Pruning Vegetable Plants

Pruning Vegetable Plants

By Michael Jenkins 

Pruning is one of the most misunderstood gardening practices out there. While it’s necessary, there are scads of misinformation and folktales about pruning vegetable plants. Some work, some don’t, some are actually harmful. So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? What’s the best way to prune your garden vegetable plants and keep them thriving and healthy? Let’s dig in!

Why Prune Your Vegetable Plants?

Let’s start by taking a look at what pruning can do for a veggie plant. Pruning ornamentals is generally about shaping them or encouraging more flowers to grow. While pruning your vegetable plants has similar ends in mind, they manifest a bit differently:

  • Pruning helps control plant size, which for veggies means keeping them in their allotted space, keeping them from shading or crowding their neighbors, and ensuring proper vertical growth.
  • Pruning can be used to train plants to grow in a certain direction, which is especially useful in confined spaces or if you’re training a plant up a trellis, tomato cage, or other support.
  • Pruning improves air flow around the plant, and allows light to reach the lower levels of leaves and soil. This in turn helps prevent pests, disease, and moldy soil.
  • Pruning can encourage more flowering, and thus increase the size of your harvest by helping your plant put its energy into growing more fruit.

Pruning vs Pinching

Let’s talk briefly about pruning your plants vs pinching (also called pinching off). While pruning and pinching accomplish many of the same goals, they are technically different things. Pinching involves using your fingertips or a pair of shears to remove small bits like leaves, new growth, or the suckers on tomato plants. Pruning involves removing entire branches, vines, or leaf clusters from a plant. We only mention this as you might hear both terms and we want to be clear.

How to Prune Your Vegetable Plants

How you prune your vegetables will depend on several things: their needs, your goals, and the kind of plants in question. There are a couple of general approaches that work pretty well in most cases, so we’ll focus on those for now.

  • With most vining veggies, like cucumbers, melons, and squash, you want only a single runner—the main vine that the leaves, flowers and fruit grow from. By pinching or pruning secondary runners—the smaller lead growths that branch off—you’ll help the plant put its energy into growing healthy leaves, flowers, and ultimately fruit for you.
  • Pruning tomatoes is a bit more complicated, but not overly so. When your tomato plants are approximately 18 inches(45cm) in height, it’s time to start pruning. Generally with tomatoes you’ll want to prune off all growth within about a 12 inches (30cm) of the soil. This ensures good air circulation and adequate light, which help prevent diseases and deter pests. After that, you’ll want to pinch or prune the suckers. Suckers are the little bits of new grow that start in the joint between the plant’s main stem and the branches. They suck up energy the plant needs for other things, so removing them helps promote flowering and fruit growth.
  • Peppers and eggplants are generally pretty easy to prune, in they shouldn’t require much pruning over the course of a season unless you need to ensure they don’t crowd or shade their neighbors. Both kinds of plants may put out new growth from their base. Like tomatoes, you may want to prune this away to ensure that light and air circulate freely.

All pruning should be done cleanly and neatly, with a clean sharp tool or in the case of pinching with clean fingers. You’re opening up a wound on the plant, and while it will heal it may serve as a vector for new diseases. Clean your pruning tools before and after using them, and be extra careful if the plant is showing any signs of disease-- you wouldn’t want to spread it to healthy plants!

Pruning may be a chore, but it add so much to your veggie garden and its success. Healthy plants benefit from regular pruning, and you’ll get more from your harvest if you prune your vegetable plants regularly. So don’t delay, it’s not too late to start good pruning practices in your garden!

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