Pinching out tomatoes: This is how it’s done

tomato plant with green fruits
tomato plant with green fruits

If you regularly pinch out your tomatoes, i.e. break out the side shoots in the leaf axils, the plants will develop better quality fruit. Here is how to do it.

Tomatoes belong in every vegetable garden, and even on the balcony or in a tub on the terrace they grow perfectly. In order to keep the sometimes exuberant growth under control, so-called pinching out is an important care measure for most tomato varieties, which should be carried out very regularly and carefully during the growing season.

The most important in a nutshell

  • The term “pinching out” refers to the removal of side shoots.
  • In the tomato plant, these side shoots are located between the stem and the fruit shoot.
  • side shoots form more leaves and few flowers – so they consume energy, but “stingy” tomatoes.
  • This and other reasons argue for the removal of side shoots in certain varieties of tomatoes.

Why should you pinch out tomatoes?

By the term pinching out the gardener understands the breaking out of young shoots that grow in the leaf axils of the tomato plant, mainly in the so-called stake tomatoes, which are grown in one shoot. This actually includes all large-fruited varieties, but also many cherry and tomatoes on the vine. The shoots and fruit set are reduced overall by pinching out. Because the so-called side shoots develop later than the main shoot, but form more leaf mass and fewer flowers, they also bear smaller fruits, they are therefore “stingy” with their yields. If no pinching out is done, the side shoots become longer and longer over time and usually droop heavily under the weight of the fruit, unless they are supported. In addition, a lot of leaf and shoot mass is formed, which complicates necessary maintenance work and harvesting.

Many amateur gardeners wonder whether pinching out makes sense at all, because after all, you are looking forward to a rich tomato harvest. But the fact is that modern tomato plants, cultivated for high yield, develop so many shoots and fruit set on them that they can not even supply the large plant mass. If all the shoots were allowed to grow, many fruits would form, but due to the short growing season in temperate climate they would remain small and in some cases would not ripen properly. Pinching out, like pruning tomatoes, promotes the growth of large, aromatic fruits, in keeping with the motto “quality over quantity”.

Another reason for pinching out is the need to thin out the plant. To ripen well and form a sweet, fruity aroma, tomatoes need plenty of sun. After a rainshower, the leaves must also be able to dry quickly. If the plant’s foliage is too dense due to proliferating shoots, the fruit will not get enough sun and the leaves will remain damp for a long time due to lack of aeration, which can lead to fungal infections such as blight and late blight.

Regular pinching out of tomatoes also makes the plants easier to handle. Tomatoes in pots, in particular, need to be tied up regularly and should therefore grow as straight as possible. If the tomato plant sprouts in all directions, binding is hardly possible and so heavy shoots can easily break off with fruit in a gust of wind. By pinching out early, you can shape the tomato plant and guide it up its support so that it grows steadily and securely. This facilitates later harvesting and at the same time reduces the not inconsiderable space requirements of large stake tomatoes.

Optimal use of space in the greenhouse also speaks in favor of pinching out the tomatoes. If you do not allow side shoots, stake tomatoes get by with little floor space and can be planted correspondingly densely. In this way, you get a higher and better quality fruit yield than if you grow the plants on a larger stand space with side shoots.

When to pinch out tomatoes?

As early as possible, break out side shoots while they are still very soft. The longer you wait, the greater the risk of damaging the bark of the main shoot when pinching out the axillary shoots. If you have missed the optimal time, it is best to cut off the shoots directly on the main shoot with a sharp knife or shears.

Start pinching out tomato plants very early in the summer, as soon as the first side shoots start to grow. Select one to three main shoots, which form the top of the tomato, so to speak, and pinch out following shoots that may interfere with the straight growth. Pinching out is necessary about once a week during the growth phase of the tomato plant. As soon as the shoots become thicker and set fruit, they should be tied to a support rod. Tomato fruits grow rapidly with good care, and the branches quickly become very heavy. If, in addition to the main shoot, you want to leave two strong side shoots, it is best to attach them to bamboo sticks at an angle.

