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An Easy Guide to Pruning Early Girl Tomato Plants

As you might know, Early Girls are a special type of tomato. They fruit about one week sooner than most other tomato varieties (around the 50-day mark). Being an indeterminate variety, they also fruit until frost, which makes them a gardener’s favorite. But they don’t come without threat. Disease, sunscald, and small fruit can develop without proper care.

The good news is that these conditions are easily preventable by pruning. The bad news is that there’s a whole lot of pruning information out there.

When I started pruning my Early Girl, I was pretty confused and it took some time to know what, when, and how to prune. If you’re new to tomatoes, maybe you’re experiencing the same thing.

You can prune early girl tomatoes by first identifying the suckers and branches. Prune all of the suckers and most of the branches, leaving just enough of the upper branches to effectively capture sunlight and provide shade to the fruits. Prune the flowers if your tomato plant is still small and needs to grow more.

To help you quickly get comfortable pruning your Early Girl tomatoes, I put together this easy guide. Let’s jump in.

What is pruning?

pinching a branch from my Early Girl tomato plant to prune it

Pruning is the act of trimming excess growth to limit disease. It also trains the plant to focus on developing its fruit instead of growing branches. You can start pruning when the first flowers have come in (at this point, it’s also a good idea to support the plant with a stake or tomato cage).

Steps to prune Early Girl tomato plants

the unripe tomatoes growing on my Early Girl

There are two types of tomato plants. Indeterminate and determinate. Indeterminate plants are essentially vines that can grow to 8 feet tall, while determinate are bushes that don’t need much maintenance (like pruning).

Since Early Girl is an indeterminate plant, it’s a good practice to prune it.

To get started pruning your Early Girl tomato plant, use these 3 quick steps:

  1. Identify the branches and suckers
  2. Pinch the small suckers or use clean pruning shears for larger branches
  3. Discard into compost or soak the branches to grow more tomato plants

Identifying what to prune

some leaves will turn yellow and will need to be pruned

Here’s a quick overview of what to prune on Early Girl plants:

  • Yellowing or dead leaves/branches
  • New growth 1 foot from the ground (soil can introduce disease to the leaves touching it, causing the yellowing)
  • Some branches that grow above the flowers (but not too much to expose them too full sun)
  • “Suckers” growing in between the branch and the stem
  • Any flowering trusses above the first 5 (too many fruits can limit growth), or on a plant that’s not fully grown

Knowing what to prune was the most confusing part for me. I kept asking, “which stems do I prune?”, “what are suckers?”, and “why are some leaves turning yellow?”

If you have the same questions, well, let’s dive into the answers.

Which stems or branches to prune

flowers + fuzz = stem, so once you identify the branch, you can prune it

After I didn’t find clear answers, I went out to observe my own Early Girl plant (I know, it was a far journey to the backyard).

What I found is that the stem had flowering sprouts growing out of it, but many of the branches didn’t. These flowerless branches typically grew close to around 90º out of the stem.

When I looked closer, I saw the stems had lots of fuzz (also called trichomes), while the branches had surprisingly few.

The branch has a small amount of fuzz, while the stem has plenty and a flower cluster
The branch (left) with a little fuzz, while the stem (right) has plenty and a flower cluster

I’m not a professional, but if I had to guess, based on the amount of fuzz, it looks like the stem was receiving a lot of the energy and growth, while the branches received less.

With a bit more research, I found that this was likely the case. The plant was focusing on fruit and new growth, but many of the branches were still hindering its energy.

So, the nearly fuzzless branches were, in fact, the ones to prune.*

*Don’t go crazy on the pruning, the tomatoes still need some shade to prevent sunscalding.

What are suckers?

a sucker growing in-between the stem and a branch

Tomato suckers are the small sprouts growing in-between the main stem (also called the terminal stem) and the branches. They will form their own branch, flowers, and fruit eventually.

But to keep the tomato plant’s energy and sugars focused on healthy, plump fruit, it’s a good practice to pinch or prune these suckers off.

When to prune Early Girl tomato plants

pruning the first flowers off of my tomato plant
The first flowers have come in, but I’m pruning them to help the plant focus on growing larger first

Two main rules here. You should prune your Early Girl if:

  1. The first flowers have come in
  2. You prune no more than one to two times per week

Before you get chop crazy, there are reasons why these two are important.

For one, you want your Early Girl to be mature enough to flower. This is a good indicator the plant can support itself and fend off disease (pruning can open the plant up for infection).

And two, you want to limit the amount of pruning in a week to give the tomato plant a chance to recover and heal its wounds.

As far as the time of day, there are some that say pruning in the morning is better because the plant is less likely to succumb to infection. But I’ve found success doing it mid-day, so when you prune is up to you.

When to “top” your Early Girl

You might have heard about topping your Early Girl. With it being an indeterminate tomato plant, it can get pretty high, maxing out at 12 feet.

Normally, it’s a good idea to top the Early Girl’s stem if it’s either getting too high (and producing more fruit trusses than it can handle) or if frost is coming.

This encourages the last fruit growth to mature before the frost, instead of using energy to grow taller.

For more information about tomato plants and their height, make sure to check out my recent post: Tomato Plant Heights: How Tall Will Your Tomato Plant Get?.

Pruning for multiple Early Girls (spacing)

If you’re planning on having multiple Early Girl tomato plants near each other, you might want to set each stem slightly apart.

Some of the branches and growth can interfere and entangle others, so there’s a strong focus on stem growth over branch growth here (vertical over horizontal).

In general, if you’re using stakes to hold the plants up, good spacing is 1.5-2′ (45-61 cm). For tomato cages, 3′ (91cm) works best.

Are Early Girl tomatoes determinate or indeterminate?

Early Girl tomato plants are most often indeterminate, meaning they will keep growing until they are killed—usually by frost. While less common, there are some Early Girls that are determinate, or have an expected lifespan. To confirm which type you have, contact the nursery you purchased it from.

Early Girls have to be my favorite tomato plant to grow. Well, it’s actually my only indeterminate variety (at least until my Carmello matures). But besides winning by default, it has been a ton of fun to grow and learn how to prune this fast-growing beauty.

Hopefully, this post has been helpful to you and I look forward to taking what I’ve learned about pruning over to my other plants that could use it.

my Early Girl pruned branches in a mason jar with water
I’ll let some of the cuttings grow roots so we can have more Early Girls coming soon