When to top tomato?
You should top your tomato plants because it will help grow bigger tomatoes and more of them. It will prevent the tomato plant from growing tall and developing a weak stem. And it will help the roots provide nutrients to all parts of the plant.
Topping your tomato plants has a lot of benefits but you should know when is the right time to do this. You should also top the plant with the right technique so you don’t end up putting the tomato plant under stress.
You can get tomato plants that are of the determinate or indeterminate variety. The determinate variety of tomato plants may only grow up to 4 feet tall and stop growing further.
The indeterminate variety will grow 6 feet tall and continue to grow. They are of the vine variety and will grow as long as the growing season continues.
You should not top the determinate tomato plants as this will cause them to develop less fruit. You should only top the indeterminate tomato plants as this provides several benefits.
I find that topping the tomato plant helps it develop more branches which improves the strength and stability of the plant.
The main benefit of topping a tomato plant is to keep the plant within a certain height. If you’re using a stake, cage, or trellis to support the tomato plants, you don’t want them to grow beyond that.
If the tomato plants grow higher than their support, the wind will cause the top of the plant to snap and fall off. If large tomatoes are growing on such a plant, it will break due to the weight of the fruits.
If the tomato plant vines grow too much, the roots will not be able to send enough nutrients to the entire plant. This will weaken the plant and cause poor fruit development.
When you top the tomato plant, the plant can focus its energy on growing fruit. This means your tomato plant will give you more fruits that are bigger in size. The tomatoes will also ripen faster.
It’s a lot easier to maintain a tomato plant that has limited height than one that is always growing. You may need to use a ladder to take care of it.
It’s easier to harvest the tomatoes, prune the tomato plant, and monitor the plant for any pest or disease problems.
I asked fellow gardeners what do they think about the benefits of topping tomato plants. Below are the results of the poll. 56% thought that it’s really beneficial to save plant energy for ripening in the fall. Interestingly, 11% felt that the best yields come when the tomato plants are not topped.
I think there’s only one major problem you may find in topping tomato plants. It’ll be the ongoing effort during the life of the tomato plant.
You’ll need to monitor the indeterminate tomato plant and top it every month or two during it’s growing phase to get the benefits of the topping.
So, if you’re a busy gardener, you’ll need to make it part of your schedule to also top the tomato plants in the garden.
My suggestion is to include it as part of your daily plant monitoring checklist. If you find that your tomato plant has grown way taller or longer than the cage, trellis, or stake, it’s time to top the plant.
The best time to top determinate tomato plants is when they have grown taller than their supporting stake, cage, or trellis. This will protect the top of the plants from the wind causing them to snap.
o top the tomato plants if there are a lot of tomatoes growing and it’s growing very tall. The plant will topple over with the weight of the fruit so it’s best to trim it down.
Once frost hits the tomato plant, it will cause the leaves and tomatoes to freeze and die. You need to make sure to harvest as many tomatoes as possible before the first frost hits after fall.
You can top the tomato plants about 45-60 days before the growing season is coming to an end and it will get cold. This will make your tomato plants focus on growing new tomatoes rather than new foliage.
You need to use the right technique to cut off the tomato plant tops. This will ensure you don’t prune off more than what you need. And avoid giving too much stress to the tomato plant.
The idea is to cut the top of the main stem which is the thick trunk of the tomato plant. You also want to cut off any suckers near the top. These are the offshoots that grow between a branch and the main stem.
Make sure to use a clean pair of gardening pruners that have been sanitized with rubbing alcohol. This will help prevent viruses and bacteria from infecting the plant where you cut.
Follow the main stem till you reach the topmost flower or fruit cluster. You need to cut the stem right behind the flower or fruit cluster. This makes the cluster as the top of the stem.
You need to make sure to cut off any suckers near the top of the stem. This prevents them from developing into a new stem.
Don’t cut the leaves that may be near the top of the stem. These will give the tomato plant energy to continue growing flowers and fruits.
The best routine is to cut the top of the tomato plants every week. This will keep the plants in the best shape, focusing on growing more of the flowers and tomatoes. And focusing less on growing new foliage.
You should pinch back determinate tomato plants as it helps the overall plant and fruit development.
Pinching means taking out leaves, suckers, and even flowers to improve the overall development of the tomato plant.
When the tomato seedlings have grown 4-6 inches in height, you can pinch off the lower leaves. This encourages the tomato plant to spend energy on growing more foliage making the plant grow faster.
When the tomato plants have grown a bit larger, you can continue pinching some of the leaves to encourage further foliage development.
Suckers are the offshoot that grows between the branch and the main stem. You should pinch off these suckers as well. This encourages the main stem to grow thicker and stronger.
