Gardening Tips: Step Away from the Tomatoes!

Editor’s NoteThis column last appeared on 22 July 2020.


What to do this week

This week is a good time to talk about pruning tomatoes and hilling potatoes.

Perhaps the most talked about controversy in home gardening is whether or not to even prune tomato plants in the first place. Some people swear by pruning, raving about how much bigger and more beautiful their tomatoes are, while others insist it is not really needed, or even advisable. I am firmly in the camp of those who say it is not at all needed, and I am right!

Photo by Sanjay Acharya, CC BY-SA 3.0,, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Sanjay Acharya, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

[At this point, Madeline interrupts to ask me if I am so right that I am not going to bother explaining what pruning is and how to do it and I grudgingly agree to explain.]

Some people like to train their tomato plants to a single central stem by pinching off the new growth from along the main stem that would form secondary branches if left alone. These new secondary branches are usually called suckers. They poke out at the joint between one main leave and the main stem. The people who believe that pruning tomato plants is a good idea like to pinch these suckers off as soon as they appear. They think they will get bigger fruit that way. The problem is, they do get bigger fruit, but they will get fewer total pounds of tomatoes than if they had left the poor little plant alone.

If you are trying to grow huge beefsteak tomatoes for the county fair prize, go ahead and prune your plants. That will get you fewer but bigger tomatoes — along with moisture stress and sun scald. Also, you are not helping the plant by pinching off leaves it had put energy into growing. When you don’t prune, the leaves do their job, which is making the food necessary for the plant to produce fruit.

Another thing to consider with tomatoes is calcium uptake. Certain tomato varieties are very demanding of calcium and Cape Breton soils are generally low in this mineral. The result can be what is called blossom end rot, a condition where the bottom of the tomato seems to be sunken and is watery and not at all appetizing. This is a direct result of calcium deficiency. If you notice this, fertilize the plants with calcium. It is very often hybrid tomatoes (of all types) that need special attention. Beefsteak tomatoes are particularly susceptible to blossom end rot; one reason I don’t grow a lot of this variety.

You don’t need a cow to get calcium to your tomatoes. Use eggshells or bone meal, or even ground oyster shells. There are liquid calcium concentrates you can buy if you think your plants need an immediate boost, but it is still early enough in the season to work some shells or bone meal into the soil around the plants. Do it before watering, or before a forecasted rain.

Other than calcium, you don’t want to fertilize your tomato plants. They will love you if you do, but it is as if they are thinking, “Life is so wonderful here I don’t need to set fruit to reproduce. I am going to live forever so I can just grow lots and lots of foliage and relax!” This is clearly not what you want.

There is one pruning activity that might be a good idea, if you have fruit trees, especially since it will distract you and allow your tomato plants to grow lots of leaves and fruit. If you notice that your tree seems to have an overabundance of small fruit, particularly smaller trees, pluck some of it off so that the remaining ones will grow bigger. Some trees drop excess fruit because they are sensible, but you can help them if you choose. If you think about it, this kind of pruning has the same result as with tomato: less but bigger fruit. In the case of a young fruit tree, though, you will be achieving a valuable result.

If you haven’t noticed, it is also time to be hilling up your potato plants, because potatoes will form all along the buried stem. Every time your potatoes get to be a foot high, mound them up so that only six inches is above the soil. This will also prevent your potatoes from getting sun scald, which is when they turn green just below the skin.

If you didn’t plan well and don’t have extra soil around, you could use eel grass or other seaweed. It might be a good idea to turn a hose on the seaweed to wash some of the salt off, or just leave it out under the rain before applying it directly to the potatoes. Some people have experimented with straw but you really have to completely cut the light from the sun to the tubers. The best way to do this is with soil, but seaweed will do.

If, after all of these tasks, you still find yourself with time to spare, you can always weed.

Or make yourself a nice big salad and relax.

Featured image: Tomato plant by Edukeralam (Navaneeth Krishnan S), CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.