What do you do with tomato suckers?

Ed Wike
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What is a Tomato Sucker?

Tomato suckers are all the plant parts that grow above the tomato’s main stem but below the first sets of leaves. These suckers are usually unwanted because they grow out of the top of the fruit and tend to drop off early.

There are a few reasons why tomatoes produce a sucker. The most common reason is that they develop because you left a part of the plant above the first set of leaves intact. This happens because these upper leaves develop into a flower. But the flowers are not pollinated and they wilt. Since they are not pollinated, they drop off and grow into a sucker at the top of the tomato.

Another reason for this phenomena is that your growing environment is not ideal. Inadequate light, whether from insufficient windows or a light source that is too far away, can result in an unhealthy plant. Other environmental factors such as excess heat and cool drafts can also result in fruit that is not properly developed.

Suckers can also occur naturally. Tomatoes produce a certain number of flowers every so many days. When you harvest the fruits of that plant, the flowers may wilt instead of moving to the next stage. If this happens, unwanted suckers will develop above the plant’s main stem.

What are the benefits of pruning tomato suckers?

Tomato plants typically grow as a single stem, with all their leaves, flowers, and fruit growth occurring directly off the main stem. However, if you allow this sole stem to grow without interruption, eventually so much weight is placed on the stem that if a heavy storm were to occur, the stem might break, potentially damaging the plant. Pruning tomato suckers will allow some of the plant's energy to be diverted into new growth. Rather than sending all its energy into a massive single stem, some of its energy is diverted into new growth, which takes some of the pressure off the main stem.

Pruning tomato suckers also has the benefit of allowing the plant to have a wider variety of growing locations. The added room allows the plant to grow in a more natural pattern, taking advantage of everything the plant has to offer, rather than the single main stem. This gives the leaves and flowers more space to grow, which equals better air circulation around the plants, which translates to fewer issues with diseases.

Is it a good idea to prune your tomato suckers?

Suckers are the little branches that grow from between the main stem and the leaf stem of tomato plants. Tomatoes typically produce two to four suckers, depending on their variety. They will start to develop soon after planting if the seedlings were pruned.

Suckers are not fruit, and they have no value, as they do not produce any fruit. They just waste resources that your tomato plants could put into your fruit. On the other hand, they don't do any harm either, as they are not connected to the main stem by a joint (a node) and they don't really have roots.

So should you remove them or let them grow and grow and grow?

It is up to you. Your plants might not be large enough to support many suckers, and removing the suckers will actually improve the health of your plants. In this case, but, if the suckers are small, they are making use of none of your resources, and they can't really hurt you or your plant, prune them away.

When you should prune tomato suckers?

Helpful tip: You should prune tomato suckers from a fruit bearing tomato as soon as you see them growing.

They will actually grow faster if you prune as soon as you see them, as opposed to waiting until they grow upwards. They will still grow upwards when you prune them soon after you see them, but will grow slower than they would have.

For instance, if you wait too long, the sucker will go from growing from the plant (embedded to the plant), to instead growing from the ground (the stem itself will grow up, not the fruit, which will often cause it to fall over).

You can also pinch off any excess leaves on the suckers. This reduces the amount of food that the sucker gets, which gives more to the fruit, which also speeds up growth.

However, the biggest benefit of doing this is to make the tomato less susceptible to disease and sunburn. Any extra leaves and extra growth will mean more surface area. With more surface area means that the plant will be more susceptible to sunburn and fungus.

When you shouldn’t prune tomato suckers

Many types of tomato have a dead, outside, brown stem at the leaf axil. This is called a sucker. Tomato suckers can grow into a new plant, producing more fruit than the original plant. It's a strong, healthy growth that is pruneable in many types of tomatoes.

What do you do when a sucker appears?

Cut it out: If you are growing determinate tomatoes, which stop growing when they reach their mature size, you can prune suckers from the bottom leaves up to 6 inches. There's no need to prune the sucker on long-vine types of tomatoes. Prune tomato suckers in June or early July.

If you are growing determinate tomatoes, which stop growing when they reach their mature size, you can prune suckers from the bottom leaves up to 6 inches. There's no need to prune the sucker on long-vine types of tomatoes. Prune tomato suckers in June or early July. Don’t prune at all: Some tomato varieties or hybrids naturally give more fruit if you don't prune them at all. Ask your neighbor or a master gardener to learn about plants in your garden and what you can do to manage them and get the most fruit.

How and when to prune tomato suckers

When growing tomatoes, the question most often asked is, "How do I get a regular sized tomato?"

It's so simple to pluck the tiny ones: the perfectly ripe ones; or the ones with absolutely amazing flavor: you have to wait for them to turn into larger tomatoes.

Well, normally you do.

By doing a bit of pruning, you can improve your odds of getting large tomatoes.

If you watch your tomato plants closely, you'll see tiny tomato plants growing around the base of your tomatoes. These are called "suckers".

You are most likely already pruning them away, but you can get even more produce out of your tomatoes by sparing a bit of time for further prepping.

You should be able to see the suckers between the soil and the base of your tomato plants.

Simply pluck them out.

All this will do is allow for more foliage and root growth.

More foliage means more tomatoes.

Watch your plants grow, and you'll get a head start on getting the harvest you want…and need.

Some final things to keep in mind

If you have never grown tomatoes before, you might not know that the plant produces new shoots, called suckers. These is allowed to grow can become independent tomato plants. When the suckers develop into plants, you can cut them from the mother plant and put them into pots or into the ground. You can probably get three to four suckers from each plant. There are some caveats to watch for.

They can take three to four months to produce tomatoes and they might not even produce ripe tomatoes for the first year. You need to remove the suckers when they are at least six inches long and always cut them off with a very sharp knife. Use pruning scissors if you must because they are sharper than a blade. Wrapping the sucker in wet paper towels or a wet rag before removing it from the mother plant helps. When deciding where to put your new plants, remember that tomatoes need full sun and rich, well drained soil. Adding compost or manure before planting helps.