To prune or not to prune suckers on tomatoes – the age old debate continues – until now!
There are two distinct camps here. Some people prune suckers on tomatoes so that they end up with a single stem and they claim that is best. Others don’t prune suckers at all and they claim their method is best. And then there are the ones that sit on fence and sucker to two or three stems. In this blog I’ll tell you the best way to prune tomatoes.
What are Tomato Suckers?
Suckers are the side branches that form at the point leaves join the main stem. If left on the plant, they will become secondary stems and start making fruit. This is mostly an issue with indeterminate tomatoes since they just keep growing taller and make more and more stems. In longer seasons they can make huge plants.
Suckers do not need to be removed. A tomato plant will grow and produce well if you leave all the suckers on the plant, but there are some reasons why you might want to remove all or some of them.
Different Ways to Grow Tomatoes
There are three basic ways to grow tomatoes.
- Simply plant and let nature do its own thing. They will form side branches and tend to sprawl along the ground.
- The second option is to let it do its own thing but keep it maintained inside a wire cage. This keeps the fruit off the ground and makes them easier to pick.
- The third option is to prune the plants to a single main stem and tie that to a stake.
Each of these methods offers some advantages as shown in the following table.
Suckering will reduce the overall production (i.e., total weight of fruit) of a single plant. On the other hand, more energy is put into fewer fruits, resulting in larger fruits. The other benefit of suckering is that tomatoes mature earlier, and this can be a big help when growing in colder climates.
Suckering Increases Productivity
The above statement about productivity is only true for a single plant. Plants pruned to single canes can be planted closer together so that there are more plants per square yard. If you measure productivity on an area basis and you plant closer together, productivity is about the same for suckered and unsuckered plants.
Suckering Can Reduce Diseases
The disease potential is higher for unsuckered plants since their leaves tend to be crowded. This reduces air circulation and makes it easy for diseases to spread. The single-stem method also keeps leaves off the ground, making it harder for pests like slugs to find the plants.
Un-suckered plants are less likely to have problems with BER (blossom end rot) and cracking, but this can usually be prevented in the single-stem method with proper watering.
Other Ways to Grow Tomatoes
So far I have described three methods for growing tomatoes, but of course you can use hybrids of these. With both the cage and stake method, you can leave the first couple of suckers to make side branches and then prune all of the remaining suckers. In climates with longer seasons, you can also take off the early suckers, root them and then plant them to increase the number of plants.
Hybrid methods produce hybrid results.
Best Way to Grow Tomatoes
- In short season climates, the most valuable goal is early fruit, so grow them as pruned single stems. This is also a good method in disease-prone areas. Remove suckers by hand, with a quick snap, before they are three inches long. Prune on a sunny, dry day so the wound dries quickly.
- Pruning suckers will result in larger fruit, which, for the homeowner may be more desirable than overall productivity.
- The cage method, with some suckering later in the season, works well for many growers.
- The issue of suckering is less important than selecting the right variety and watering properly.
- Do not remove suckers on determinate tomatoes.