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Pruning Tomatoes – Should You Remove the Suckers?

Rob, a reader of TMG, wrote to me last week and asked if I pruned the suckers off my indeterminate tomato plants. He also wanted to know the reasoning behind removing or not removing the suckers.

Any gardener that reads gardening information is sure to come across this method which is touted as being the best way to get tomato plants to yield as much ripe fruit as possible: pruning the suckers from the plant.

The desire to get bigger, better, and more tomatoes is too much of a pull for most of us not to try it for ourselves at one time or other. And if that’s your goal with tomatoes, you’ll want to give a try no matter what the outcome has been in someone else’s garden.

A Beneficial Pruning for Both Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes

Once your tomato plant forms its first flower cluster, remove all suckers and leaves below that cluster.

Most gardening information recommends you do this on ALL tomatoes (determinate and indeterminate) to keep a sturdy central stem.

I do it to keep the bottom of the stems open to air and light. And of course it’s one of the best preventative measures for Early Blight since it removes leaves close to the ground that can be infected with the fungus (Alternaria solani), that causes Early Blight when it splashes on the leaves during a rain.

I’ll tell you another beneficial time to prune towards the end of the post.

Determinate or Indeterminate?

If you’re interested in this method of pruning tomato suckers, you first have to determine if the variety of tomato you’re growing is determinate or indeterminate.  This method of pruning suckers is only good for use on indeterminate varieties.

Determinate tomatoes are more compact and don’t grow as tall as indeterminate ones. (They’re sometimes called bush tomatoes.) Most importantly, all the crop of determinate tomatoes will ripen just about the same time over a period of 1 to 2 weeks. Then the plant is finished and dies.

Since these tomatoes have a predetermined number of stems that grow and bear fruit, removing any suckers above the first flower cluster will only cause you to lessen the amount of fruit the plant produces.

Indeterminate tomatoes are sometimes called vining tomatoes. They can easily grow 6 to 12 feet or more in a season. They’ll continue to grow, bloom and set fruit until they’re killed by frost. (As I’m sure you have guessed, these are the tomatoes I love the best!)

What is a Sucker?

Suckers are tiny new branches sprouting in the “v” where a branch meets the stem.

What to Do

When suckers are tiny, just pinch them off when you see them. As quickly as tomatoes grow (and depending on how many plants you have), you can be doing this just about everyday of the growing season.

If you miss a few and they get the size of a pencil, keep in mind that you’ll have a good sized open wound if you cut the sucker. Disease can spread through open wounds on plants. So, no point inviting trouble.

That being stated however, I’ve cut things a lot thicker than a pencil on my plants and never had any trouble. But my garden is pretty healthy.

Anything Else?

It’s suggested that you leave no more than five fruit bearing branches to grow from the main stem above the first flower cluster.

Concept Behind Removing the Suckers and Leaving Only 5 Fruit Bearing Branches

The concept behind removal of suckers and only 5 fruit bearing branches on indeterminate tomatoes is that it will allow the nutrients to go to the tomatoes rather than produce new branches (which, by the way, will also produce additional tomatoes). And supposedly the fruit that remains will be bigger, better, and with more nutrients.

Do I do this?

No.

Have I Done This?

Yes

Why I Don’t Do This Anymore

In short, the time and attention involved does not bring enough return on investment (ROI). I find it totally unnecessary to prune to obtain all the tomatoes I want.

What Happened When I Used This Method

As you know if you’ve been reading TMG for a while, I knew nothing about gardening when I started.  In spite of that, tomatoes were always one of my best crops. I’ve always harvested all the tomatoes I could possible want or use. There are few years that I’ve not had fresh tomatoes from July through December.

You also know that I have a lot of borders as well as a 2400 sq. ft. garden to tend. The way I’m able to get things done, is by doing only what is necessary to give me the results I want.

In spite of that, when I came across this method many years ago, the desire to get bigger, better, and more tomatoes was over whelming. I had to try.

I average 12 to 40 tomato plants in my garden each year. Pruning suckers on all those plants lasted about 2 weeks into the season, the first time I tried it.  The second time, it lasted about a week.  (I could have continued on just one plant to see what would happen, but didn’t.)

I don’t know what I thought I was doing to even try it, because I was already getting huge tomatoes if the variety I was growing produced huge tomatoes, medium tomatoes if the variety produced medium tomatoes, and small tomatoes on plants that gave small tomatoes.  And I harvested in abundance until well after frost in most years. How could I have wanted more?!

It took two tries for me to realize I was wasting a lot of valuable time to try to obtain something I already had.

Part of the tomatoes harvest before expected frost last October 28th.

Part of the tomato harvest before an expected frost last October 28th.

End of the Season Pruning

Towards the end of the season (for me that’s long about the end of September or the first of October) you might want to give the tomatoes already developing their best chance to finish maturing before frost.

