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Originally published June 6, 2013 at 5:30 AM | Page modified June 6, 2013 at 10:46 AM

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Q&A: Too much pruning spoils the tomato crop

Garden writer Ciscoe Morris answers questions about pruning tomatoes and ridding azaleas of ugly powdery mildew.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Hardy Fern Foundation Plant Sale/Fern Festival: Hundreds of species of ferns as well as other shade-loving plants, noon-6:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St., Seattle (253-838-4646 or Also: “Ferns and the Other Plants of Western China”: lecture by Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken of Far Reaches Farm, 7 p.m. Friday, at the center.

Sorticulture: Everett’s Garden Arts Festival & Plant Sale: Garden art, specialty nurseries, display gardens, speakers, music, food, wine garden, June 7-9. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Legion Memorial Park, Everett (425-257-7107 or

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In the Garden

Q: Is it really necessary to prune tomatoes?

A: The only kind of pruning you need to do on tomatoes is to remove those inevitable suckers that emerge from the branch unions.

If you let them grow, they become branches that crowd the plant, blocking light and air circulation. Eventually those branches form fruit, but the result can be too much of a good thing.

All of those extra tomatoes, competing for a limited amount of available nutrients, result in smaller, lower-quality fruit. You should remove the suckers starting from the day you plant your tomato by pinching them off with your fingers.

If you didn’t do it, it’s probably best to leave the ones that have already become branches; but keep removing new suckers as they appear to limit future branch growth.

Late in the season, don’t be fooled by the idea that you should prune the foliage to allow more sun to reach the fruit in an attempt to get the green ones to ripen. Tomatoes only need heat to ripen, and opening them up to direct sunlight when they aren’t used to it usually results in sunscald. It starts as a white blotch before turning hard and black.

The best way to get tomatoes to ripen around here is to plant varieties with smaller, quicker-ripening fruit. Having said that, in our climate, even if you only grow cherry tomatoes, it’s probably a good idea to keep your green-tomato recipes handy.

Q: Every year, the leaves of my deciduous azalea and a few of my other plants get infested with ugly powdery mildew. Is there anything I can do to prevent this?

A: Powdery mildew is a fungus that is aptly named because infected leaves look like they’re covered with powdered sugar. Deciduous azaleas growing in full sun are highly susceptible, as are a number of other plants, including some varieties of roses and apples, lilac, honeysuckle, phlox and squash.

Odd as it seems, the easiest way to prevent this fungus is to water adequately. Drought-stressed plants are much more susceptible to this disease. There are other factors, however, such as bad drainage, high humidity and poor air circulation, that can make plants susceptible even if you water perfectly.

The good news is that powdery mildew is the only fungus that lives on the outside of the leaves, and therefore can be controlled with sprays. Keep a close eye on your plants that typically get the disease, and at the first sign of infection, spray the leaves thoroughly with a mixture of 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 4 drops of dish detergent in a quart of water.

As long as you catch the mildew early, the solution will take care of the problem. If you water carefully, few, if any, follow-up sprays should be needed.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.

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About Ciscoe Morris

Ciscoe Morris' column runs Thursdays. His show "Gardening with Ciscoe" airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays on King 5.

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