14 May 2009

How to prune tomato plants

Jean-Pierre Coffe is a French author, radio and TV personality, and former restaurant-owner. He is known as a passionate defender of “authentic” cooking and natural, healthy food products. He has written many books on the subject of gardening and food, one of which is Le Potager Plaisir (1998) —“vegetable gardening for the pleasure of it” might be a good translation of the title.

Here is how Coffe says that tomato plants should be pruned. I’ve scanned sections of Coffe’s book and translated them.

“In June it's time to prune and train onto supports the traditional types of tomato plants that produce big, heavy fruit. By June, the plants are established and growing. If you don't prune them, they will produce a lot of leaves but fewer tomatoes.

“Pruning them is simple: cut the main stem of the plant just above the third cluster of blossoms and, except for the two lowest side branches (called “suckers” in English and les gourmands in French), cut off all the suckers that grow in the crotch between the main stem and and each leaf. Let the two lowest branches grow until they produce two clusters of blossoms, and then cut them off too.”
“The clusters of tomatoes are heavy for the size of the plant. To keep the stems from breaking, attach each one separately to a stake or other support, but not tightly. Make a figure-eight with the string or wire before tying a knot in it. Ideally, a tie should be place just above each flower cluster.

“Note that there are varieties of tomato plants that do not need to be prunes. With those, you just cut back leaves or entire branches from time to time so that the tomatoes are exposed to the sun, where they will ripen more quickly.”
Here's a photo from Le Potager Plaisir showing tomatoes
grown as Jean-Pierre Coffe recommends.

The tomatoes that need pruning are the “traditional” or “indeterminate” varieties. Here's a link to a video featuring Lee Reich where he explains the difference between “determinate” and “indeterminate” tomato plants and his pruning technique, which is different from Coffe’s. Reich’s tomato plants seem to grow a lot taller than Jean-Pierre Coffe’s.

Here's another French web page that explains the single-stem and double-stem methods of growing tomatoes. It says you get more tomatoes with the double-stem method.


  1. I'm looking forward to photos of your tomato plants as the fruits grow :))


  2. I've suckered and tied many a tomato plant when I helped my dad in his garden. My hands would turn a funny color and the smell of the process is one I still remember- it's not a bad smell, but a unique one.

    My dad and I used rags, torn into strips to tie the vines up. We didn't use the eight idea for tying, but it sounds like a good way to protect the stem.

    I can't wait to see the results of this technique.

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  4. Hi Ken,
    Just for a split second I thought that the photo of the tomato plants was taken in your garden. And I said to myself: 'My God, Ken's a miracle worker to make the seedlings that were planted last week grow so fast!'. No such luck: the miracle worker was JP Coffe :)) Martine

  5. I'll come back to this in June then. Just planted our première légumes en France :-) Tomatoes and peppers.

  6. Martine,

    Ken brought some "Miracle Growth" when he came back from the US. Sorry Ken, couldn't let that one go :-)

  7. Hi Ken,
    I've been lurking on your blog for the past month, and have enjoyed reading through it. I live and garden in Central East Coast Florida not too far from Kennedy Space Center. I've been wondering how to go about pruning tomatoes (we never did this when I was growing up. My Southern family just let 'em grow). Your post today was a timely entry for me. I'm going to give it a try this weekend.

  8. Fascinating to read the different approaches. From this it seems the tomato plant would have three fruit bearing trusses where as UK advice tends to be to go for about 5. I wonder if having less trusses makes the individual fruit larger. I am going to experiment and try pruning one this way, if only for the pleasure of saying 'and this one is done using Le Potager Plaisir method' !


  9. Thanks Ken for the video link on pruning tomatoes however I think I have the determinate type. The are heirloom and I am still going to tie them up and pinch the suckers. I found some buds on the plants today and my cherry tomatoes that I planted in the pot have buds as well

  10. This post came at the right time. We are adopting 15 tomato plants tomorrow. I'll try to follow your advice.

  11. i'm looking forward to trying "french intensive" gardening in my new plot in ABQ. we'll see, as the soil is pure borax, apparently.


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