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How to Keep Your Tomato Plants—and Your Summer Mood—Fruitful

Holding back growth is, ironically, sometimes the best way to get more from your life.

Gardening tips for tomatoes
Credit: Getty Images

Fine Gardening magazine refers to a tomato as “a solar-powered sugar factory.” Sweet, juicy, riotously red (or richly purple, pink, orange, striped, green…) and perfect eaten right off the vine or worked into the simplest or most special meals, tomatoes are a bite of summer.

Anyone who grows tomatoes is familiar with that annual moment when the hope and possibility of a lush harvest begins to emerge from a wild tangle of greenery with seemingly endless fruit. It’s not too late to keep that harvest coming with some simple, consistent pruning habits to keep your tomato plants organized, healthy and prolific.

Know Your Plant
Tomato plants come in “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. The latter are the long, vine-like plants that can tangle themselves up and prevent sunlight and water from filtering through in a healthy way. Knowing which type of plant you have determines how assertive to be with pruning.

Stay Ahead of the Suckers
Suckers are useless green shoots that tomato plants put out after a sudden influx of water, such as a summer rainstorm. Suckers are slim and floppy, and you will note they do not contain any flowers or growing fruit. Prune suckers off your plants to keep them from hogging the plant’s hydration and nutrition on the dry, hot days.

Follow the Rules
Pruning can be a subjective task, but every pruning session can benefit from a few rules of the road. Tomato plants need to be clear of the ground, spaced out from each other and free of standing water. 

Top Your Plant Before the Frost
It’s a little early to think toward the first cold snap of the fall, but for tomato pruning purposes, you’d be wise to remember to “top” your plant about a month before the first predicted frost. This will give the plant a final burst of energy to send toward its fruits, setting as many as possible for fall soups and sauces. Not that there’s anything wrong with some fried green tomatoes in October, of course….

Any garden chore is a multi-dimensional activity. In my view, it’s the emotional and philosophical parallels between the garden and a life of authentic positivity that makes it such a meaningful, satisfying pursuit. 

This certainly is true of the task of pruning tomatoes. Keeping the plant from exploding in every possible direction is part of what makes it sweeter, healthier and more productive. 

So, too, are we called to hold ourselves back from doing every single thing all the time. It can sound ironic to advocate holding back growth as a positive strategy. But especially in the summer—especially this summer, after such a jangling year of pandemic and uncertainty—pruning our commitments, obligations and expectations can be the best way to foster the sweet, juicy kind of future growth we all crave.

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