Northern Gardeners - When do you "top" your tomatoes?

mandolls(4)August 8, 2012

I am in zone 4 WI. My tomatoes are all over 8 ft tall. Some have been producing well, some not so much. I am wondering at what point I should think about topping off my plants to direct the energy to the already formed tomatoes. If the flower to fruit timing is the same as it is at the beginning of the cycle, I would think that now is the time, but I have heard that as the weather cools off they move along a little faster.

Any advice?


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edweather(Zone 5a/b Central NY)

I don't top my plants but I remove any small tomatoes that don't have a chance. If you are in z4 your growing season has to be coming to an end rapidly.....maybe 4 weeks at best for tomatoes. I find that as the weather cools and the sun angle lowers and the days get shorter, the plants slow down, not speed up.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 9:30AM
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In Zone 6 Sept. 1 is a good date. For you, it is a guess, Aug. 15.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 9:57AM
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Hi I would definitely start topping the tomatoes no later than the 15th. Even is a zone 5b the weather can turn in a heartbeat, so you need to give the fruits you have a chance. Make sure to remove suckers too!

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 10:09AM
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I never top tomato plants because I want that foliage feeding the plants and protecting the tomatoes. I have never in my life grown an 8 foot tall tomato plant, so maybe I should not speak to your situation. The question I have is why removing foliage helps the development of tomatoes in any way? It seems counterintuitive because the leaves make energy which the plant needs to develop the fruit, do they not? And new healthy leaves replace the damaged ones or the tired old ones that simply yellow and drop, so it seems to be a zero sum late in the season.

I do snip off flower clusters and tiny tomatoes, though, around Labor Day.

It has been my observation that the shorter days and cooler nights towards the end of the season slow down the growth of the plants but speeds up the ripening of the tomatoes.

I consider September to still be a decent growing month in zone 4, even though the first night frosts usually occur. By blanketing my plants on the nights of those first frosts I can often keep my plants well into October, although the quality of the fruit declines (but is still better than any store-bought garbage). Strange growing season this year, though, so I do not know what kind of Autumn season is in store for us. An early winter perhaps?

Wishing best of luck,

P.S. At the end of the season please update this thread with what you did, when you did it, how well it worked, what you would do differently. :)

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 11:15AM
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peachymomo(Ca 8)

I just read an article in Fine Gardening about tomato pruning that recommends topping the plants a month before the first frost. By topping the tomato plant you force it to divert all of it's energy to the fruits that have already been formed, instead of trying to grow more leaves and fruits that will never get a chance to mature before the weather turns. I've never tried it before but am going to this year, probably around the beginning of September.

Here is a link that might be useful: Fine Gardening Tomato Pruning Article

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 11:32AM
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So you mean pinching the new growth. I never did that to the tomatoes However I do it to the fruit trees for example if I don't pinch the fig branches in July the fruit never ripen and end up with a lot of unripe fruits.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 1:50PM
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Mine have never grown that tall, but usually to a good 5 feet! I always try to pinch off the suckers but haven't done that in a while! If you don't top off your tomatoes, a storm might do it for you and cause more damage to it! Did you know that you can root a tomato branch in water and replant it? You could stick the topped off part in water and then plant it in a container or in the garden if it makes you too sad about taking off half the plant!

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 2:06PM
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Thank for the input. Mine grow so tall because I do not have a sunny yard, so they get six hours of direct sun maximum. It doesnt stop them from producing, just makes them tall. I tie them really well up to about 6 ft , a couple of branches have folded over, but mostly they are still reaching for the sky.

I will take Tom's advice and snip off flower clusters and tomatoes under golfball size around Labor day. It has been such wierd weather this summer with all of the heat. A couple of plants have not produced well at all (5-8 tomatoes), while the Genovese Romas have 35-50 fruit on each.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 3:38PM
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I never top my tomatoes. And mine do get 7-8' tall, I start them from seed in March and by now they are pretty huge. Everything depends on the year, some years they produce well into October, so I don't want to rid myself of that late fruit.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 4:00PM
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I may have misinterpreted your post based on foolishpleasure's comments. Just how much were you thinking of taking off? Feet, inches, or just the tips? I am now interested in testing this so on Labor Day I will remove just the tips on a few plants to see what happens.