This does mean that you will have fewer tomato fruits developing on the plant. But the tomatoes will be big and flavorful.
It’s best to pinch off suckers when they are small and young as this will be easy to do. You can use your thumb and forefinger to pinch off the sucker. You may need to gently move the sucker if it does not pinch off easily.
Using your fingers is the easiest and safest way to pinch off the suckers. The wound will heal fast and has less chance of infection (do remember to wash your hands before you do so).
If the suckers are mature, they won’t be easy to pinch off with your fingers. You need to use a sanitized pruning shear to pinch them off the plant.
You should also remove the first few flowers from the tomato plant. This helps the plant focus it’s energy on growing foliage and root development.
Around 45-60 days before the first frost date, you should start pinching off the leaves, suckers, and any flowers from the plant. This helps the tomato plant focus on growing and ripening the existing tomatoes.
You’ll be able to harvest the tomatoes before the frost can arrive and harm the plant and fruits making them unsuitable for consumption.
You should pinch the tomato flowers when they are the first blooms on the plant in spring. You might have started the plants from seed or bought a seedling.
Whatever be the case, if the tomato plant has first blooms, you need to pinch them off. This helps the tomato plant focus its energy on growing stronger roots and foliage.
The stronger roots will help in developing healthier plants and protection from the elements like the wind.
The flowers will not even pollinate when the temperatures are below 70 degrees Fahrenheit because it’s not suitable. The insects required for pollination are not around at low temperatures.
However, if you’re growing the tomato plant in summer after starting seeds or transplanting a seedling, you need to keep the flowers.
A lot of learning how to grow tomatoes is about timing, especially if you live in an area that gets cold winters. Don't be late with this step of tomato growing if you want to be harvesting ripe fruit soon.
Basically, topping tomatoes is pinching out their new growth, or 'removing the growing tips of these plants,' as Scott puts it. He explains that 'on an indeterminate tomato plant the growth is pretty consistent; at each of the nodes, the junctions with the main stem you'll see a leafing branch. Often you'll have a sucker that extends from the main stem.'
This is, in a nutshell, how tomatoes grow, and 'at the tip of the plant, this process continues: you have a main stem, a leaf branch, and a sucker.'
You'll often hear advice to pinch off the sucker, but Scott says that 'the growing tip will keep on growing and growing.' However, 'if you pinch off this growing tip, there's nowhere else for the plant to grow.'
This is the most effective method for controlling tomato plant growth, which will easily get to over six feet, which 'makes it difficult to harvest'. Controlling tomato plant growth will also help it produce more fruit – but only if you start topping your plant at the right time.
And the right time to start topping? It's 'six to four weeks before the first frost date.' Why? Scott explains that 'while it's still warm, the plant is putting a lot of energy into just growing bigger. When we put stress on the plant, we're signaling something is happening, the plant is threatened and will now redirect this energy into the fruit.'
by Jennifer Poindexter
Have you ever heard of gardeners topping their tomatoes? This has been a long-running discussion in our family about whether this is a good idea or not. My husband comes from a long line of gardeners. They have green thumbs and pride themselves on the gorgeous tomatoes they produce.
Yet, this one topic can divide the room in an instant. Over the years, I’ve taken mental notes on all of the reasons why someone should or should not top their tomatoes.
Now, I’m going to share them with you. I’ll also share how you can top your tomatoes if you choose to take this path. Here’s what you should know about tomato topping.
There are many good reasons for topping your tomato plants. One major benefit is that it produces fuller plants. If you would like your plant to be bushier, cut the top of the plant off. This allows the rest of the plant to redirect energy to other areas which enables it to fill out instead of continuing to grow taller.
Topped tomato plants will also, typically, produce larger fruit and increased fruit production. Again, this has to do with redirecting the plant’s energy into the fruit instead of trying to grow a larger plant.
Another benefit is that topped tomatoes are easier to stake as well. You can top your tomato vines at the top of the stakes. If you’ve ever had to wrestle with a large tomato plant, you know it’s not fun.
By reducing the height of the plant, it fits nicely inside a tomato cage. You also won’t have to wrestle the plant to keep it in the cage.
Topping tomato plants can provide strength to weak, leggy plants. If you cut them back and allow them the opportunity to regrow, many times they grow back stronger.
When the plants regrow, they may also come back sturdier in many cases. This allows them to support bigger tomatoes without concerns of breaking.
Some gardeners also find that their tomato plants produce more new flowers more when topped, resulting in more new fruit. Topping tomatoes can also help fruit ripen faster.
It allows the plants to withstand the elements better as well. Since the plants are lower to the ground, they’re less likely to break during heavy rain or windstorms.
