What on earth are tomato suckers? No, they have nothing to do with people who are obsessed with discovering new tomato varieties. In fact, they’re integral parts of the tomato plant, and can be either beneficial, or nuisances. Read on to learn more!
Back in the early 2000s, my husband spent a year apprenticing at an Organic CSA famous for its huge, flavorful tomatoes. Every weekend they’d bring crates of enormous, heirloom varieties to market and sell out every time.
Needless to say, this little experience gave us a taste for extraordinary tomatoes. When we settled onto our little homestead, we put the wisdom of the master into practice. These plants need plenty of nutrients, vertically trained vines, and most importantly, careful and consistent removal of tomato suckers.
What are Tomato Suckers?
Tomato suckers are the leaf shoots that grow out of the space where an established branch meets the stem. Left to their own devices, all those little suckers (and there are a lot of them) will grow into leafy branches.
Now, these suckers aren’t evil. Unlike hornworms and blight, tomato suckers aren’t always a problem. They’ll even end up producing fruit eventually. If you have a long growing season and plenty of fertile soil, you may want to just leave them alone. After all, they may grow into productive members of the tomato bed.
But, if you’re hoping to grow large, flavor-rich fruits in a short season, or you’re hoping to save space by vining your plants, sucker removal is essential.
The Benefits of Keeping Tomato =Suckers
Tomato suckers are just part of the natural growth process of the tomato plant. These plants love taking over: they want to vine and trellis and bush out into huge, weedy plants. Each branch will end up eventually bearing flowers and fruit.
If you allow all your tomato suckers to grow into healthy branches, you could end up with a bumper crop of moderately sized tomatoes. You’ll have bushy, leafy plants growing lower to the ground.
You’ll be spending less time tending to your growing tomato plants too, which is ideal if you have a whole field of them. It can be overwhelming to prune suckers from row upon row of tomato plants. After a few trips down the field, plucking suckers off, you may want to let nature take its course.
Reasons to Remove Suckers
For the best crop, you should remove tomato suckers at least once or twice during the growing season. If you’re hoping to grow tall, heavy-fruited tomato vines, remove them regularly.
Tomato suckers force the plant to put most of its energy toward leaf production. If you remove the suckers as they appear, your plant will work harder at making tomatoes. Big, healthy, delicious tomatoes. The kind you dream about all winter long.
Bushy tomato plants full of suckers provide a safe haven for hornworms. It’s much easier to spot those green monsters on a pruned, viney tomato plant. If you don’t prune your tomato suckers, you might miss hornworms until they’ve grow fat on your tomato plants!
Taking the time to prune these things off every week or two gives you the chance to examine your plants. Pruning regularly helps you get to know your tomato plants. As a result, you can use pruning days as an opportunity to check for hornworms, slugs, and diseases.
When you start removing suckers, all those little, green tomatoes will ripen faster. They do this because the tomato plant is focusing more on producing and ripening fruit, and less on making leaves. Pruning off suckers will help you harvest ripe tomatoes sooner.
How to Remove Tomato Suckers
So, you’ve decided to remove those suckers and focus on growing huge, amazing fruits. How do you go about pruning your tomato plants?
It’s an easy process. When you find young, small suckers all you have to do is pinch them off at the base. Grasp the sucker as close to the base as possible, then pinch, and pull. It’ll come away easily in your fingers.
Pruning baby suckers with your fingers is the easiest way to do this, and is also healthiest for your plants. Removing the youngest suckers as soon as possible is a gentle way to keep your tomato plants from leafing out. Check back every week or two to keep new suckers at bay.
Pruning Older Suckers
What if you have to make up for lost time? If your plants have been growing suckers for a few weeks, unchecked, you may have to bring out the big guns. Grab some small, clean garden shears and snip those large suckers at the base.
Avoid pruning any suckers that have flowers on them already, though. Once a sucker has started contributing to the plant, you should just leave it alone.
How Many Suckers Should I Prune?
It’s a good idea to leave 1 or 2 suckers at each pruning. This gives your plant a chance to spread and grow while keeping it focused on fruiting. Over-pruning can also stress your tomato plants.
To minimize stress, prune in the evening, early in the morning, or on overcast days. Avoid pruning in the heat of the day.
What Do I Do with My Tomato Cuttings?
Early in the season, try planting some of the stronger cuttings: these plants are fantastic rooters. In fact, they’re some of the easiest plants to root from cuttings.
See all those little fibers on the stem? They can all turn into roots easily once planted. So go ahead and plant those little babies in the soil and double your tomato crop. If you live in a warm zone, with long summers and late falls, this is a great option. These tiny suckers will have plenty of time to grow into big, productive tomato plants.
If you live in the frozen north, like I do, you may not have a long enough season for your planted cuttings to produce. Try cutting them very early in the season: as soon as your tomato plants start producing noticeable suckers.
If you have a green house, these later tomatoes can provide a solid second crop of fruit when the rest of the garden has gone to bed. Plant them in large pots and fertilize gently, but regularly, for best results. I like to grow my tomatoes (especially cuttings) in a mix of 90% composted goat manure and 10% garden soil. Cow manure is a good option as well.
Remember to water cuttings regularly, since tender, young plants need extra moisture as they grow new roots. Potted tomatoes are surprisingly thirsty even after they’ve settled into the transplant.
What Not to Do with Tomato Cuttings
If you don’t want to plant your pruned suckers, throw them into the compost pile. But, be careful. If you have chickens, ducks, or other livestock that may forage in the compost bin, tomato suckers can be potential hazards.
Tomato leaves are toxic. Like all members of the nightshade family, their leaves contain a variety of Solanine: a hallucinogenic alkaloid. It causes the body to react in a wide variety of ways from nausea to paralysis. In fact, Medieval “flying ointments” used by witches were made from nightshade plants because of its effects of the mind.
While tomato leaves aren’t as deadly to adult humans as popular rumor would have you believe, they are dangerous. Furthermore, although most animals will avoid eating tomato leaves, some chickens and ducks will devour them.
After eating these leaves, your flock may collapse, barely breathing, while the toxin poisons their bodies. Smaller birds rarely recover from the experience, but larger birds may recover with careful tending.
If it looks like your flock has overdosed on tomato suckers, move the sick birds into the shade. Keep them separated from the rest of the flock and give them at least 8 hours to recover. Have some water available. The birds that do recover will be very thirsty.
Easy Tomato Upkeep
Ultimately, it’s you’re decision whether to prune your tomato plants or not. Fortunately, it’s a decision you can make each week, and you can always change your mind.
Maybe right now, your plant needs to spend some time leafing out. Or you’re just too busy this week to even think about pruning. But next week, you may be parting the leaves, looking for those elusive hornworms. If you see a few suckers, pluck them off at the base.
A month later, you might notice that your tomato bed is getting out of hand. Step in there with some little shears and a bucket to collect the cuttings. Your tomatoes will love having a bit of extra space for the sunlight to shine through.
After that, you might choose to continue pruning every week for a while. But if you fall off the wagon, it’s really not going to destroy your garden. U
Good Practices Make Good Gardens
Pruning tomato suckers is a good practice that’ll help you grow big, beautiful tomatoes that taste absolutely delicious. Removing suckers will make your plants produce better, and can help you see and prevent problems before they damage your plants. Best of all, it’ll help your fruit ripen faster.
Just keep in mind that unlike watering and fertilizing, pruning suckers isn’t essential. If you can’t prune this week, don’t worry. No-one will judge you for growing your tomatoes your own way.