Topping a tomato plant – why do it? And what is topping a tomato plant anyway? Sit back, relax and read the how and the why of topping your tomatoes. Then, you can see a video on how to top, and a surprise I had for a plant.
Topping a Tomato Plant — What is It?
Quite literally it’s taking off the growing point…which usually happens to be at the top of the plant. Depending on how you prune it (or not), your tomato plant can have more than one growing point. If you have pruned your plant to just one stem, you only have to take off one growing point.
However, if your tomato plant has more than one stem, you will have more than one growth point. You can choose to top just the tallest, top them all, or anything in between.
Important: You only want to top an indeterminate tomato plant; do not top a determinate — you will sacrifice a lot of your tomatoes if you do it.
Check this post where I talk about the difference between indeterminate and determinate tomatoes.
Why Top a Tomato Plant?
OK, so why would you want to top your plant? There are a few reasons to do it.
Stop the upward growth. Sometimes you have a plant that just keep growing taller and taller, to the point of being unmanageable. If you top the plant, it won’t grow any taller (although it might grow wider).
Ripen existing tomatoes faster. If the tomato isn’t focusing on growing taller, it can direct that energy towards ripening existing fruit. This can be especially useful towards the end of the growing season, when the threat of frost is getting near and your fruit isn’t close enough to ripe yet.
Rejuvenate a stressed tomato plant. I discovered that topping a tomato plant can help to rejuvenate a plant that got too stressed and looks sad. Now I’m not talking about a diseased plant, but one that has been environmentally stressed (too much or too little sun/water/fertilizer/heat). The tomato plant won’t grow upwards from where you topped it, but it can develop suckers lower down that are healthier. That is, assuming you’ve addressed what was stressing your plant.
Encourage larger tomatoes. This one is kind of controversial; some people say it doesn’t help but others swear by it. The idea behind it is if you top the plant, it’s going to direct its energy towards the fruit. If it’s around the middle of your season, the existing tomatoes (and any that are still forming from flowers) have the chance to grow larger than they normally would grow.
A Topping Surprise
I also had something interesting happen to a stressed plant. It had a truss with two tomatoes and what looked like some aborted flowers. The plant was looking so scrawny that I wanted to give it a chance to ripen the two tomatoes it had. Now mind you, the two fruits it had on the truss had been growing (slowly) for a couple of weeks, and it was just the two ‘maters. It was still pretty early in the season so I figured I had nothing to lose.
I topped the plant and waited to see what would happen. I also took off most of the stressed branches except for two or three (for future comparison).
Within a few days, there were new suckers forming lower down on the plant which looked healthier. The following week brought me a huge surprise.
The truss with just the two tomatoes (and what looked like aborted blossoms) had new tomatoes forming! Where once there were two, there were now five! I totally had not expected that to happen.
How to Top a Tomato Plant – Video
In this video I’ll show you how to top your tomato plant. I’ll also show you a “before” and “after” of my topped tomato plant which gave me some surprise tomatoes. I hope you enjoy it! You can also check out my YouTube channel for more garden videos.
Annual Versus Perennial
First, let’s quickly review what perennial means, as well as what annual means, when it comes to plants.
- Annuals are those plants which live for a season. A season can be a couple of months, or perhaps up to 8 or so months. It refers to how long your growing season is, and what kind of weather your plants prefer.
- Perennials are plants which live for more than one season. If they appear to die due to (for example) frost or excessive heat, they will come back on their own once their preferred weather returns.
That’s a high-level difference between annual and perennial plants. Now let’s talk tomatoes.
Are Tomatoes Perennial?
Sadly, tomato plants are annuals. Now, that isn’t to say they can’t have a really long growing season, if they have the right environment. And if grown in a perfect environment (like a special greenhouse), it’s possible that some indeterminate tomatoes can last a year or more.
This applies more to cherry tomatoes, though, than tomatoes with larger fruits. Cherry tomato varieties are especially known for being vigorous growers and producing lots of fruits over a longer season.
