To allow for better air circulation and larger tomatoes, prune the suckers that grow between the stems and twigs of the tomato plant. Johan Kusuma/Shutterstock

One goal we have for our garden this year is to produce more ripe tomatoes, and to produce them earlier. Last year, which you probably recall was cool, rainy and cloudy, we produced only two fully ripe slicing tomatoes all summer long. We did get some bite-sized tomatoes, but they do not scream summer the way slicers do.

The first step to get good beefsteak tomatoes is to give the seedlings enough to drink. Anytime it hasn’t rained for three or four days, I fill buckets with water from our rain barrels and walk from plant to plant, giving each a good drenching. Water in the early morning or in the evening, when the sun isn’t bright, and if possible, avoid getting the leaves wet. This water-boy duty gives me a chance to see how the blossoms or tiny tomatoes are progressing. The additional steps added to my daily count are a bonus.

Some people recommend mulching tomatoes, with grass clippings, pine needles or purchased mulch, to keep the soil moist and temperatures even. We haven’t done that, but maybe we should. Tomatoes are heavy feeders. You can’t just fertilize them at the start of the season and ignore them until harvest time. The only fertilizer we have used in recent years is Pro-Gro 5-3-4 from North Country Organics in Vermont. It’s certified organic and it releases its nutrients slowly. My only complaint is that when I apply it, it also releases dust, which gets onto my jeans. I’ve learned to apply the fertilizer only when I don’t plan to go out in public for the rest of the day.

Keep watch for any pests or diseases, such as tomato hornworms, aphids or blight. I subscribe to pest alerts from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which alerts me ahead of time if the blight is coming. If it is, I’ll find an organic treatment.

A tomato plant, and if you look closely a tomato, grows in the Atwell garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

In the past, I’ve blamed my difficulties growing tomatoes on a neighbor, whose pine trees block sun from my garden. But those trees came down last winter, and already the extra sun seems to be helping the seedlings thrive.

The big change this year is that I plan to prune our tomato plants. I’ve read about pruning tomatoes in the past, but have never actually done it. Last year’s crop failure is making me change my slovenly tomato-growing habits. Since then, I’ve done lots of research on pruning tomatoes as a way to get more large tomatoes.


First, be sure your pruners are clean and sharp. Wash them with soap or alcohol. Wait for a dry day to prune to reduce the chance of spreading disease. Remove any suckers, which are new stems that start in the V-shaped spaces between the stem and branches. You’ll get more tomatoes if you leave the suckers, but they will be smaller.

Remove the lower branches on the plant, too, which can pick up fungal spores from the ground. If the plant is growing beyond its support system – cages or posts – you can cut the top off, doing it at an intersection with a branch. Besides producing fewer, larger tomatoes, pruning creates more air circulation, which will lessen the chance of disease.

Good news for procrastinators: If you haven’t planted your tomato seedlings by now – you should have done so in late May or early June – planting them now still offers a chance of success. Assuming the weather cooperates, they’ll ripen in mid- to late August instead of July. Remember that tomatoes prefer soil that is slightly acidic, with pH between 6.0 and 6.8. And don’t forget to plant them deeply, 2 or 3 inches deeper than the seedling was in its pot.

As I write this, I am dreaming of sliced tomato salads and BLTs.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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