Topping Tomato Plants (Why, When & How to Do It)

So you’ve been hearing about people topping tomato plants, but it seems like such a drastic measure, doesn’t it? When your tomato plant is large and prolific it can feel counterintuitive to prune it back at the height of the season.

Hear me out! Topping your tomato plants might be one of the best things that you do for it all season if you want to make the most of your harvest and preserve the health of your plants. 

However, it must be done properly and at the right time, otherwise, it can have the opposite effect. Let’s dive in!

Topping Tomato Plants at the end of the season with pruners

*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links to products (including Amazon). I’ll earn a small commission if you make a purchase through my link, at no additional cost to you! Regardless, I only link to products that I personally use on our homestead or believe in.

Topping Tomato Plants – Why Do It?

I get it. It seems a little scary to go hacking away at your tomato plant while it’s producing away. Let’s chat about why you should consider it as the season comes to a close so you can get excited about giving it a try!

#1: Ripen green tomatoes

If you’re growing in a short season like I am (zone 3, Minnesota), then you understand the race against time to get the harvest out before it freezes! Topping is a key strategy to getting all of those green tomatoes to ripen faster.

Removing the growing tips sends a signal to the tomato plant that it’s time to stop putting out new growth and instead, focus on ripening what’s left. 

A photo of tomatoes ripening at different times on the plant

This works especially well for determinate tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes will just keep on going, but topping them will help control their insane growth (see benefits #3 & #4!).

#2: Bigger tomatoes

In the topping process, you’ll remove the blooms and tiny tomatoes (more on this in a bit!). This allows the remaining tomatoes to grow larger and sweeter. This is because the plant can divert all of its last resources into these tomatoes!

#3: Plant Stability

When your plants are 6 feet tall and flopping over, topping them will help reduce some of that weight. They can get top-heavy in a hurry at the peak of the season, resulting in broken plants.

If you have any stems that are long enough to reach the ground, then you’ll definitely want to snip them back. Blight is a soil-borne disease that can wipe out your tomato plants in no time if the soil is splashing up on the leaves! 

A close up photo of blight on a tomato leaf

#4: Improved air circulation (less disease!)

Topping tomato plants at the end of the season (plus routine pruning throughout the season) is essential for overall plant health. See my videos on routine pruning for indeterminate and determinate tomatoes!

Tomato plants can get unruly in a hurry and dense vegetation can lead to fungal diseases. That’s because the foliage remains moist and is unable to dry out between rainfall or watering. 

A bonus of having more “breathing room” for your tomato plants is that it makes it easier for pollinators to access everything! This also allows for natural pollination from the wind moving the branches.

Are there cons to topping tomato plants?

Yes, there are a few negative consequences that can happen, especially if topping is done incorrectly. Make sure to keep reading so you know the right way to do it!

  • Limited growth and overall harvest if you do it too soon (especially for determinate varieties)
  • Stress to the plant if pruning is done too aggressively
  • Introduction of disease if your pruners aren’t cleaned properly
  • Time-consuming – it’s just one more thing to do in the busy canning season! I get it!

When to Top Tomato Plants

This is the biggest mistake that I see beginner gardeners make – not topping at the right time.

  • Top too early and your tomato harvest will end too soon
  • Top too late and your tomatoes won’t ripen in time before the freeze

So when is the best time?

You should consider topping your tomato plants about 1 month before your expected first frost, especially for determinate varieties. In zone 3, my expected first frost date is September 23rd, so mid-late August is the perfect time for me.

Not sure when your first and late frost dates are? Simply enter your location using this Almanac Tool. Easy peasy! Make note of when your last frost date is as well – you’ll need this for planning your spring planting!

A row of roma tomatoes in the garden ready to be topped

As far as topping indeterminate tomatoes go, top them anytime they look like they need some taming. They’ll just keep on growing back! If you’re growing large, heritage varieties, the 1-month rule should help them ripen in time.

Step-by-Step Guide to Topping Tomato Plants

Now that we understand why and when to top tomato plants, let’s get to the fun part – how to do it!

Step 1: Tools and preparation

Grab your pruning shears and ensure that they are clean. A 10% bleach solution works best (1 part bleach to 9 parts water). You don’t want to be spreading disease to your tomatoes from whatever you were pruning last time. 

If you plan to propagate your tomato cuttings into new plants, also bring a jar or small bucket of water with you to keep them perky while you work. See the FAQ section to learn how to do this!

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Step 2: Identify and snip

Now, head out to the garden and study your tomato plant. Locate the central stem and then work upwards until you’ve identified the highest set of fruit that you want to keep.

The best ones are tomatoes that are green but large in size, or have already started to turn in color (see photo below). These will likely ripen in time!

A close up view of large tomatoes that are just starting to turn color

Any tomato flowers or tiny green tomatoes that are rock-hard aren’t worth saving. They likely won’t make it.

Once you’ve identified your “savers,” then snip above that point leaving a little bit of foliage above to prevent sunscald. Tomato plants like sunshine, but the fruit does not!

Snipping off the growing tip of a tomato plant

Step 3: Remove small flowers and fruit

Now, look further down on the plant and if you find any other flowers or tiny, hard-as-a-rock green tomatoes, remove those as well. These won’t ripen in time before that freeze! They are just a waste of the plant’s energy at this point.

A small green tomato and tomato flowers to be pruned off

FAQ About Topping Tomato Plants

What can I do with the tomato clippings?

You can actually create new tomato plants with these clippings! Simply throw them into a glass of water or a soil medium for a week or two, then they’ll be ready to be transplanted.

However, since it’s going to freeze in a month or so, it doesn’t make sense to transplant these outdoors. Instead, plant them in grow bags so you can bring them indoors when the weather turns.

Should other plants be topped as well?

Pepper plants can be topped at the beginning of the season for overall higher yields, stable growth, and to reduce shading of surrounding plants. 

However, it’s not a good idea for everyone or every kind of pepper plant! Check out my article: Topping Pepper Plants – Should You Do It? to learn more about it!

Other Gardening Articles You’ll Love:

Final Thoughts

Topping your tomato plants might sound intimidating, but it’s a gardening trick that can make a big difference. Think of it as giving your plants a little haircut for a big reward. By snipping off the growing tips, you’re telling the plant to put its energy into the remaining tomatoes instead of just growing taller.

Remember, timing matters, and don’t go overboard – a gentle touch is best. With these tips, you’re all set to see your tomato garden explode with juicy, tasty tomatoes. Enjoy!

*Are you interested in starting a garden, but you’re overwhelmed with where to start? Or maybe you’ve tried a garden in the past, but it flopped? Definitely check out my course How to Plan a Garden: Step-By-Step! Don’t forget my discount code “GARDEN” for 10% off!

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*Information in this article was referenced from personal experience and/or from my favorite gardening book: The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, unless otherwise noted.

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