately."

Now -- I had heard of pruning before. But never pruning in a method such as this one? FOUR LEADERS? That's ALL? My tomato plants usually grow into a jumbled mess of nearly 100 LEADERS by the time growing season is in the books. I can't imagine the kind of work it would take to prune a tomato plant to just four leaders.

But then again -- there's no arguing with the results. You can plainly see them in this photo. This is a photo of Tom's Tigerlla tomato plant taken in 2007. I was amazed by the fruit set on this one plant. I may have come close to duplicating this feat last year -- which by the way was one of the best on record. But I don't get this kind of fruit set every year.

Tom -- it appears -- does.

That's not the only photo Tom would sent of the tomato garden in his Craftsman home backyard. The luscious Lemon Boy harvest in 2008 also caught my eye and attention. And again -- Tom used the same method: Tomato plants were pruned to four leaders and four leaders only. Each leader was then tied to one of the four PVC uprights and trained to grow straight up and out.

All tomato flowers and subsequent fruit were generated from just those four leaders.

I've never seen anything like this before. To this day -- despite my various conversations with heirloom tomato lovers from around the world (there are a lot of us folks) -- I've never come across anyone who does a hard prune like this and keeps it up through the entire growing season.

Oh sure -- there are people who do prune. There are also advocates of pruning. But not anything like this. Do the math people! If you're growing 30-40 heirloom tomato plants in the backyard -- and you're pruning to just four leaders? You're out in the garden every darn day and pruning those tomato plants whether you like it or not!

For me? I think I'm going to stick with Fred's advice and leave my plants alone. They're been doing just fine without human interference for centuries -- so why upset the apple cart? Plus -- Fred -- as a Certified Master Gardener -- has the scientific evidence and study to back up his claims.

Then again -- a picture says a thousand words -- doesn't it?



This is the 1st year that I pruned my tomatoes but this is also the 1st year I grew heirlooms (from seed). I didn't prune along the order of Tomato Tom; but it was an emotional chore nonetheless.

Thanks for turning me on to Fred. I have enjoyed some of his podcasts.

Fred Hoffman said...

Regarding tomato pruning: do whatever makes YOU feel good. I feel good not working that hard.

Bill Bird said...


I've come to discover that when in doubt? Ask Fred. He'll usually have the answer -- or he can point you to a person who has the answer you need.

Oh -- yes -- also click on the links on his blog.


QAGUY said...

Fred's right. 'do whatever makes YOU feel good'. Or in another way, do what works best for YOU.

Pruning works for me!

If I had 20 or 30 plants in the ground, I wouldn't be pruning either. Way too much work.

My way of growing tomatoes evolved from having very limited space to work with. I go vertical (cages and pruning) because I can't go horizontal (sprawling).

I know full well that pruning reduces yeild, but I end up with many more tomatoes than I can possibly use anyway so it doesn't make much difference.

Oh, and I'm not the worst. There
are folks out there who do only ONE leader. Many commercial greenhouse growers (mostly in Europe) do the same. They end up
with 20 and 30 foot vines. But then
they're set up to do that.

Bill Bird said...

Dear Readers:

QAGUY is -- in fact -- Tom Matkey: the brains behind the PVC tomato cage setup.

How come you're not sitting out on some beach in the South Pacific Tom?


LauraBee said...

Haven't yet pruned my tomatoes, but I, too, ripped off the PVC cage idea. It's pure genius ! Some of my favorite things about it (after the superior tomato support part, anyway) : in the winter I can re-configure it to a zig-zag that supports a nylon trellis for my peas; OR I can break several of them down & store 'em in much less space than the same number of flimsy wire cages.