Saturday, August 05, 2006

How To Trim Tomato Plants

Realization Of The Day:
Although I've written two posts about the scary super trim I gave my two Arkansas tomato plants (click here), I never actually described exactly which leaves were the "useless" ones I cut off. This would have no doubt been helpful, especially since the experiment was a success. So here goes.

An added benefit to thinning your tomato plants is that it enables you to create order from chaos (and show me one gardener who doesn't have a chaos problem in their garden). A tangled mass of leaves and vines can become a neat and manageable plot in mere minutes.

This is especially helpful if you have yet to cage or otherwise stake up your plants. And if they're growing quite close together (like mine always are because every year I insist on cramming way too many tomato seedlings into each 4' x 8' raised bed), thinning out the leaves will allow for better airflow between the plants.

Despite the abundance of sprawling, uncontrollable, cageless tomato plants currently growing like mad in my garden (what, you thought I showed you everything out there?), my tomato trimming days are pretty much over for the season. Due to heat-zapped brain cells—along with no desire whatsoever to spend any more time out in the blazing sun than absolutely necessary—I blow off a lot of garden stuff in August) But I'm sure there are some of you who are up to the challenge.

Although I have always figured that trimming the "useless" leaves would be more beneficial before they got very big—since you're trying to help the plant expend less energy growing them—as you can see in the original post, my Arkansas Travelers were quite mature when I took the scissors to them. They were even loaded with full-size fruits.

Okay, so this is all you have to do. Look up at the tomato plant in the top photo. Starting from the bottom, I count five side shoots coming off the main vertical stalk. Can you see that the 2nd shoot has several side shoots growing from it, but the 1st, 3rd, 4th, & 5th shoots are really just single large leaves? (You can click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Those are the ones that need to go. They are basically doing nothing except making you wait longer for your ripe tomatoes. Who needs that? Grab the scissors!

So how do you know for sure that you're cutting off the right leaves? Check out this close-up photo. Can you see the tiny leaves sprouting out of the main stem right above the shoot on the bottom right? (Again, you can click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Those tiny leaves are hoping to grow into fruit producing branches. Cut off that big useless leaf below them and help them out! There will almost always be useful growth literally right on top of the useless leaves. The size of that growth will vary. Sometimes it will be much larger than this.

And that's all you need to know. Except that I've found that regular old scissors work the best when tomato leaf trimming. For years I simply used my fingers and fingernails to snap off the leaves. But when you're dealing with dozens and dozens of stem snaps, this gets real old real fast. Plus if the leaves are thick, sometimes it doesn't work right.

This year when half my leaves started to bend instead of snap like I wanted them to, I pulled out my sharp little pocket knife and had one of those Oh my god, why haven't I been using this all along? moments. Then the knife thing started getting old, especially when I found I was often peeling away part of the trunk along with the leaf. Plus I slit a couple of fingers (not badly).

So then I had an even more brilliant idea and switched to scissors, which was same the day I launched the attack on the Arkansas Travelers.

Oh, and the only other thing you need to be aware of is that this is one of tasks where it is very easy to get carried away. But I think I've already made that quite clear.

From Garden To Table:
Well, not table--more like fridge and freezer. Pesto! Most of my basil is blooming (already?), but I found a large and lovely plant this morning that still had big fat leaves and no flowers on it. I just turned 14 ounces of basil leaves into two different pestos. One has been spooned into an ice cube tray and is in the freezer. The other is in the fridge waiting to be used in a new tomato recipe I've just created in my head and hope to make tonight or tomorrow. If it's a success, I will definitely share it. (Update: You'll find my favorite Low Fat, Full Flavor Basil Pesto Recipe, made with roasted almonds and fresh tomatoes here. The best pesto I've tasted was made with purple basil; read all about it, plus find an easy white bean pesto spread here.)

One of these days I'll also share how I make inexpensive homemade tomato cages that beat the storebought varieties I've tried hands down, because they actually keep my giant tomato plants up! Soon (I hope).