  • Growing phase. In the cultivation phase, which usually lasts from the end of February to mid-April, the germination does not yet play a role. The small plants need all the leaves in the first few weeks to grow vigorously.
  • Seedlings. Pricked tomatoes already have the first real leaves, which are clearly distinguished externally from the fine cotyledons. At this stage, the young plant is also left all the shoots until it reaches a height of about 30 cm ( 12 in). Then it’s time to move to the bed or greenhouse.
  • Adult tomato plants. When the tomato has become accustomed to its new location, then also begins the time of pinching out. Shoots that grow in the axils are carefully removed starting in June. Depending on the variety, the procedure can be repeated once or twice a week.

Pinching out tomatoes: the steps

You usually don’t need any tools to pinch out. Examine the tomato plant for new shoots in the axils and check which of them should grow and which should not. Leave very few shoots, as the classic stake tomato is extremely vigorous and easily becomes a bush. Then simply clip the still very young, small axillary shoots from the plant with your fingernails. Slightly larger shoots are bent from side to side until they break off on their own. If they are already too fibrous, garden shears will help.

If you have overlooked a shoot when pinching out the tomatoes and it has already become quite thick, it is better to use a sharp knife to remove it. Carefully cut the branch close to the main shoot, without damaging it. It should be noted, of course, that when pinching out many small cracks and wounds appear on the stem of the tomato, which can be entry points for pathogens. Therefore, be sure to keep the wounds as small as possible.

Do you have to pinch out all the tomatoes?

Not all types and varieties of tomatoes are pinched out. Bush, tomatoes on the vine and wild tomatoes do not require any corrective intervention. In addition, there are some varieties that are also not pinched out. You can usually find the relevant information on the plant label when you buy it.

Pinching out is necessary only for tomato plants grown on one shoot, called stake tomatoes. Bush or balcony tomatoes are allowed to grow in multiple shoots, so these varieties are at most sporadically pinched out. They also form good quality fruit on the side shoots, and they are naturally more slow-growing and small-fruited. On the other hand, the cultivation of stake tomatoes is similar to that of columnar apple. They are also cut off all the stronger side shoots close behind the so-called branch ring on the trunk.

Tomatoes that should be pinched out

Stake tomatoes

Stake tomatoes produce the largest share of the world’s tomato crop. They are efficiently cultivated and take up little space thanks to their upright and tall growth. However, this cultivation comes at a price. This is because the stake tomato develops too many shoots. Especially in temperate climate zones, the warm season is simply too short, so not all fruits reach full maturity. Therefore, it is grown single-stemmed or rarely with only one side shoot.

It may seem paradoxical, but the fewer flowers are present, the greater the actual harvest in the end. After all, it is not uncommon that multi-shoot stake tomatoes are still full of fruit in September. But, unfortunately, many remain green. It would be more efficient to inspect the plant twice a week for side shoots and remove them. In August, the tip of the shoots should also be cut, because new flowers can no longer be supplied. This leaves enough energy for the still immature fruits.

Cocktail tomatoes

The fruits of the cocktail tomato are quite small and light. So the concern that thin side shoots collapse under the load, there is no such thing. And the ripening process is much faster than in the case of stake tomatoes, so quietly can be formed several flowers. A comparable undersupply is almost impossible with cocktail tomatoes, which is more closely related to their wild siblings.

Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile to pinch out a little. After all, the cocktail tomato also does not tolerate moisture on its leaves. Therefore, to prevent fungal diseases, aeration should be improved by removing a few shoots. Up to three fruiting shoots can be left at the bottom. However, side shoots that form above them on the main shoot should be snipped off. In addition, the smaller the planting distance between the tomatoes, the more thoroughly it must be thinned out.

