Tomato Growers Get Very Confused About De-leafing Or Pruning Tomatoes & There Is A Lot Of Confused (Or Even Incorrect) Advice Given. This Post Explains How To De-leaf Tomatoes .. And Why.

Plants need leaves so they can photosynthesis and grow. Leaves are essential if we want plant growth, roots and fruit. But gardeners are often told to remove leaves to “let the oxygen reach the plant”, put the energy into the fruit and a host of other totally incorrect reasons. To say that gardeners, especially Tomato Growers Get Very Confused About De-leafing Or Pruning Tomatoes, is putting it mildly.

Are Grafted Vegetable Plants, Such as Tomatoes, Worth The Extra Cost
Are Grafted Vegetable Plants, Such as Tomatoes, Worth The Extra Expense

Basic Plant Growing Needs

Let’s start with two simple basics.

Firstly, leaves are essential to plant growth. Removing them is always going to be detrimental to the plant.

Secondly, when gardeners remove plant leaves they do it to benefit themselves and NOT the plant. Removing leaves always has the potential to limit plant, and hence fruit, potential.

Why Remove Tomato Leaves?

Note that nowhere have I said we should never remove plant leaves, especially tomato plant leaves. As a commercial grower I removed some leaves. What I wrote above was that the leaves are important to the plant and removing them damaged the plants ability to grow and fruit.

So why remove any leaves?

We do it to help us control crop growth and ripening.

The way I grew a commercial crop of tomatoes is very similar to how I grow them as an amateur in a small greenhouse. They are ideally planted around 14 inches apart. Any closer together and we get no more total yield per given area but, with the plants closer together, have more sideshoots to remove and more chance of getting diseases.

Sideshooting Tomatoes

As the traditional indeterminate crop grows, and we train it ideally up either strings, but I know amateurs sometimes use other methods, we remove the sideshoots. These are shoots, NOT leaves. Though a shoot will obviously contain some leaves. The simple way to remove them is to snap them out of their position between the main stem and leaf (technically this is called the leaf axil). They don’t need pruning with secateurs or knife as there is a natural Abscission layer here where they will easily snap and be removed. It’s very similar to the abscission layer that trees use when they shed their leaves in autumn. The advantage of snapping them out is that the wound heals very quickly. Use a knife or secateurs to prune them and there will be an open wound where diseases, especially botrytis, can enter.

Sadly the American term, prune, has entered the language of many amateur tomato growers. A professional grower or competent amateur never uses the term prune, or ever tries to prune a tomato!

Deleafing Tomatoes

Deleafed & Layered tomatoes showing the railway tracks used during harvest.
Layered tomatoes showing the railway tracks used during harvest

Though the plant doesn’t need leaves removed gardeners often choose to do so for reasons of their own. Once the crop starts to ripen they are easier to see if there are fewer leaves around the fruit. So removing a few leaves speeds up picking.

The important thing to remember is that tom plants ripen the bottom truss first, then once most of them are ripened, the second trust starts and so it goes on up the plant. Often as many as three trusses are being picked at once. But the fruit further up the plant is still growing, so removing too many leaves prevents them growing as big as they might.

The trick is to see the toms that are ripening but not remove so may leaves as to damage crop growth further up the plant. So remove leaves only as far as the truss that is ripening.

How to Deleaf Tomatoes

Because tomato leaves have an abscission layer in the leaf it is easy to manually snappy them off the main stem. A skilled grower with remove 8-9 leaves in the time it takes an amateur to remove one with secateurs.

The process is very simple. Hold the leaf firmly near the junction with the stem. Bend it upwards and towards the stem .. like it is hinged to the stem. Then reverse the direction an bend it downwards and towards the stem. The leaf will snap cleanly from the stem. It’s that simple. To make it easier you might find it easier to hold the stem with one hand whilst being the leaf up and down with the other.

Manipulating Ripening

Commercial growers know that toms ripen faster when the air temperature around the truss is higher. Leaves precent the warmth getting to them and they ripen a bit slower. So they use this fact to control ripening rate. They know tha supermarkets sell most fruit at weekends and don’t pay as much early in the week. So by removing the leaves 2-3 days before they need to pick they can speed up the ripening rate and pick for delivery to the supermarket on the days that people buy them. The great thing about this is not requires no synthetic ripening chemicals … just skill.

More On How to Grow Tomatoes

Follow this link on How To Grow Tomatoes to learn more.

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