In the meantime, a question:
Does anyone have experience using basil or making pesto from blooming plants? I know I've just cut off the flowers and used the leaves many times (because I am always, always late making my pesto), but since I usually just make super strong pesto that I freeze and toss into pizza sauces during the winter, I've never bothered to see if the leaves taste a lot stronger or are bitter or whatever once the plants are blooming. You know, like how the taste of arugula changes so much once the plant matures and starts to bolt (click here and look for my comment).

I do know that, like arugula, the shape of my basil leaves totally changes as the plants mature: from rounded, smooth, and 'soft' looking to smaller, sharper, and more textured. I don't know why, but it always amazes me when that happens.



  1. I've never noticed that much of a difference, but I also make a habit of pinching back as many emerging flower buds as possible when I walk through the garden.(instead of pulling weeds.)

  2. Oh my god. You don't know how much you helped with this entry. If I could jump, rest assured I would.
    Thank you thank you thank you so much! I would report on the progress later on.
    Did I say thank you?

    very grateful maRLinda

  3. When I read that about the basil, I went out in the garden and pulled off two basil leaves for a taste test. (I have a few basil plants seriously in need of trimming, LOL.) I don't see a huge difference in the taste, although the one with the flowers may been a bit stronger (but this was not a blind taste test, so maybe just the power of suggestion.)

  4. I took your advice and trimmed some bottom leaves off. I did this before this post, so I didn't go five up. Mine are going crazy anyways and have been trimming them back for a while. Have to in my little city garden!!
    Hope mine works as well as yours! Gotta get some red cherries and day!! Christan = )

  5. Thanks for the tips on tomato trimming. My patio garden is in desperate need of a leaf cut.

    I hadn't noticed my flowered basil being much stronger than usual, but after about a week, it starts to taste bitter.

  6. I have been using this pesto recipe for aeons. Can be made by hand but better with a blender or (best) food processor. It's from the old Time/Life cookbook (Italy).

    Pesto alla Genovese

    2 cups fresh basil leaves, stripped from their stems, coarsely chopped and tightly packed.
    1 t. salt
    ½ t. freshly ground black pepper
    1-2 t. finely chopped garlic
    2 T. finely chopped pine nuts (or walnuts)
    1 to 1 1/2 cups olive oil
    ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

    In a blender or food processer, combine basil, salt, pepper, garlic, nuts and 1 cup of olive oil. Blend at high speed until the ingredients are smooth, stopping every 5 or 6 second to push herbs down with a rubber spatula.
    The sauce should be thin enough to run off the spatula easily. If too thick, blend in as much as ½ cup more olive oil.
    Transfer the sauce to a bowl and stir in the grated cheese.

    Poach chicken breasts, cool and cut into bit size pieces. Add a few spoons of pesto and mix well. Serve on lettuce or as part of an antipasto.

    You can also mix the chicken and pesto with cooled pasta and fresh tomatoes for a delicious main course. Serve with French bread.

  7. The only time I have noticed my basil getting "sharp" or stronger, is when the stems have turned woody.
    I do not like the lettuce after it has bolted, but I didn't think it was the same for basil...!

  8. i have never noticed a difference with blooming basil.

    do you have any concerns with trimming and blight? i was under the impression that any wound on a tomato plant invites fungal disease, which is already present in the soil.

    we are about to make pesto, too! i need to freeze it in something larger though- an ice cube's worth does me no good!


  9. Hey there --

    Just thought you'd might be interested in this -- an alternate point of view regarding tomato leaf trimming. Check out the third post down in particular...


  10. That's funny, I've always pinched out the small growth in between the main stem and the side stem - called "suckering" the tomatoes where I come from. I didn't this year and I wish that I had. I'll pay attention to taking the leaves off the main stem next year too.

  11. I make pesto from bolting basil all the time and it's always fine. I pinch those little suckers and pinch and pinch and still can't keep up.