Beef tomatoes

Beef tomatoes are among the largest fruits a tomato plant can produce. Some varieties can weigh up to one kilogram. For this reason alone, thorough pinching out is necessary. This is because the thin side shoots break off due to the heavy load. In addition, many varieties are very susceptible to disease. Fewer leaves mean better aeration and protection from fungal infection. That is why beef tomatoes, like stake tomatoes, are grown in a single stem.

Tomatoes that do not need to be pinched out

Bush or vine-ripened tomatoes

Bush or vine-ripened tomatoes are usually not done any favors by pinching out. According to their name, they grow bushy and dense. With a height of almost one meter (40 in), they develop many fruits that can easily hang on the side shoots. Because they are naturally hardier and more robust, bush or vine-ripened tomatoes do not need to be pinched out. However, if the shoots take up too much space, pruning may be done from time to time.

Wild tomatoes

Wild tomatoes are not cultivated for high yield. Therefore, the plant knows very well how many shoots and fruits it can effectively supply. It has been shown that wild tomatoes produce the greatest yield without pinching out. Because on it every side shoot is also a fruit set. So the least work for the convenient amateur gardener is the small wild tomatoes, which are strongly branching.

Why do so many side shoots form on tomatoes?

First and foremost, it is due to profit-oriented cultivation that some tomato varieties form so many side shoots. This is because, from an evolutionary point of view, the tomato initially only wants to preserve its species. It achieves this by forming seed-bearing fruits that are distributed by animals in the environment. However, due to the crossing of different specimens that form particularly large and many fruits, a problem arises.

On the one hand, the fruits become too heavy, so that shoots snap off. On the other hand, there is too little energy available to allow the massive tomatoes to ripen. But the evolutionary pressure to keep growing in order to ensure reproduction does not let up. So more and more shoots are formed, and with them leaves, flowers and fruit. But the formation of new shoots costs energy, which in turn is lacking in the ripening process. The result: a lot of green tomatoes and leaves.

Advantages and disadvantages of pinching out

Advantages of pinching out tomatos

  • More energy for existing fruit set promises larger tomatoes
  • Better aeration due to less foliage
  • More space allows for tighter planting
  • Faster drying of delicate leaves protects against disease
  • No snapping off of thin side shoots
  • Removed side shoots can be used as fertilizer, mulch or seedlings
  • Regular pinching out allows early detection of diseases and nutrient deficiencies or mineral excesses

Disadvantages of pinching out tomatos

  • Open wounds on the main shoot: entry point for pathogens
  • Extra time and effort (up to twice a week)
  • Possibility of confusing a fruiting shoot with a side shoot
  • Fewer leaves may lead to sunburn on fruit

The leaf mass that results from pinching out can be both protective and damaging to the tomato plant. Therefore, for a successful tomato year, the preferences of the varieties grown should be considered. However, it is also important to listen to your instincts when pinching out. The right technique and sensitivity for pinching out develop over several years as a gardener. Small mistakes all the plants will forgive you.

a young tomato plant, grown from a side shoot
a young tomato plant, grown from a side shoot

Further use of the side shoots

Grow new tomatoes from side shoots

Instead of going to the compost, side shoots can also have a second spring as a new tomato plant. To do this, a strong side shoot over 10 cm(4 in) is carefully separated from the stem with a knife. The stem is then placed in a glass of water and positioned in a sunny spot. When visible roots are formed, the stem can go into the ground. Make sure that the soil remains moist so that the plant grows well. But this process is worthwhile only until the beginning of June, otherwise the plants will not grow large enough to form fruit.

Mixed culture – side shoots as a defense against insects in cabbage plants.

Tomatoes are often kept by professional gardeners in a mixed culture alongside cabbage plants. Animal pests like cabbage flies stay away when the red fruits are around. Alternatively, a tomato cold water extract is a good choice. To do this, chopped shoots and leaves are placed in water for two hours and then sprayed undiluted on the cabbage plants.

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