Now that you understand why many gardeners support the idea of topping tomatoes, let’s discuss why some remain unconvinced of this gardening technique.
Though there are many reasons why people top their tomatoes, there are a few reasons why some avoid this practice.
The first reason why many gardeners don’t top their tomatoes is that it’s one more thing to do. If you’re a busy gardener or someone who likes to keep things as simple as possible, topping your tomatoes may be more than you want to take on.
Once you begin topping certain varieties of tomatoes, it becomes an on-going process. This can feel overwhelming to some gardeners.
A second reason some gardeners choose to avoid this practice is because it only works on certain types of tomatoes.
If you have a determinate variety of tomato, you shouldn’t top them until the end of the growing season.
Determinate varieties only grow to a certain height. Therefore, when you top them, you’re sending messages to the plants.
Once topped, determinate plants won’t produce any more fruit or grow any taller. Instead, they’ll send their energy to ripen the remaining fruit.
In turn, you shorten your growing season and reduce the size of your harvest. However, you can top indeterminate varieties. These tomatoes don’t have a certain height they reach.
Therefore, if you top indeterminate tomatoes they will continue to grow. If you’re unsure about what variety of tomato you’re growing, or if you know you’re growing a determinate variety of tomato, you shouldn’t practice topping.
Our final reason why some gardeners don’t like the idea of topping their tomatoes is that they find it wasteful.
At times, you must remove large parts of the plant, depending upon how tall the plant has gotten.
My mother-in-law was one who never liked to waste anything. Therefore, she had a huge problem with topping tomatoes.
If you feel similarly, you should know that you don’t have to waste what you cut. Here is a great little growing tip, instead of wasting what you have cut, you can take the cuttings and plant them in your vegetable garden.
For best results keep the soil surrounding the cuttings consistently moist. Over a week or so, each cutting should develop roots and become new, young plants.
You can also pot the cuttings in soil. This way you can have container tomatoes if you don’t have enough room for more tomato plants in your garden.
This would also make a great gift for those around you who love homegrown tomatoes. Ultimately, whether or not you top your tomatoes is up to you.
However, it’s our hope that you now have a clear picture as to why some gardeners choose to avoid this option even if there are quite a few benefits to it.
Now that you understand the pros and cons of topping tomatoes, let’s discuss how you go about this. In most cases, you should wait until the tomato reaches the top of the stake or tomato cage before topping.
Once this occurs, use shears to make a clean cut and remove the part of the tomato which is above the top of the support for your staking set-up. Another method to deciding where to top is by picking the fruits on the plant which you would like to keep.
After you know, cut just above where the fruits are on the plant. If you’re pruning around fruit, be sure you leave enough foliage to protect it from becoming scorched by the sun.
Tomatoes need shade, or they won’t make it. When you’re finished tomato pruning, as mentioned earlier, you must realize this isn’t a one-and-done scenario.
You must continue pruning each week. As the plant grows back, it should be healthier, but it will also become too large for your staking set-up again.
The plant will redirect energy as well. It will begin focusing on the new growth instead of the fruit already on the vine. Therefore, you must continue to prune tomato plants if you’d like see the same benefits through the entire season.
Now that you understand how to top tomatoes and why some gardeners choose this method of care for their plants, you might wonder if there are other plants you can top.
The answer is yes. There is another plant which benefits from topping. Pepper plants are typically topped when they’re younger.
The reason for this is that it encourages fuller plants with larger fruit and avoids them becoming too leggy. If you grow peppers as well, you might want to take these same tips and apply it to other areas of your garden.
As you can see, there are many reasons why you should consider this technique, but there are also reasons why topping tomatoes may not be right for everyone. Once you look at the facts, make the right decision based upon your schedule and varieties of tomatoes in your garden.
Hopefully, I’ve shed some light about topping tomatoes and given you enough information to help you make a well-informed decision.
Indeterminate tomatoes can be topped throughout the season as needed as they will continue to grow back. At the beginning of the season, top indeterminate tomatoes to improve growth or prevent leggy stems before fruit set. Mid-season topping can control height and unruly growth when the stems outgrow their supports.
Topping tomato plants is an essential part of the gardening calendar, and it’s not a one-off! From early summer, right through to harvest, topping tomatoes keeps your plants in check, and helps to produce more reliable harvests. But! There are some really big mistakes you can make, so let’s take a look at exactly what to do, and what not to do when topping tomato plants.
Timing, height, variety, and location will all affect how and when you top tomato plants. Most importantly though, not all tomatoes need topping. Determinate tomatoes (those with pre-determined growing heights), also called bush tomatoes, don’t need topping at all. Indeterminate, or cordon tomatoes, are a constant battle to reign in their height.