Growing Indeterminate Tomato Plants as a Perennial
OK, so let’s say you have a pretty perfect environment. Not too hot, not too cold, humidity just right, plenty of sun. Plus, not exposed to tomato plant diseases and with few or no insects that love to munch on tomato plants. Oh, and plenty of room, because indeterminate tomato plants can get mighty big.
(Now you see the dilemma.)
It seems like the best environment would be a greenhouse or in an enclosed sunroom. Tomatoes like their warmth, but they don’t like high temperatures. And they don’t care for cool weather, at least not during the day. They do like moderate humidity, and good air circulation. Plus — 6 to 8 hours of direct sunshine per day, or the equivalent in bright grow lights.
If you can also control exposure to tomato diseases (many of which have to do with soil and wind-borne contaminants), and regularly patrol for tomato-loving insects, you’ve gone a long way to giving your tomato plant a longer life.
Now, let’s talk about the tomatoes themselves — because why grow the plants if you don’t plan to eat the tomatoes!
How Tomatoes Fruit on the Plant
Tomatoes set fruit starting with lower branches, and proceed upwards on the plant. Once a branch has set fruit, it’s not going to flower again once the fruit has been picked. And this means that your plant needs to grow taller in order to continue setting fruit. Alternately, it will need to bush out to continue fruiting.
If you plan to grow your tomato plants indoors under grow lights, they will need to have good light all over the plants as it grows taller and/or wider. This may mean multiple grow lights.
Growing Tomato Plants
By now you can tell that the answer to the question of “are tomatoes perennial” is that they are best grown as the annual that they are. If you plan to try to grow a tomato plant as a perennial, though, your best bet is with an indeterminate cherry tomato plant variety.
I don’t know about you, but insects seem to love my tomato plants. Some seasons the insects aren’t too bad – mainly a few tomato hornworms here and there. Other seasons make me think that a biblical plague has descended upon my garden!
I do try to garden without using insecticides as much as possible, but sometimes I have to throw in the towel and reach for my sprayer. I thought I’d share an “Insecticide 101” post with you. 🙂
Insecticides – What Are They?
It may seem kind of obvious, but these exist to hopefully get rid of the bad bugs (i.e. the ones that want to eat your veggies) and leave the good ones (the ones that pollinate and that eat the bad bugs). They can do it by any of several methods:
- Contact: Some pesticides kill on contact, so when the bugs get sprayed or walk onto it — bye-bye! This generally works on the insect’s nervous system.
- Mechanical: These are the ones that scratch the bug’s outer casing and thereby cause it to dehydrate. This also includes things like sticky traps.
- Ingestion: When the pest chomps on the plant where the insecticide is spread, it ingests it. The bug doesn’t die immediately, but rather within a day or two.
- Reproductive: This doesn’t necessarily kill the insect, but rather interrupts the reproductive cycle so that the they can’t multiply.
There are others, but the above are the main categories.
Organic Versus Chemical Pesticides
First, when you get down to it, everything is a chemical. However, for the purpose of this post, “chemical” refers to synthetic chemical pesticides. These are typically created in a lab, as opposed to existing in nature “as is”. Examples are things like DDT, organophosphates, parathion and chlorinated hydrocarbons.
Organic refers to those insecticides that are extracts of naturally occurring ingredients. Examples include pyrethrum, rotenone, neem and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
****Very Important: Whether synthetic or organic, by their nature the vast majority of what we consider insecticides/pesticides are toxic, in varying degrees, to people and pets. Always, always, always read and follow the instructions on the label of whatever you purchase.
There are some like diatomaceous earth which are safe to ingest (if you get the food-grade version) and to use around pets, but by and large, treat all insecticides carefully.
I am the first to admit — when it comes to the fire ants that invade my garden, I do use synthetic pesticides — I’ve tried all kinds of organic versions, and they just don’t work. My only defense is to keep the fire ants as far away from my garden as possible, and to use as little synthetic pesticide as possible.