BTW my brother's tomatoes and a neighbor's tomatoes often reach 7-8 feet, so I am not surprised by your success. Mine have never reached those heights because the fruit load always pulls the plants down or bends the branches over.

I know I need a better caging method, and I am in the middle of designing some taller ones. But as lizbeth_pa alluded to, around here they need to be strong and anchored well or winds and storms will blow the entire thing over.

I checked out peachymomo's link and found it to be very interesting. I think it is time for me to learn some new things about growing tomatoes. I for one would sure appreciate getting ripe tomatoes two weeks sooner if all I had to do was follow their advice on a few plants.

Nice mater plants there, grow_darnit.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 4:36PM
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Topping involves removing only the tip. It is a minimal loss of foliage. Basil is another plant that gets topped to maximize production. I agree that both the tip and below golf ball sized tomatoes should be removed one month before frost.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 9:49PM
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Grow-darnit - is each one of those massive bushes a single plant? Or are you grouping a few together in each planting.? Mine get that tall, but they sure dont get that bushy!

And - yes I was thinking in terms of just the top inch or so of the growing branches.

Here is a pic of mine. 8 plants per 9x4.5 bed, built a bamboo "swing set" shaped trellace about 6ft tall, and used a combination of tying directly to the bamboo and weaving string between the poles. In the past week or so I have had to remove quite q few lower leaves due to fungus or blight. Next year I will only try 6 plants per bed.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 7:30AM
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I don't "top" anything because I want lots of foliage to protect fruits from the September sun. However, starting August 15, I casually pinch off new blossoms from peppers and tomatoes because they have little chance of ripening.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 7:40AM
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In a previous post I stated "I may have misinterpreted your post based on foolishpleasure's comments." - Sorry, bad sentence structure. What I meant was that foolishpleasure's comments enlightened me and I realized I may have been misinterpreting the original question.

mandolls, your plants look very nice. You probably can not do anything about it, but if your tomato plants could get more than 6 hours per day of sunlight I think you would have much better production. Can a branch or two be trimmed out of a tree, perhaps, to allow more sunlight for next season?

I took a few quick pics this morning that show some of my plants and some of the fruit:

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 12:54PM
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that's one tomato plant per staked wire mesh cage, spaced about 5.5' now. It seems I plant them further and further apart each year to make sure they get good air circulation and each year they just fill whatever room they are given.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 3:22PM
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I neglected to comment on your plant spacing of 8 plants per 9x4.5 bed - seems awful tight which might explain why so tall and not producing. Grow_darnit uses a spacing of 5.5 between plants, which is great. I still space mine at 4 feet between plants and six feet between rows. Between rows spacing seems to work but yeah, 4 feet between plants seems a bit tight and the plants become a tangled mess for me, but I deal with it. My 'mater plants take up enough garden space and I refuse to allot them more square footage at this time. Fifty plants each year. :)

Lunch over, back to work for me.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 4:33PM
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Tom - I have looked at your facebook or photobucket? page and admired your gardens. They are an inspiration.

Grow-darnit - I am amazed at the size of those! What kind of cage structure do you use to fence those monsters in?

I keep expanding my garden and I keep running out of room. I am only on a 1/2 acre lot (slightly less). So I have tended to plant things way to crowded. I am also only in my 3rd year of vegetable gardening and still on a pretty steep learning curve. First year garden had 3 tomato plants, 2nd-8, this year 16. I had already decided that next year I would plant only 12 in the same space, but I may narrow that back down to 8.

The Maple tree that is the main shade cuplrit is on the property line. I talked the neighbor into letting me take off a few branches, but it will be hard convincing him to really take down what I need for sun. My production on everything is way under what it could be, but there are only two of us eating out of this garden (and my partner doesnt even like tomatoes!), so its really not that big of an issue if I dont get tons of food. I have about 25 tomatoes that are ripe and sitting on my counter that I need to deal with tonight

The whole thing is planted more with "garden" in mind than "farm". Raised beds, wood chip paths, lots of flowers mixed in with everything.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 5:04PM
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