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6 Vegetables You Need to Prune in the Summer for Big Yields

Don’t you wish the title of this article was “6 Vegetables You Can Plant and Forget About All Summer that Will Still Produce Tons of Food?” Yeah, me too.

But if you want big yields, many vegetables need a helping hand to encourage more fruit development. With a little extra attention on your part, these vegetables will thank you with bigger yields all summer long.

Plants Prefer to Grow the Parts We Don’t Eat

Overgrown tomato plants.
Left to their own devices, most vegetables will be all stems and leaves with fewer fruit.

Nearly all the vegetables we plant in our gardens today still have wild ancestors growing somewhere on the planet. And I can assure you, their native cousins look very different from what we grow and eat. Things like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are more apt to be crawling along the ground and vining up other plants.

Their fruit is almost unrecognizable from what’s hanging out in our garden, too. It’s often much smaller, tiny in comparison. These tiny fruits are less sweet, and some are even quite bitter, like wild cucumber.

That’s because plants growing in their native state are all focused on one thing – making more of themselves.

And the best way to do that is to grow far and wide. In this manner, more animals will eat the fruit and carry the seeds elsewhere through their waste or the fruits will rot on the vine and fall to the ground, where the seeds will grow into a new plant.

Unfortunately for us, even after thousands of years of cultivating them, our garden-dwelling residents still retain that evolutionary goal to grow far and wide. This means if we don’t rein them in, our plants will spend all of their energy growing the parts we don’t eat.

What’s the Point of Pruning

We prune plants in different ways to achieve specific goals – create new growth or fruit, and prevent disease. By removing specific parts of the plant, we cause the plant to send out chemical messengers which tell it where to put its energy and nutrients.

For instance, you may prune a basil plant to prevent it from making flowers, so it will grow bushier, giving you more leaves. On the other hand, you may prune your tomatoes to encourage more flowers, giving you more fruit.

Sometimes we prune to open up dense growth, allowing light and air to penetrate deeper into the plant canopy. Good airflow can prevent pest and disease issues, and light often hastens ripening.

In either case, cutting different parts of the plant gives us the desired result – plenty of basil and tomatoes for caprese salads all summer.

Let’s look at six vegetables you’re probably growing that need to be pruned this summer.

1. Tomatoes

Indeterminate tomato growing in a garden

Whether or not your tomatoes need pruning depends on the type you’re growing. Determinate, or bush varieties need very little pruning, if any. In fact, pruning determinate tomatoes can sometimes affect how much fruit you end up with.

On the other hand, if you’re growing indeterminate tomatoes, they need to be pruned and shaped regularly to encourage fruit production and prevent them from taking over your garden. How you’re growing them will determine how you prune them. For instance, espaliered tomatoes or tomatoes grown up a string have different pruning requirements than staked or caged tomatoes.

Cutting diagram for espaliered tomatoes

Believe it or not, the practice of pruning suckers from tomato plants isn’t always the best pruning method. To learn how to prune tomatoes correctly to encourage plenty of fruit and prevent them from being overgrown, click here.

2. Cucumbers

Whether you grow your cucumbers on the ground or trellis them and grow them vertically, you’ll end up with healthier plants and more cukes if you prune them.

Cucumbers are kind of cool in that the way they grow is the same few steps repeated over and over again as the plant grows longer (or taller if you’re growing vertically). And it goes like this: 4-6” of main stem growth, then it will grow a node with four new things – a stem with a leaf, a tendril, a fruit and a growth point at the crotch (like a sucker on a tomato). Then the process starts over again with another 4-6” of growth along the main stem.

Photo with parts of a cucumber vine labeled, new leaf, fruit, tendril, growth point and main stem.

If you’re growing cucumbers vertically, the best thing to do is pinch off that growth point from the crotch of each node. This will encourage the plant to keep growing up and produce more fruit.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that those growth points, given enough time, will grow just like the main stem, producing fruit the same way. If you have the room and you’re letting your cucumbers sprawl on the ground, you may not want to pinch off all the growth points, especially early on in the season.

But since most of us don’t have acres and acres to let cucumbers grow where they will, pinching off those growth points will give us more fruit with a healthier plant. And if you are letting your cucumbers sprawl, you’ll want to pinch off growth points as the season winds down to force the plant’s energy into ripening any fruit already growing.

3. Peppers

Hand holding pruning shears, pruning a pepper plant

Many gardeners tend to overlook peppers when pruning vegetables. Most are compact enough not to make a nuisance of themselves by growing into unwanted territory. However, the benefit lies elsewhere when it comes to pruning peppers.

More, more, more!

Hand holding a hot pepper

Rather than planting more pepper plants, learn how to prune them correctly to double your harvest from each plant. If you’re a heat-lover, then you’ll definitely want to prune your hot peppers. Hot peppers respond especially well to pruning, generating lots of new buds and tasty hot peppers.  

4. Zucchini and Summer Squash

Large zucchini plant

If you grow zucchini long enough, chances are you’ll peak between the leaves one day to be greeted by a giant club-sized squash you somehow overlooked in its infancy.

Most summer squash will continue to grow in length, producing more fruit all summer long. Because of their size, it’s a good idea to occasionally prune zucchini and similar summer squash to keep them in check.

Removing some leaves to allow for better airflow is a good idea too, and makes it less likely you’ll find surprise monster zucchinis hiding beneath their canopy.

If you really want an impressive yield and more space in your garden, check out how to prune and stake zucchini and summer squash.

Staking a zucchini plant

5. Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Growing pumpkins and other winter squash, like butternut, always seems like a good idea when you plant them. But come August, you might wonder if it was such a good idea. These larger squash varieties are known to sprawl.

Pumpkin plant growing in a garden

And if they grow too densely, powdery mildew and other diseases brought on by moist conditions can be a problem.

Squash leaves covered in powdery mildew

But they’re easily brought under control. With judicious pruning, not only can you grow these big cucurbits in smaller gardens, but you can encourage them to produce more squash rather than more vines. You’ll want to read my detailed pruning guide for taming pumpkins and winter squash.

6. Herbs

If you’re used to growing tall, leggy herbs, it’s time to grab your gardening shears. Many herbs, such as basil, sage, lemon balm, mint and oregano, can and should be pruned to encourage bushier growth. If the leaves of the herb are used, then you also want to prune them to keep them from flowering. Flavor changes, and growth slows significantly when herbs are allowed to flower. Obviously, for herbs such as chamomile, you want to encourage flowers.

For most of these, pruning is as simple as cutting the top growth of each stem back to just above two leaves. New growth will appear on either side of the leaves, creating two new stems from one.

Photo showing a woman's hands holding lemon balm with an arrow pointing to where to prune herbs.

I know it sounds like a big list and a lot of work, but if you remember to grab your shears and take them out to the garden with you once a week, it’s not such a daunting task. Most plants only need a snip here and there when pruned weekly.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,