Now and then, even the most experienced gardeners cut the top off a tomato plant, thinking it’s a sucker. Other times, the top breaks off due to bad weather, rough handling, and improper trellising. That raises the question, can a tomato plant survive after cutting the top off?
A tomato plant can survive after cutting the top off. Even if you cut a large part of the top, the plant will direct its energy to another sucker and make it the main stem. However, that depends on whether the tomato plant is determinate or indeterminate.
If your tomato plant has grown too tall or you’ve accidentally broken the top off, come along as I discuss what you can do to salvage the situation.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomato Plants
There are two kinds of tomato plants: indeterminate and determinate. These varieties respond differently to topping.
Determinate Tomato Plants Don’t Need Any Pruning
Determinate tomato plants are bushy and don’t require any pruning throughout their lifetime. The plants don’t grow past 3 or 4 feet (0.91 or 1.22 m) tall, and the fruits all ripen within a 2–3 week period. Pruning the suckers or topping determinate tomato plants will harm them and affect your harvest.
If you cut the top off a determinate tomato plant, it’ll use its energy to ripen the mature tomatoes and then start withering.
Examples of determinate tomatoes include:
Indeterminate Tomato Plants Never Stop Growing
On the other hand, indeterminate tomato plants grow to an unlimited height and continue to produce stems all over, weakening the plant. For this reason, this type of tomato plant needs to be pruned regularly and topped to stop it from growing too tall.
Cutting the top of an indeterminate plant makes it thrive even more.
Examples of indeterminate tomatoes include:
- Most Cherry-types
Benefits of Topping a Tomato Plant
For the beginners in tomato farming, cutting the top off a plant is also known as ‘topping,’ so that’s what I’ll refer to it going forward.
Before you cut the top off a tomato plant, make sure you know whether it’s a determinate or an indeterminate plant. There are many benefits to cutting the top off intentionally if it’s the latter.
The Tomato Plant Will Grow Fuller and Stronger
The first benefit of topping a tomato plant is strength. When you cut the top off, you allow the plant to redirect its energy to producing fuller stems and grow stronger instead of taller. Like cutting down a tomato plant to the ground, the regrowth is stronger and better than the original plant.
Sometimes, people top tomato plants if the vines look heat-stressed or straggly. Cutting off the vines and the entire top will give way to a new growth that’ll be healthier and more vigorous.
Speaking of strength, stopping a tomato plant from growing too tall means it’ll be harder to break.
You’ll Get Larger and Sweeter Fruits
Again, topping the plant redirects the energy to things that matter, like producing more and larger tomatoes. The side branches produced will thrive and produce more harvest for you.
Experienced farmers also claim that topping makes the tomatoes sweeter because all the sugar is directed to them.
It’s Easier To Stake Topped Plants
If you’ve ever tried to stake a tall tomato plant, you know what a hustle it can be. Cutting the top off makes this process easy. After all, where will you find a stake long enough to accommodate the magic tomato stalk?
And because the plant is shorter, it can withstand wind and other elements better than a tall plant.
Topping Helps Tomatoes Ripen Faster
If winter is coming and some of your tomatoes are still tiny or unripened, the best way to speed the process is to top off the plant.
When you cut off the plant’s top stalk, it sends all its energy to ripen the fruits instead of growing new foliage or height. Be careful, however, that you don’t do this too close to winter because a fresh wound is a great entryway for diseases that come with winter.
What To Do After Cutting the Top Off a Tomato Plant
So, now you know about the benefits of topping tomato plants. But whether you’ve intentionally or accidentally cut the top of your plants, there are some things you need to do to make the most of your topping. These are:
- Determine what the new main stem will be.
- Embark on a stress recovery process.
- Don’t waste the toppings.
Show the Plant What the Main Stem Is
One of the most important steps after topping is to show the plant which the new main stem is. Ideally, you should prune a tomato plant to have several stems growing with it as it grows taller. In the event that the main stem is cut off or broken, one of those stems will take over and become the main stem.
