It’s true – we’re actually screeching up on the end of the growing season for veggies in our home gardens. I’ve heard from many of you that a veritable sea of tomatoes have covered your kitchen counters, and are populating the branches of your tomato plants that are still quite green. Some of you have plants with lots of blossoms coming on. You may not like this, but to get those fruits to ripen, you’re going to want to do some pruning. Especially cutting out of the “suckers.” We put work, and time, into these plants; let’s not stress them harder toward the end of the season. Pruning puts less stress on the plant to finish out its life cycle, and gives it more energy to put into growing the remaining, unripened fruits.
What is a Tomato Sucker? Tomato suckers, or side shoots, are the growth that appears in the crotch between the stem and a branch. If you leave these to grow, they will become another main stem with branches, flowers, fruit and more suckers of their own. They will literally suck the energy away from the fruit that is developing, slowing down the ripening process.
Why is Pruning Recommended? Pruning tomato suckers is sometimes recommended because the resulting new stem is competing for nutrients with the original plant. You may be setting more fruits if you leave the suckers to grow, but the fruits will be smaller and the plant will be more unruly. Pruning off the tomato suckers really is just thinning the plant, and your plant, and its fruits, will be healthier for it.
Pruning tomato suckers is never required and many, even most, gardeners don’t bother with tomato pruning at all. However, even if you prefer to prune your tomatoes, whether to do so or not depends on the type of tomato plant you are growing.
When You Should Prune Tomato Suckers? And here’s the science part of the show: Genetics! Tomatoes are categorized as either determinate or indeterminate, depending on their growth habit. Since indeterminate tomatoes can get extremely large and will keep producing tomatoes all season, they can handle some pruning. If you leave all the suckers to grow, your plants will become heavy and out of control. On the other hand, removing all the suckers will result in a more compact plant, but it will also lessen your tomato yield.
As long as you have a strong main stem, it’s fine to leave a few suckers on this plant. The general recommendation is to leave 2 or 3 suckers to improve yield, but not to let every sucker grow. After that there is no general agreement.
Some gardeners like to prune out everything below the first flower cluster, to develop a strong central stem. Others prefer to leave a couple of suckers on the lower portion of the plant, because these can be easily supported with staking. Then they prune the suckers from the remaining top growth of the plant, to prevent it from becoming too top heavy and falling or splitting.
Tomato pruning is more trial and error than precision, so look at it as an experiment. When you first start pruning, do less rather than more. If you grow the same varieties year after year, you’ll get a feel for how they respond to pruning.
When Not to Prune Out Tomato Suckers. Determinate type tomatoes don’t really require any pruning at all. Determinate tomatoes tend to be more compact. They reach a certain height and then stop growing. They don’t usually set their fruit until the branches are pretty much fully grown and then they set their fruit all at once. Since no new fruit will be developing after pruning, nothing is gained by pruning.
How and When Do I Prune Out the Suckers? The earlier you prune out the suckers, the easier it is. Small leaves and 2-4″ stems can be snapped off with your finger. Stems thicker than a pencil should be cut out with pruners, to avoid damaging the plant.
Pruning will help you get the energy your plant needs to finish up growing the fruits that are already on the plant. A drench of a good liquid fertilizer right about now will also support those ripening fruits. If you’re growing in containers, and haven’t fertilized in a month, your plants could definitely use this extra food.
You know, every year, all these plants give us everything for the fruits we take from them. At the end of the season, we rip them out of the ground and turn them into compost. Next season, those plants will feed the plants that put food on our tables. It’s interesting to think about; all that “circle of life” stuff. (cue the Lion King here)
And now for a characteristic awkward segue …
I’m still seeing the skeeters around, although they seem to be biting me less. I always get it bad from them, but in the later summer, I guess I don’t taste so great anymore, so I stop getting bitten so much. Even still, I do get some. I use tea tree oil to battle the itchy bites, and lately, I’ve been loving this New York Biology product quite a lot. The girls use it for lots of stuff – skin care, bug bites, dandruff. Great stuff, tea tree oil. If you haven’t tried it, you should. It’s also great in your natural cleaning solutions, as it is known for it’s antifungal properties.