Topping the plant will help direct all the energy towards the bigger fruit rather than also making new fruit that won’t have enough time to finish anyway. Just remove the top of the branches that are flowering and/or have small fruit on them.

I never even think to do this if the harvest has been as much as I can handle.  But the minute I see that I could use a few more tomatoes, this end of the season pruning comes to mind.

Final Thoughts

You might want to try this method, but before you do – weigh out the benefit and the draw backs.

Every task you make for yourself takes more time.  If you have the time, great! Go for it!  If you don’t need another task and your garden is healthy, I think you’ll be just fine letting the tomatoes take care of themselves.

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Related Posts

Tomatoes – Are They More Delicious When Vine Ripened?

How to Keep Tomatoes Through December for Eating Fresh

Tomatoes – Early Blight, Varieties, Changing Some Things

More About Storing Tomatoes

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Organic Gardening is easy, efficient and effective.  And it’s much more healthful.

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11 comments to Pruning Tomatoes – Should You Remove the Suckers?

  • I have done this in the past only to grow more tomatoes. You can take these suckers and put them in a water and they will grow roots. Once established you can plant for late tomatoes. I read once that another gardener takes these suckers off at the end of the growing season and roots them to plant as early in the spring as possible after bringing the new plants inside for the winter. I never tried that because of lack of space in my home but it is worth a try to someone who doesn’t mind plants in the way all winter.

  • Don Rutherford

    Theresa

    This is one of the most valuable articles as most people love tomatoes and most gardeners struggle with whether or not to prune a tomato plant or how.

    I read further in your article on keeping tomatoes into the winter by putting them in a box. Would a cardboard case that some soda pop comes in work?

    Also, most tomato lovers never refrigerate their tomatoes. I prefer mine cold, unless I am cutting them up for a sandwich or Hamburger, so I will put a couple in for an hour or so to get cold before eating.

    Again, thank you for shedding so much light on pruning tomatoes. I have searched and read many times on the subject and never received as much or as good and thorough information as you put in your article. Plus I have been growing and experimenting with Tomato plants for about 50 years now.

    Thanks
    Don

  • Richard Messenger

    What do you think about pruning the small original branches at the base of the tomato plants (in addition to the suckers)? I’ve been doing it for 35+ years corroborating your theory that the plant’s vital energy is more directly transmitted to the main tomato producing vines.

  • Theresa

    Good to hear from you Patricia.
    One thing I’ve always enjoyed about sucker’s ability to root so quickly is: if you have a tomato plant you like and you want more, it’s pretty easy to get them.
    Glad you pointed that out.

    Don, thanks for your comments. So glad you found the post helpful.
    I never refrigerate tomatoes because they lose their flavor. I’m wondering if your tomatoes don’t lose their flavor because you only chill them for an hour or two? Interesting.

    Richard, for many years I never pruned tomato plants in any way at all. After I had Early Blight one year, I started pruning tomato plants at the base. I did this as a preventative measure (as I mentioned in the post). Additional air circulation is always helpful.

    Theresa

  • Hi Theresa!
    I have pruned mine…French prune, that is. I removed all side branches without a cluster along the stem and left a canopy at the top. It is time consuming but really helped in finding the hornworms more easily. And, it gave me much more room in the garden. I only did this on indeterminate tomatoes. And they are kind of fabulous looking….like a perfectly manicured French poodle! I don’t think it gave me more or larger fruit, just made my life a bit easier in outsmarting those hungry hornworms! I may decide to do it again this year.

  • Theresa

    More room in your garden is great reason for your method Suzanne!

  • Pat

    Theresa, if you don’t prune and stake your tomatoes, do you let them run on the ground? Or do you cage them? Isn’t it difficult to get to the tomatoes if they aren’t tied up on something? I have let my plants go unpruned in years past, letting them fill up cages…. but it is often difficult to get into the tangled mass to harvest some of the fruit.

  • Theresa

    Pat, I always stake or cage my tomatoes. Can’t stand them running on the ground! Did that only my first year of gardening. That’s a mess!
    As the plants grow I keep tying them up – even on another stake or cage if necessary. If a branch gets in the way, I don’t hesitate to cut it off.
    See two pictures of some of last years tomatoes on this post:http://tendingmygarden.com/tomatoes-early-blight-varieties-changing-some-things/
    Sure glad you asked the question Pat.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    I just did this bottom pruning, it’s a very easy and fast way to avoid problems. Well worth a couple of minutes.

  • jackie

    Theresa,
    Thanks for the pruning tips. Do you add straw around the plants to keep weeds down and prevent rain splash?

  • Theresa

    Yes, Jackie. I keep the soil covered all the time and that includes around tomato plants.
    Theresa

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