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Supporting & Pruning Tomatoes

Tomatoes Need Support

As tomatoes grow taller, they need support to help them produce more fruit and take up less space. In order to avoid damaging plants, it is best to begin when the plants are small. Consider starting at the same time you plant your tomatoes. While there are many ways to make your own supports for tomatoes, such as trellis systems, we suggest starting off easy if you are a beginner gardener. Here, we discuss how to cage and stake tomatoes.

Caging

caged tomato
caged tomato
You can buy tomato cages at any garden supply store and they are really easy to use. Place the cage over the plant so that it is centered, and as it grows, gently guide the stems through the holes of the cage. Caged tomatoes need minimal tying; however, consider tying stems gently to the wiring if they are loaded with fruit and become heavy.

There are also several different styles of cages. While the round ones are common, I personally find that they don't always allow enough space for tomatoes to grow. Often my ripening tomatoes have rotted from sitting on the metal wiring. When using cages, I prefer the square-shaped ones because they give the tomato plant more space and they fold up for easy storage in the winter.

Staking

staked tomato
staked tomato
Wooden stakes are very common and my favorite type of stake to use. You can also find metal ones in the stores. Unless you know a lot about the variety of tomatoes you are growing, assume they will grow very tall and use stakes that are 6 feet in length. If you decide to use makeshift stakes (for example, big sticks you find in your yard), be sure they are both tall and strong enough to support your tomato plants.

For each plant, push the pointy end of the stake into the ground close to the base of the plant (about 3-4 inches away). Be sure the stake is deep enough in the ground so that it won't fall over. Then use string, twist ties, or strips of old panty hose to tie the main stem of the plant to the stake. The plant should be tied firm enough so that it stays supported but not so tight that it will damage the stem of the plant. As the plant grows, continue to tie the plant to the stake in 10 inch increments.

See sample pictures of staked and caged tomatoes.

Pruning 101

For Tomatoes

Though tomato pruning is entirely an option, some pruning is recommended when gardening in small spaces. Tomato plants inevitably grow quite big, and without pruning, they can take up more space than you planned for. Other advantages of pruning include: easier to maintain and stake, less risk for disease and pests since it will be easier to support them in growing vertical; larger sized tomatoes; and better taste (because the fruits are able to get more sunlight). Of course, the tradeoff is that your plants will produce fewer tomatoes overall.

We encourage you to at least test it out; if you have more than one tomato plant, you could practice pruning one of them and not the other to help you see the benefits of pruning and decide on your own preferences. After all, experimenting is the best tool for learning! And remember, you don't have to prune off every sucker. Finally, the type and extent of support you choose to provide for your tomato plants can also impact how much pruning a plant needs so these tasks go hand in hand.

tomato sucker
tomato sucker
To prune, gently pinch off the suckers of the tomato plant by hand. The suckers grow at a 45 degree angle between the main stems of the tomato plant. Suckers are often referred shoots that grow in the crotch of the plant. It's best and easiest to prune suckers when they are young and as soon as you notice them. 

NOTE: Determinate varieties do not need to be pruned since they are bush varieties rather than indeterminate varieties that grow more like vines. The Food Project only sold and handed out indeterminate varieties this year.

For Basil

Basil (and in fact many herbs) enjoy aggressive pruning because it encourages new growth. This means that pruning basil plants regularly will produce bushier, fuller plants over time. Prune basil just after planting by cutting them back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves using sheers or scissors. Continue pruning back to just above the first two sets of leaves once a month or sooner if they begin to flower. When basil flowers, it tastes bitter. Though this pruning might seem drastic, you will get more out of your basil plants by doing so, and there are tons of ways to use big batches of basil, like making pesto and freezing it for the winter!

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