Interestingly, because the stems grow facing sideways instead of upwards, your plant will stop growing vertically, and that’s why topping an indeterminate plant is so important. You can stake this new branch and redirect it where you want.
Here’s a YouTube video that practically demonstrates this point:
Embark on a Stress Recovery Process
If a big part of the stem broke off, your tomato plant might go into shock for a while. It’ll present as drooping branches, rolled leaves, and an abrupt stop to fruit production or growth.
All isn’t lost, though. You can help the plant recover by adding high-nitrogen fertilizer made for tomatoes. Adding Epsom salts at a rate of 1 tablespoon (15 g) of salt per plant will also help.
However, the secret is hydration. Water the soil generously after fertilizing and keep the roots moist at all times. When the stems and leaves stand upright again, you can taper off the watering and return to regular care.
Don’t Waste the Toppings
When asked why they don’t like topping tomato plants, most people said they find it wasteful. That’s because topping tomato plants means wasting a perfectly good part of the plant—furthermore, the good part usually has tomatoes and flowers on it.
You don’t have to worry about wastage, though. Instead of throwing away the top, you can plant it in your garden as a new plant. Keep the soil moist, fertilize and give it time to grow some roots and become a plant.
Some tomatoes and flowers may wither and die during this process, but some will survive especially the almost mature ones.
Alternatively, you can put the cutting in a container. Add some soil, water, and fertilizer to a container and plant your cutting. You can keep this or give it to a friend who’d like to do backyard gardening.
How To Top a Tomato Plant
If you’re going to top off your tomato plant, it’s important to know how to do it right. You can’t just pick a point on the main stem and cut it. Doing that can traumatize your plant, requiring you to take stress recovery measures.
Let’s go through this simple guide on how to top off your tomato plant properly.
Cut the Plant Where It Grows Past the Support System
Wait until the tomato plant has reached the top of your stake or cage. You can then cut the part that’s surpassing the stake using shears.
Cut a ¼ inch (0.64 cm) above a side shoot, so you have something to stand in as the new stem.
Alternatively, you can check where the fruits are and cut above that. However, if you use this method, know that tomatoes need foliage to protect them from the sun and other elements. That means you must leave some leaves or branches above them.
Consider the Weather
Count 21 to 30 days backward from the first frost date to determine whether you should snap off that stem. Tomatoes stop growing or producing during the cold weather; they also become more prone to diseases.
Moreover, that wound you leave behind after cutting is the perfect entryway to diseases, so you should ensure it heals before frost checks in.
As for the suckers you’ll plant on the ground/pot, give them 2 to 3 months to grow roots and become mature enough to withstand the cold. Otherwise, the cold will destroy any hope of becoming new plants.
Support the New Stem
It’s important to remember that the new stem isn’t as strong as the main stem was. Therefore, you need to support it well until it becomes strong enough.
It’s even more critical when your plant has fruits that weigh the stem down. Staking is one of the ways you can support the new stem.
Cut the Top Weekly
Topping a tomato plant can help it thrive more than ever if done properly. Know also that it’s not a one-time thing, and you have to keep doing it to see results and stop the plant from getting too tall.
A rule of thumb is to cut the top every week because it’ll keep shooting. You want to stop this as soon as it happens so the plant can send energy to the lateral stems and not back to the top.
Also, you have to keep pruning the diseased leaves on the lower parts of the plant and pruning all those unwanted branches shooting on the stem.
As discussed, a tomato plant won’t only survive after cutting off the top but will also thrive. Professionals recommend you do this often, but only if dealing with indeterminate tomatoes.
But whether you’ve topped your tomato plant intentionally or by accident, the trick is to keep a close eye on the plant and make sure it’s getting enough water, sunlight, and nutrients to recover.
Keep an eye on any discolored leaves and pests that may attack your plant and take care of them immediately.