But when it comes to all other pests — my organic insecticides of choice are neem oil and Bt.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Unless you only have a specific kind of insect invader, you may need more than one type of pesticide at various points in the gardening season. For example:
- Rotenone is very effective on most types of beetles, but not as much on soft insects like caterpillars and worms. It is quite toxic to fish.
- Neem doesn’t kill directly, but is more of a repellent. It also works to inhibit insect eggs from hatching. Neem is one of the least toxic of the pesticides, but you should still use care when handling it. Interestingly, neem oil can also act as a mild fungicide.
- Pyrethrum is made from chrysanthemums, and it works by attacking the nervous system of insects. It also works as a repellant. It biodegrades quickly and is also among the least toxic to mammals and people – but quite toxic to fish.
- Bt is a bacteria that when ingested by insects, disrupts their digestive tracts. It’s typically used as a spray or a powder, and is most effective on soft-bodied insects — primarily worms and caterpillars that like to feast on your plants.
- Diatomaceous earth works mechanically, by abrading the insect’s exoskeleton. The bug then dies from dehydration. It also works as a flea powder around pets.
These aren’t the only organic insecticides that are out there, but they are the ones that you will come across most often in stores and online.
Which One Should You Use?
You should use what is best for your particular insect problem. You need to know your enemy (which bugs are bugging you), and then choose the insecticide that will be effective against those insects.
Also keep in mind that some insecticides are not made to be used around vegetable plants — they don’t biodegrade well, and you could potentially ingest their residue. Others are safe to use in a vegetable garden, up to the day of harvest. Once again, read the label and follow the instructions — don’t guess!
I hope this has been helpful to you. Now excuse me while I go check my tomatoes to make sure I haven’t had a caterpillar or hornworm invasion and need to get out the Bt!
There’s a lot going on these days with GMO versus non-GMO food. Some say GMO food is fine, some say it’s unhealthy and others don’t have an opinion either way. So what’s the scoop with GMO as it relates to tomatoes?
GMO – A Quick Summary
GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism”. It means that an organism has basically been artificially modified in some way, at a genetic level. In looking at Wikipedia, the definition is:
“A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques (i.e. genetically engineered organism).”
By this definition, genes can be moved around in an organism, but no genes from another organism are introduced. However, there is a specific kind of GMO called transgenetic, and it does involve splicing genes from something else. Again per Wikipedia:
“A more specifically defined type of GMO is a “Transgenic Organism”. This is an organism whose genetic makeup has been altered by the addition of genetic material from another, unrelated organism.”
In either case, genes are artificially changed in some way.
What Are Hybrids? Are They GMOs?
Hybrids are crosses between closely related plants or animals. For example, you may want a tomato that tastes like Pink Brandywine, but you want it to ripen much earlier and be only about 2 ounces in weight. To get this, you could cross a Pink Brandywine with an earlier and smaller-sized tomato. The seeds of that cross would have traits from both Pink Brandywine and the other tomato parent. (Note: This is a very simplistic explanation of hybridization; for more information see my post on tomato hybrids.)
Hybrids are not the same as GMOs. For example, you could not cross a Pink Brandywine tomato with a cayenne pepper and get a tomato that is spicy with capsaicin. Tomatoes and peppers are not closely enough related for them to cross with each other and create a hybrid.
You could, however, genetically engineer a tomato to be spicy by introducing a gene for capsaicin production — this would be classified as a GMO.
Are All GMOs Bad?
I don’t know that I can definitively answer that, but personally I would rather stay away from them in my food.
However, here is something to think about. An organism can, spontaneously mutate and change its genetic makeup. Or, if can be bred to display a specific trait, and during the process some other undesirable trait can be expressed.
An example of this is with modern wheat, which has been modified through selective breeding to have more genes than older varieties of wheat. Those extra genes are thought to be responsible for much of the gluten sensitivity that we see in today’s society. No labs were involved, just many years of selective breeding.
And yes, I do try to stay away from wheat in my food. I also stay away from grocery-store corn. Where I live in Florida, a lot of corn is grown for the food market. These days, it’s the GMO corn that makes it resistant to herbicides — i.e., the “Roundup Ready Corn”. There is also a corn that has the genetic material for the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacteria, which acts as an insecticide. I’m not exactly thrilled with the thought of eating an herbicide or pesticide that is impossible to wash off.