Topping tomato plants is as simple as it sounds; cutting off the tops of tomato plants. There are, however, a few different methods. My preferred method is to top off cordon tomato plants when they reach around 6ft, and then keep on going.
Cutting back to the top growth of tomatoes every few weeks makes sure that they focus their energy on the developing flowers and fruit below, without wasting time growing new trusses at their tips.
You might also have come across the term ‘pinching out tips’, or ‘pinching tomato tips’. This is done to pretty much all young tomato seedlings to encourage lateral growth, and it is more of a choice than a necessity.
In short: pinching out tomato tips promotes more productive, but shorter plants, and is done early in the growing season; topping tomato plants stunts growth, and should be done throughout the growing season.
Note: Pinching out can also refer to pinching out side shoots and suckers. This just means removing the diagonal shoots between the truss and main stem and should also be done regularly throughout the season.
Before I go into detail about the benefits of topping tomato plants, there are some negatives, depending on where you live, and how you grow tomatoes.
But, with that short list of negatives aside, nearly all other outcomes are positive, and avoiding the negatives is all a matter of good tomato management.
The most obvious advantage of topping tomato plants is bigger fruit. By topping tomato plants regularly, you are focussing their energy on the flowers and fruit they have already begun working on.
That means more water for the fruit lower down, and more nutrients to share between existing tomatoes.
If you plan on making batches of tomato ketchup, pasta sauces, or soups, topping off indeterminate or cordon tomatoes regularly can help them ripen more evenly. Remember, cordon tomatoes will keep trying to grow, and continue producing new fruit until the plant dies.
If you top the plants so to around 6ft, more fruit will ripen all at once, producing a tighter harvest window for all that batch-cooking joy!
Any pruning, whether it’s pinching out suckers, or trimming the low growth at the base of tomatoes, helps to improve air circulation, and will allow light into the plant. Better ventilation reduces diseases, and more sunlight helps to ripen fruit faster.
As well as making tomatoes easier to train, topping tomatoes also reduces the weight of plants and the burden on your supports. Trellis, twine, tomato cages, and tepees, are all great ways to support tomato plants, and topping tomato plants keeps them in check so they don’t outgrow their supports.
If that’s the only reason you decide to top your tomatoes, it’s a good one.
OK, so we know why we top tomato plants but how, exactly, should it be done?
Well, that depends on where you’re growing them, and the reason for topping them. In cooler climates, the aim of topping is to reduce new growth and improve ventilation. In warmer climates, it’s to reduce disease and help train them.
Topping tomato plans in cool climates should be done every two to three weeks, whenever there is new growth at the top of the plant. To reduce how often you do this, there’s a right place to cut, and a wrong place:
In warm climates, topping tomatoes is all about disease control and training. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, but it’s often only necessary to top tomato plants in zone 9-11 when they reach 8ft, and the weather begins to cool right down. Cut below a node, as above to reduce re-growth and focus energy and light on ripening fruits.
In really warm climates, tomatoes can continue growing into winter and will crop in a repetitive cycle. For me, in my chilly northern spot, my tomatoes tend to stop ripening around late October, when the sun begins to drop and the days are dramatically shortening, so allowing any growth above 6ft at any point in the year is simply counterproductive.
In cool climates like ours, topping tomatoes should be a fortnightly task. If they ever exceed 6ft, the chances are, that fruit won’t ripen in time for harvest.
The cooler afternoons here even in summer mean that every drop of sunlight is needed to ripen fruits too, and anything over 6ft will shade out other plants, and the fruit lower down.
If your greenhouse begins to exceed humidity of 75%, there’s a heightened risk of blight and other fungal problems. Removing the top growth on any tomato plant will reduce shade, and increase the heat, helping to decrease trapped humidity, and improve ventilation.
Humidity sensors are indispensable tools and can be picked up for next to nothing online.
After the summer solstice, when days begin to shorten to less than ten hours of sunlight, any undersized fruit is unlikely to grow further and certainly won’t ripen.
Remove any tall trusses, in the fall, and top your plants just below a node to discourage regrowth. This will speed up the ripening of lower fruit.
If you’re lucky enough to grow tomatoes in zone 9 or above, tomatoes can and do, continue cropping well into November, even early December in some Southern regions. But, if frost is forecast, it’s time to top your tomato plants one last time, and close any greenhouse windows to conserve heat. As soon as the plants begin to wilt, harvest any remaining fruit and ripen it indoors.
Now you know how and when to top tomato plants, make sure you’re not making any of these simple mistakes: