QUESTION: My tomato plants have a ton of leaves, and it’s hard to even find the tomatoes. Can I trim overgrown tomato plants? – Natalie M
ANSWER: Once your tomato plants have reached 18 inches tall, you can begin pruning or trimming them to help them direct more of their energy toward growing tomatoes and spend less on developing foliage. Always do your pruning with clean, sterilized gardening tools and freshly washed hands, or you run the risk of spreading diseases in your garden.
Look in the places where branches meet the stem for new growth tips, called “suckers.” These will eventually appear at every spot where branches meet the stem and can be clipped away. Removing the suckers will result in larger tomatoes but fewer total tomatoes. Small ones can usually be pinched off if you just hold them and pull straight down. Larger suckers may require you to use your gardening shears to trim them off. Instead of removing them entirely, you may choose to leave just two leaves from each of these shoots on the plant. Add the suckers to your compost pile, or throw them away.
When a plant is seriously overgrown, you may wish to choose the three strongest stems to focus on, pruning to remove all others. Also take this time to remove dead, broken, or damaged branches, as well as any that are too long or are unwanted. It’s not that strange to remove branches that have flowers or fruit, because the plant will start bouncing back in about two weeks.
Finally, once your plant is as tall as the stakes in your garden (usually about four or five feet), trim off the new growth at the top. It just takes about a week of this to convince the plant to stop producing foliage and focus on fruiting. A month before your area’s first frost, you can remove all growing tips as a last-chance attempt to get green fruits to ripen before the frosts roll in. Whatever you do, do not ever remove more than a third of the plant’s foliage, or it may not bounce back.