  12. OK, I'm the only one here who reports absolutely nasty bitter pesto made from basil gone to bloom. Hmm, alliteration. Blooming, bolting basil brings bitter, pungent, pathetic pesto.

    I did in fact let my plants go last year; didn't harvest sufficiently till the end of the summer. At that point, what does one do but make pesto ;-) I'd been deadheading but not harvesting, and then finally gave up on deadheading. And the pesto was just nasty. I can't even use it.

    I suppose it's possible that if I'd harvested it throughout the summer it might have changed things, but I can't say, I don't have that much experience.

    Karma has caught up with me this year and for the first time ever, in one short month, I had a slug onslaught as well as some other bugs munching my basil from above, and then another furry critter got to it, so my lesson next year is harvest, harvest, harvest.

    Anyway, cast my vote for icky pesto with flowering basil.

  13. Hello,
    thanks a lot for posting your experiences on tomato trimming! I agree with most of what you said, but I must say that different strains of tomatoes react differently on trimming.
    Love the homemade tomato cages!

  14. Farmgirl- you are a womyn of like mind! I will have to send you my own blog sometimes (which I deleted 450 pages of growing stuff and am starting over tee hee!)

    Meanwhile- here's the main difference between basil flowering and not in practice. (Note: the type of basil makes a difference too but that is more matter of taste) - Pesto from flowering basil is just fine but will be stronger (less sweet), and leaves more stringy. So for those that go pesto "crazy" and are using a home blender (and not a high powered food processor)- you will find it more challenging to break down to the consistency you want.

    Also, some folks dont care for the extra "pungency" that stray flower stems tend to cause when they find their way into the processing.

    Basil pinched back regularly (though I am awful about staying on this myself!) does produce more useful leaf surface - larger leaves, less "stringy" than those not pinched. For making pesto, it does help the whole event move a little faster to just hand shear the nice full leaves as opposed to "hand picking" all those tiny leaves and separating the flower heads and rougher stems.

    Hope this will help. BTW: Your garden is lovely and full of soul! BRAVO to you! :) HUGS!


  16. Great advice. I will have to try that on my plants. Thanks for sharing.

  17. When making pesto used roasted garlic. Fresh garlic adds to the bitter taste per "Gormet" magazine. Most herbs I do not fertilize heavily but I do fertilize and
    water basil this also helps it to be a little more mild. This is wonderful if you love pho soup, Asian beef noodle soup. Hope I spelled that right. I also have stopped deer from entering my garden. The orange net like fence material that you see on construction sites and around utility work is wonderful. You don't stand it up but lay it on the ground. I have been deer free for over three weeks now. Good luck and great gardening.

  18. When using fresh garlic always be sure to remove that little green growth in the middle of the garlic clove, this will also leave a bitter taste.

  19. MMMM, use those pinched off flower stalks to make your car smell good, or any other place you want to make smell good! Bathroom, in the linen cupboard, under the stairs storage area....the car heats up and makes the Basil flowers wilt quickly, but also causes the release of the fragrance - even helps cover up cigarette smoke smell.

    I haven't noticed any flavor change after blooming in the leaves of our basils, but then I'd eat it anyways!

    But then, I'm the girl who sees cattle as still walking dinners....


  20. Hi. I've been reading with interest about the basil dilemma. In my experience, all herbs taste just that much better if you harvest just before flowering. The taste seems to wan after flowering I find, and this is also true with the smell. For example, I have a mint patch beside the back door. I harvest bunches for the freezer etc when I see that it will be flowering soon. The smell is just heavenly. However, because the patch is just massive, a great deal of it ends up going to seed. Both the taste and the aroma diminish quite a bit both during the flowering and after. And so, I treat everything the same way. Including the basil. What I personally do, is pinch off the flowers to encourage just a little more growth and then harvest. But!! The flowers are yummy too! I don't know if any of this is correct, but i've been at it for about 30 years and it works for me here in Toronto, Canada. :)

  21. Thanks for the common sense advice...btw, love the cadence of your writing: it reads like speech sounds. Bookmarked you...



March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

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