How do Tomatoes Fit In?
To the best of my knowledge, there are no GMO tomato varieties – yet. Grocery store tomatoes are safe in that respect — they just don’t taste very good. 😉
Hybrid tomatoes are not evil either; there are plenty of good ones out there. And in fact you can breed (i.e. hybridize) your own tomato variety if you wish. No labs, just testing various crosses between tomato parents until you get the traits you want. Which can take one growing season or many.
And by the way, non-GMO and organic do not mean the same thing. A tomato can be non-GMO but grown with chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides. So don’t assume tomato seeds that are listed as “non-GMO” are automatically organic.
Hopefully I’ve been able to help you understand GMOs a little better. You will have to make up your own mind, but for my part I’m glad that tomatoes are safe for the moment!
Lycopene and tomatoes – what’s the big deal, anyway? And for that matter…what is lycopene? Let’s talk about the tomato-lycopene connection, because there is a strong one.
What is Lycopene?
First, what exactly is lycopene? And did you know it was actually named after the humble tomato?
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant, high in beta-carotene. Its name comes from the tomato’s Latin name, Solanum lycopersicum. Probably because tomatoes are pretty much the best source of lycopene!
Although there hasn’t been enough research as yet, there appears to be a correlation between a higher lycopene intake and the reduced risk of cancer, particularly of the prostate and testes. Guys, eat your tomatoes!
Ladies, don’t feel left out — there’s also a correlation between lycopene and a reduced risk of breast cancer.
As an antioxidant, lycopene has been shown in lab testing to be 100 times more effective than vitamin E — wow! And since the kind of oxidant that’s targeted is produced by ultraviolet light, lycopene is essential for anti-aging skin care.
Have I given you enough reasons for eating lycopene? Now let’s talk about the tomatoes.
Lycopene and Tomatoes
As I mentioned earlier, lycopene takes its name from tomatoes themselves. Are there special tomatoes that are highest in lycopene? Yes and no.
All tomatoes have lycopene, but certain colors have the highest amounts. The winners are the tomatoes with deep red flesh (which includes pink tomatoes because they really do have red flesh — read the tomato colors post for more info).
The paler (and farther way from red) the tomato, the less lycopene is found. So the white tomatoes have the least naturally occurring lycopene amounts.
So, what are some of the tomatoes with the deepest red flesh? Some of the more easily found heirloom tomatoes include:
- Brandywine (the pink and red versions)
- Eva Purple Ball
- Mortgage Lifter
There are also some hybrids which were developed to have a high lycopene component:
- Health Kick
A word on the Tasti-Lee tomatoes — you can often find them in grocery stores, but I would not suggest those — they are gassed to ripen them, and it’s the vine-ripened version that has the high lycopene. Grow your own Tasti-Lee if you want the extra lycopene.
So there you go with the tomato-lycopene connection. So that leads to the question…
…how many tomatoes can you eat before you have too much lycopene — and what are the side effects?
The side effects tend to be skin-related, as your skin can take on a yellowish or orangeish hue. Not to worry, it goes away if you cut down on your tomato indulgences! And you have to eat a lot of tomatoes to get that far — perhaps the equivalent of a dozen large (1-lb+) tomatoes a day, over a long period of time. As much as I love to eat tomatoes (and lots of ‘em), even I can’t manage that many a day, continuously. There are only so many tomato sandwiches, soups, salsas, salads and pasta sauces I can eat on a daily basis.
So eat your tomatoes! Enjoy them and know that by eating them, you are doing something wonderful for your body’s health.
It’s really best that you grow your own tomatoes, and let them vine-ripen naturally. Tomatoes from the grocery store are almost always picked green, and then gassed to look ripe; as a result, their lycopene content is quite diminished. If you’re new to growing tomatoes, check out the tomato growing tips page — it’s fun and you can do it!