To remove or not to remove? The mysterious world of tomato suckers is about to make sense to you. What they are, how to identify them and when you should remove them.
I learned how to identify a tomato sucker when I was a kid in the garden with my father. Whether to get rid of these secondary stems is a bit of a game with no absolute YES or NO.
It was in that garden as a child that I also learned some of my most cherished swear words.
Part of the confusion with suckers comes with the name. A tomato sucker isn't a typical sucker like you'd see on a fruit tree or shrub. Those true suckers grow out of the roots and SUCK energy from the plant. Hence the name.
I have a unique tip on how to prune zucchini plants as well.
So what exactly is a tomato sucker other than a topic to be avoided at pot lucks & prisons because of its obvious controversy?
Table of Contents
So what's a tomato sucker?
A tomato sucker is an actual stem or leader that grows between the main stem and a leaf of the plant. These stems will get very large, flower and produce tomatoes. All tomato plants get suckers. (unless there's some new genetic mutation I'm not aware of)
If they produce tomatoes why would you ever get rid of them? Mainly because they can be transform a perfectly well mannered tomato plant into a gigantic, hungry, aggressive monster.
How to Prune those Suckers
- Stare at the main central stem of your tomato plant. Follow it up from the ground. Everywhere a leaf pops out of the big main stem, check to see if there's something else growing out of the "V" between the stem and the leaf. (see the photo above)
- THAT is a sucker. Pinch it off.
- Continue doing this all the way up the main stem.
- If your tomato plant is overgrown and FULL of big, grown suckers don't remove more than 30% of the plant's greenery in one shot. It will shock the plant. Just do a bit, then come back a few days later and do more.
HOW MUCH TO PRUNE OUT
Never remove more than ⅓rd of the plant's vegetation at a time. It'll put the plant into shock and the leaves will curl up. Remove a bit and come back after several days and remove some more.
SHOULD you prune suckers?
Get rid of suckers on indeterminate (heirloom) tomato plants. Keep suckers on determinate (hybrid) tomato plants. That's the elevator pitch.
INDETERMINATE PLANTS (heirlooms) get HUGE. Your indeterminate tomato suckers can become 8' long. If your indeterminate (heirloom) tomato plant grows, let's say - 10 suckers, that are each 8' long, you can imagine the mess of a tomato plant you'd have.
Even though the suckers WILL produce tomatoes, they won't be as big or healthy as you'd like.
REMOVING SUCKERS - gives the plant better air circulation, allows more sunlight onto the fruit & reduces the amount of soil resources (all the good minerals and fertilizers) the plant uses up.
DETERMINATE PLANTS (hybrids) are more reasonably sized that quit growing after they reach a certain size. Usually about 5' tall. That means their suckers don't use up as much energy or get as wild as those on an indeterminate. Which in turn means you can keep them and use the suckers to your advantage (more tomatoes) without sacrificing the health of the tomato plant.
To learn how to train your tomatoes up a string read my post on string trellis training.
Other pruning you need to do
For a healthy tomato plant you ALSO want to remove the leaves on the lower third of the plant. Any leaves that sit below the lowest cluster of flowers/fruit on the tomato should be removed.
These leaves aren't doing anything to help support the plant or the tomatoes it's growing. They're just sucking energy and increasing the chance of disease.
This is because tomato disease like blight is spread from the soil below the plant splashing up onto the leaves. Get rid of the lower leaves and you help get rid of the problem. Mulching with straw or wood chips below the tomato plant helps with that too.
What happens if you don't follow the pruning "rules"
I hear you. You don't like rules. Neither do I. You can either get rid of none of the suckers, all of the suckers or some of the suckers. Nobody is going to report you to bylaw. Or the warden.
*Getting rid of none of the suckers will create a big tangle of a tomato mess. You'll have a lot of tomatoes, but they'll be small. Also, there's less air flow in the plant and more leaves that make it more susceptible to disease like blight.
