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Tyrant tomato plants in the garden

By August, our tomato plants are raging tyrants, tumbling out of their cages, colonizing every square foot they can reach, scrabbling for more land, more sun, more water, so dense you can barely reach in to check a cluster for ripeness.

They are definitely producing; but we lose so many in the thicket of branches. We can't reach the ripe ones without knocking half a dozen off their stems.

This year, we had three tomato plants: one hasn't thrived, although the bugs on it did; one bushy plant that still has colonial aspirations; and one that is well over six-feet tall and making a mockery of its bamboo tripod.

Yes, I've heard of pruning -- I just don't know how it's done. With tomato plants it always seemed oxymoronic:  first, you nurture the tiny little things; then, you want all the tomatoes you can possibly get as they flower and bud; and finally, you never want to see another tomato in your life and definitely don't want to be fiddling in the brambles.

Recently, I had a "come-to-Mother-Nature" moment:

  • Open my eyes and see the truth: these plants have a growth imperative; they redefine the word "excess." They need to be pruned. They won't die from it.
  • These plants don't take are of themselves. I have to spend quality time with them from their first planting.
  • These are major jungle vines. A cage is only going to work for about two-and-a-half weeks.  Tomatoes need fences to stretch out on.
  • August is a really bad time to start pruning a tomato plant.
Turning to the Google Extension Service, I learned:
  • A tomato plant will double in size about every two weeks during its first month or so.
  • A vigorous, unpruned tomato plant can easily cover a four-foot by four-foot area with as many as 10 stems, each three to five feet long.
  • Side branches (or suckers) behave just like a main stem if they aren't pruned.
  • Starting from the bottom of the plant, the suckers drain the plant of fuel and compromise the fruit higher up.
  • When the side branches are pruned, the main stem of the plant gets stronger and more stable.

So, in an ideal world -- the Garden of Eden, let's say -- a tomato plant is staked from its first planting (definitely from its first flowering) and pruned of most of its side branches so its production goes into fruit and the main growing tip. Each leaf has plenty of air and sunshine and the plant stays up off the ground. You'll have fewer but bigger fruit that can be harvested earlier.

The suckers need to be removed below the first flower cluster. If you want multiple stems, you can let a second or third grow from the first node above the first fruit, but you want to keep the branching as close to the first fruit as possible.

In our case, most of our fruit is ripening on the lower branches of the tomato plant that should have been removed weeks ago. So we took the clippers to new suckers coming off those stems to thin out the tangle and let in more light.  We also took the clippers to the upper parts of the plant where there's less fruit.  We tried to leave flowering branches alone, but take out suckers below the flowers.

We could have used Missouri pruning, where you pinch off the tip of the growing branch, but what we did makes it much easier to harvest and see what's going on with the plant.

Of course, the danger of what we've done is that we've removed a lot of leaves that produce fuel for the plant, and we've exposed the fruit to the sun. Fortunately, a lot of our fruit is about to ripen any day now, so it may not be too much of a problem.

It's an experiment.  We'll do better next year.

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