I received an email from a California reader last week, wanting to know if she should remove the first buds or flowers from her tomato plant. She read in an Internet forum that this is a customary practice, although the person counseling her was unable to tell her why it should be done.
To Pinch or Not to Pinch
California master gardener Fred Hoffman, host of radio’s “Get Growing with Farmer Fred,” claims that we should keep our hands off of these first flowers. A lot of fruit trees and plants have a normal shedding period, a process known as “June drop” when it comes to fruit trees. Tomatoes are no different, and will lose some flowers naturally in May and June. Those that survive this natural shedding are your future tomatoes — and should NOT be removed, according to Hoffman.
History of the Myth
So, where did the myth start? Although it’s impossible to know for certain, Hoffman believes that it began on Internet gardening forums, somewhat like a game of “Telephone.” One gardener may have mentioned a study where university researchers removed the flowers, but neglected to mention that these winter tomato plants were being grown hydroponically, in a greenhouse. “Gardener B then tells Gardener C: ‘Pruning tomato flower buds is recommended by Texas A and M.’ Gardener C then goes online and writes: ‘Remove flower buds on tomato plants to increase the number of tomatoes,’ Hoffman surmises.
New Tomato Plant
So, when should one pinch, snip or otherwise prune a tomato plant? When you purchase tomato starts online or at the nursery, experts advise that you choose plants that don’t contain either blossoms or fruit. If you have no choice but to purchase a plant that contains either, or both, you’ll need to pinch them both off. This will allow the tomato plant to focus solely on producing a strong root system, which is vital for the young plant. If the tomato plant is leggy – with tall stems and sparse foliage – pinch off the lower leaves and plant the stem horizontally. It will form roots along the length of the portion of stem that is buried.
Staked Tomato Plants
If you plan on staking your tomato plants you’ll want to remove all but three main stems and remove all suckers. If you use a cage you’ll want to prune away any stems that reach too far outside the cage.
Remember, pruning your tomato plants, even with the best intentions, will lower your yield. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have an unruly plant and lots of tomatoes than a neatly trimmed one with no fruit.