* Getting rid of all of the suckers and only keeping the main stem will give you the least amount of tomatoes. You'll get large tomatoes, but not many of them. Also, tomatoes get their sweetness partly from the leaves so the less leaves there are the less delicious your tomatoes might be. Technically speaking.
* Getting rid of most, but not all of your suckers is the way most smart people like you and I go. Leaving 1 or 2 suckers along with the main stem of an heirloom will give you a strong plant, less susceptible to disease and a good amount of tomatoes. It will result in the healthiest tomato plant. And pruning away about ⅓rd of the suckers on hybrids will give the plant better air circulation and allow light to hit the growing fruit accelerating their ripening.
So yes. I said it. You don't HAVE to follow the rules. This of course is why this is such a volatile topic in prison gardens.
The only thing I'd say is I would NEVER prune all of a hybrid plant's suckers. Removing a few of them for better air circulation isn't a bad idea though.
And I'd NEVER let all the suckers grow on an heirloom tomato. It just becomes a terrifying tangle of greenery.
The best time to prune suckers is when they're small. Check the plants every few days. As soon as you see them start to grow pinch them off. A sucker won't regrow in the same place once it's pinched off.
Yep. Even without all those suckers tomato plants get really heavy so use the string trellis method for supporting heirloom tomatoes and I like the Florida Weave (see below) for hybrids.
Now that you have that all figured out you can spend the rest of your day sharing your newfound information with fellow prisoners or family members.
A day late & a dollar short - this morning I read two blogs that exactly describe how to do something I did LAST NIGHT, but the blogs show how to do both much more efficiently. Aargh! Does this mean that I should don my Procrastinator's Cape and do nothing until I read "my" blogs?
Question: How do you pound in your stakes? I get on a ladder and pound my 8' juniper stakes with a 3-lb mallet, but they look drunken and wonky. I can't seem to get them straight. My soil is sandy, so no obstructions in the ground. . .
Always used to watch in amazement and some amusement as my elderly great aunt went out into the garden in her dress and apron (both just came to just above her ankles), gloves and huge sun hat to prune tomatoes through out the season. Of course she really had nothing but heirloom tomatoes, having saved seeds from one year to the next for just the tomatoes she wanted for her various recipes. She continued even when she had to use a walker to get up and down the rows. She removed suckers and leaves - left only the fruit, Often, while sitting on the porch she would 'spy' on the tomatoes and when she could see a leaf would send us out to pull it off. She also canned duck and pheasant in mason jars by processing them in the oven; something my mother was horrified at and would not allow us to eat any thing canned that way. But aunt Opal ate that stuff for years and years with no ill effects. sweet memories of summer time...
Funny, informative and effing fabulous.
I need to go and take care of some suckers now.
There are worse things I could smell like.
I've never done this. The sucker removal. But this year, I'm growing ten heirlooms. I'm gonna put a bra on and go do it right this instant.....
I bet the tomatoes will not care about your boobs! I'd say forget the bra and get on those suckers...lol
Amazing! I have been growing tomatoes for years and never knew the little suckers should be pruned. Mine are already three feet tall with a birds nest in one. I think tomorrow will be sucker pruning day! Don't worry, I will leave enough support for the birds nest.
The last time I grew tomato plants at the back of my yard, the damn deer kept pruning them for me so all I got was tons of leaves and ONE tomato. I nurtured that lonely little orphan baby until it was red and ripe and plump for the pickin'. When that day finally came, a raccoon had beaten me to it and taken a big bite out of the bottom! Stupid wildlife.
same here, last year. the raccoons got my one and only green pepper too! my whole yard is smaller than Karen's garden, and what with the raspberries exploding everywhere, there's no room for more.
Wonderful post! I haven't had the best of luck with tomatoes over the past 5 years or so, I had totally forgotten about pinching off the suckers. I only have a few plants but will get to them in the morning, thanks for all the info. :)
My tomato plants in containers are doing great..I pinched off suckers when I transplanted them into the big pots..
