SD farmer / poet Linda M. Hasselstrom shares some gardening tips on when and how to prune tomatoes – The South Dakota Standard


(Editor’s note: I wrote this article in 2010 and I published it on my blog and on my website, but it is even more true today than it was then. – Linda M. Hasselstrom)

Marigolds bloom; wasps sip water from dogs; temperatures are breaking records: nature tells me it’s time to prune the tomatoes.

Fifty years as a gardener have taught me to respect the demands of nature. My mouth is watering, anticipating the tomato flavor that each flower could become – but I am resolved. I tear off a stalk with a dozen yellow star-shaped flowers. Inhaling the peppery scent, I cut off branches without green fruit larger than my thumb.

The branches are the energy transport corridors of the plant. The distance forces the plant to work harder to send nutrients to flowers far away from the main stem. Each centimeter increases the energy required for the tomato to turn a flower into fruit. Removing the most flowers that hang from the ends of the slender stems focuses the plant’s energy, keeping it focused on the ripening of the larger fruits.

I imagine the fatter tomato stems as highways, leading to narrower tributary roads, narrowing down to dirt and gravel paths where signs say “Ranchettes for sale”. The descent of a highway is facilitated by the golden arches of the trade. Fast food, fast gas, fast spending and fast satisfactions distract us from traffic and noise. But you can’t grow tomatoes on asphalt.

Just as the tomato plant works harder to ripen distant fruit, every mile increases the expense of supporting a rural community. We pay all of these expenses. Every other citizen, no matter where we live, is taxed by groups living far from the center where the energy is produced.

I have already eaten three tomatoes, cynically calculating their cost at around eight dollars each. Proper pruning now will increase my delicious income and could make my investment worthwhile. Successful gardening is biting into the hot, sun-kissed flesh of an Early Girl as the juice runs down my arm.

Planting these tomatoes makes me responsible for understanding the natural behavior of the tomato and wisely controlling its desire to grow, so that it produces my food. Each cluster of flowers is luminous like a new subdivision, and each subdivision carries in each cell of its being the desire to grow, to become a city. The will is logical: transport costs are lower when they are shared; a city accumulates many needs which are less expensive to meet if everyone sticks together.

I sympathize with the tomato plants and with the inhabitants of the housing estates. Yet each flower uses resources that must support all of us. And that’s everyone’s business. If we are not all losing clean air, water and space, we must set our priorities and act on them.

The late summer sun bakes my shoulders, but as the sun sets tendrils of cold air lick my ankles. Sweat runs down my face, but I can feel the winter massing and mumbling beyond the northern horizon. Recalling old times, we celebrate the death of the Sun King and oscillate between hope and fear for the cold weather.

On my knees as the fragrant branches pile up around me, I come face to face with a warrior queen guarding my harvest: Argiope aruntia, the black and yellow spider that weaves orbs. As tall as my thumb, she creates large canvases with zigzag bands in the center.

Can I compare the prey of spiders – flies, grasshoppers, cutworms – to developers and real estate agents unable to understand the negative impacts of growth? Following their own instinct for survival, they head for the best fodder, the purest country air, the biggest tomato, gobbling up resources for their own use. Without control, they will feed their offspring today by cutting down a plant that could feed us all tomorrow. They chew and spit like me, but their black juice can ruin the gardener’s job.

Depending on their nature, developers are driven by the desire for expansion, often honestly believing that the bigger the better. Ed Abbey called growth “the ideology of the cancer cell”, and meant that the rest of us must control it. Thus, the instinct of the spider to wrap its prey in silk and hang them on its web for future meals is natural and necessary.

Working delicately around the cobwebs, I fantasize about a giant orb weaver to patrol the plains, a master gardener to prune reckless shoots. If left to follow its instincts, each subdivision will require more resources than it can produce. Water from declining reservoirs evaporates onto lawns and exotic trees; taxpayers struggle to provide citizens with widely dispersed schools, police officers, garbage collection and fire protection.

We need spiders – laws and legislators to make sure the garden feeds us all, not just a few. Nature is trying – with wildfires, floods, blizzards, and other natural tools – to control toxic growth, but it needs help if we are to have real communities. Each of us must be vigilant, wielding pruners – our vigilance and our ability to vote – in our own backyards.

Linda M. Hasselstrom writes poetry and non-fiction and holds writing retreats at her ranch in South Dakota. His 16th book is “Write Now, Here’s How – Insights from Six Decades of Writing”. You can reach her at or


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