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Pinching tomato plants. A summer lesson in “winter”.

I pinched a tomato plant today. In February.

No, I didn’t steal it. I used scissors, yes, small sharp scissors (I couldn’t find my clippers and they worked just fine) to thin out the branching and leaf growth of my tomato plant.

Maybe I should back up.

Stake your tomato claim in a different area each season...

I bought (maybe rescued?) a tomato plant in November, late November, at a nursery that probably shouldn’t have had tomato plants on the shelf at that stage of the season even though it’s in Southern California. But that’s beside the point and I guess their prerogative. It looked really healthy. Really REALLY exceedingly, you-need-to-take-me-home healthy. And, well, I did. It goes without saying that I’m an easy sell when it comes to tomato plants.
My new baby found a home in a raised garden bed on the west side of the house that hadn’t yet been planted for the fall season (I never did get around to that) and it’s been very happy there. I haven’t even covered it during our ten minutes of cold weather this “winter” and it’s gotten though just fine. Sorry Boston, don’t mean to rub it in. But there it is, thickening up and looking greener and greener each week.

I’m being realistic and don’t expect fruit set right now even though there have been plentiful flowers. I imagine if it’s an early variety I might see some fruit very early this spring. We’ll see. It suddenly occurs to me that I don’t even know what variety it is. Gee, I really AM a sucker for a healthy tomato plant.
Ok, so the plant is growing. Not as fast as new plants will in the spring mind you but it’s about 18 inches tall and getting thick with new branching and larger leaves. In tomato world that means it’s time to make the decision: To pinch or not to pinch?

In truth, and in the regular season, I never pinch my plants. I think most home gardeners, while they might not admit it, don’t either. I flat grow too many of them. The growth that many call a “sucker” is actually side branching that will flower and fruit. I generally opt for the “grab another stake and the velcro” version of plant management.

Is pinching essential? Obviously not, since I’m happy with tomato production in my tough love fields most years. You may get more but smaller fruit if you don’t pinch or prune given the finite energy of a typical plant but that’s not an issue for me. You will definitely end up with a larger – often monstrous – plant in very short order but that never causes elevated blood pressure in this camp either.

On this particular day, however, as I noticed the burgeoning fleshy plant growth I had a unique thought. I should pinch this puppy. There’s only one plant in my tomato world at this point – an oddity, to be sure – and it won’t take that long. It will be a fun experiment. I could do this.

This little guy was ready for a trim

This “haircut” took me about seven minutes. I probably removed half the mass of the plant. All downward facing leaves touching or nearest the ground came off first. The central blob of crossing leaves and stems had to be carefully examined and thinned out. (Yes, this will remind many of you of pruning out roses, perennials and large shrubs or lacing out your favorite trees.) In most cases I left the main stems, as there were about six good strong ones, and pruned out the smaller or less significant pieces. The stems that remained were stretched out and separated as much as possible across this new tomato trellis. The small new side branching too, the axial growth for which the word “pinching” was perhaps coined, came off easily with slight thumb and forefinger pressure in most cases.

The result is a leaner, meaner tomato plant. The flowers and flower stems are still there. The overall shape of the plant has not changed noticeably but the function should. The plant looks brighter, and it truly is, as a larger percentage of the leaves now feeding the plant are getting full sun. This is pedal-to-the-metal tomato growing. If you grow in a shadier than you’d like situation or where summer seasons are cooler, pinching is a good idea for you since you need to get as much sun as possible onto and into your plants. In areas where high heat and brutal sun are the problem be careful to prune judiciously since your plant, and eventually growing fruit, will need some shelter from hot sun and high temps.

On a plant left to its own devices and attached to an upright support the lower third, or even half, of the plant is shaded by the leaf growth above it (read: cooler). That’s one reason leaves yellow and drop off during a given season – they simply have nothing to do given the lack of, well, fuel. This is another reason I like to use flat trellises, fencing or similar to spread the plant out in planar fashion as it grows. More sun on more leaves makes more tomatoes.

My little plant really does look happy. The next months will tell if my careful attention yields results. Of course in a perfect and much more scientific world I would have revisited my sixth grade science project self and planted 2 tomato plants in this spot to see how an unadulterated plant fared and produced against this newly revved up version. Maybe I’ll get to that next year.

I knew I should have bought two plants.

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