I love tomatoes, but after working amoung the plants, my arms get itchey and burn a little. So, I wipe my arms down with cider vinegar and it stops the effects of the tomato plant. The vinegar will burn for a moment if you have any scratches, but it remove the tomato residue and end the irritation. This also works if you get a reaction to blackberry scratches or stinging nettle.
The real gem in this post is the Florida Weave technique! I use tall tiki torches as tomato stakes, and after a point I can't light them any more unless I cut the tops off the tallest tomatoes. But if I can move the torches in between the plants.... this is genius.
Karen - any monarchs yet?
Not yet. They're out in full force laying eggs, I just haven't brought any inside yet. You light your tiki torches in your tomato plantings? THAT'S genius! ~ karen!
Can those suckered be rooted so you can share plants with friends?
Yes they can Carolyn! ~ karen
Although I don't eat tomatoes I love growing them for my family and friends. I've heard so much about removing suckers. But because I live in the Northeast and our growing season is very short what I do is remove the stems below the suckers allowing the suckers to flower. True this will give you smaller tomatoes but lots of them. I always try to plant both indeterminate determinate tomatoes. Using the determinate plants for my larger end of the season larger tomatoes and the indeterminate plants as my smaller salad tomatoes as well as rooting and planting the stems for new plants. So far 5+yrs of doing it with success.
Buy the way I loved the tip on the Florida weave. Using it for my 2nd round of beans and cukes. Also worked great for my BlackBerry plant.
Not exactly about pruning the tomatoes, but:
Hhave you ever had to abandon a tomato plant (or many) on which nobody has ripened yet, but there's a frost warning for so soon that you know they'll have to go to the dump? When that happened to me (gardening in Oregon), I uprooted the plants and hung them upside down in the garage -- not warm, but less cold. I set it up so any that ripened fell onto something soft like a folded towel. It worked ! I got ripe tomatoes!
My mother did that every year, toward the end of summer, when a wind or hard rain was forecasted, she’d hang the plants in the basement with a hammock under to catch the tomatoes. Because the basement was cooler, the ripening was longer and we got tomatoes for a good, long time. I lived in Astoria OR.
Hi! So I got ahead of myself and pinched off the suckers on my only-about-10” tall baby seedling tomato plant. Eek!
Do you think I’ve ruined it for life? Should I scrap it and start over? (There were just two, at the bottom)
Thank you for your great posts btw.
Maybe next time I’ll read the post BEFORE I get my hands on innocent babies.
Hi Karen! Your tomato will be fine. :) ~ karen!
Hi thanks for the information. I was wondering if you continue to add twine in the Florida weave pattern as the tomatoes get taller. If so how often, how many inches between each weave?
Hi Karen. I read something about beefsteak tomato varieties being pruned differently. Do you happen to know anything about this different technique?
Thank you. Love your posts!!!
I have beefsteak tomato plants and I had the same question. 😁
Hi Stephanie! It all depends on what type of beefsteak. There are hybrid beefsteaks and heirloom. Take a look at your plant. If it's compact and bushy then I'd treat it like a hybrid and leave it alone other than pruning out some suckers to allow for air circulation. If it's kind of leggy looking it's an heirloom and you should pinch off the suckers. You can leave 1 if you like. ~ karen!
i wont be removing any of my suckers anytime soon as a munch monster deer ate the tops of all my tomatoes last night. They usually wait till the tomatoes are almost ripe to stop by for a salad but not today. At least I still have a starting point.
Uch. Well that's a pain. Every season I think - this is the year no pests will get anything and everything will be under control. It never happens. So at least you're not alone. ~ karen!
Is there a point when you should stop pruning suckers? Or do you prune throughout the growth cycle?
Hi Gia! I'm no expert, even after many years of pruning, lol. I have started to prune back more and more every year because what I want to be left with is just strong lateral branches with fruiting spurs very close to the main laterals. So that's a long way of saying ... I keep pruning off suckers throughout the summer. I have NO idea if that's right or not, but my trees are doing very well and are always productive. ~ karen!