De-Suckering My Tomatoes

May 23, 2012

WHY do I remove the side-shoots, or “suckers,” from my indeterminate tomato vines? Because they burden the plants with excess foliage. Too much lushness promotes the shady, wet conditions that lead to fungal diseases. Furthermore, plants with too many stems produce small-size fruit. For healthy plants and large, high-quality tomatoes, those suckers ought to go:

You can always spot a sucker on a tomato vine, because it grows between the axil, or crotch, of a stem and a branch. In the photo up top, I’m pointing to a soon-to-be-severed sucker on one of my twelve plants. To remove a small growth like this one, I simply bend it from side-to-side until it breaks free.
I use pruning shears to remove large shoots.

Did you know that suckers can have lives of their own? Just stick the stems in soil. You’d be amazed at how quickly they form roots, and become new, fruiting vines.

Now, you don’t have to remove the suckers from your vines. But left to their own devices, I can tell you that tomato plants soon grow an enormous quantity of stems, require vast amounts of space and endless tying, are susceptible to disease, and produce low-quality fruit. However, a well-pruned vine, one whose leaves are all exposed to the sun, invites both health and jumbo-size produce. And such a vine can be easily maintained in small, 12-to-18-inch quarters.

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My Tips for Growing Better Tomatoes
My Joan Crawford-Approved Tomato Trellis
Classic Tomato Pie

Comments

  1. Gardenlady says:

    Kevin, I'm going to go out today and prune off those suckers. We've had so much rain here lately, and the last thing I need is a repeat of last summer's tomato blight. Thanks for the tip/warning.

  2. Adele says:

    Help! We've had lots and lots of gray, rainy days here, and now some of my tomato leaves are turning yellow. The plants are really bushy, and in wire cages. Should I thin out some of the vines? I don't know if I can find all of the suckers.

  3. Adele – yes, thin out the plants. You want all leaves to receive sunlight — whenever it appears!
    Also, read Tomato Tips.

  4. erin says:

    Thanks for the rain soaked tour!!!!Your garden in beautiful soaking wet!!! Did anyone else show up after the downpour?

  5. Erin – What dreadful weather on tour-day! Besides you, nine other INTREPID gardeners stopped by. And I'm so glad.

  6. erin says:

    It just goes to show what amazing gardens you have! I really hope the sun comes out soon. My plants are soggy….

  7. Erin – If only Nature would provide a good, thorough soaking once a week, and sunshine the rest, how much easier our gardening lives would be!

  8. Kate says:

    I just tamed my tomato plants this evening…it always pains me to do it, but you're right – I should stick the leftover stalks in the ground! I know its better for the plant in the long run, but its hard to shake the idea that I'm somehow “wasting” part of the plant. Your plants look fantastic so far, by the way!

  9. Kate – welcome. What a lovely blog you have!

    It's easy to feel guilty when pruning tomato vines. But plants — like well-trained pets — get along so much better with their owners afterward.

    Hope you'll visit often!

  10. sksweeps says:

    You can also stick the stems of cuttings in water and they will form new roots, just like basil plants!

  11. Deborah says:

    Thanks for the graphic description of where, exactly, the sucker is. I usually have a quick understanding of plant-related things, but I've never been able to figure that out lol.

  12. margot says:

    we can get a few days of 110F here so try to keep some of the leaves to protect the tomatoes from burning with sunburn but chop off the bottom ones….got at lest 30 new tomato plants by using the shoots you mentioned this year…just pulling my spent plants out as we are at the end of the season and sharing the lot with the chickens that turn it all into compost for me in record time…I generally just feed a handful of worm castings to them every two weeks and they produce magnificently…In the process of growing a lot of yarrow to put all over the garden and then cut down every month and cut directly into the garden beds as the soil here in Australia is very low in selenium….love your tips

  13. Rosemeri says:

    I also prune the suckers off my tomatoes. It opens up the vines and lets more air flow and sun in. I did this last year, and my tomatoes were the size of softballs not to mention the huge quantity that was produced. It also helps prevent powdery mildew and blight. I highly recommend doing this. Your pictures are the best ones that I’ve seen for pruning tomatoes. You show very clearly how to identify the suckers. Most tutorials that I have come across are kind of vague and it took me a while to figure it out. I didn’t know about planting the suckers for more vines. What a great tip. Thanks.

  14. Donna B. says:

    See, I’m with you on this! I like to keep my tomato plants nicely trimmed for my own sake!
    I see too many other sites say that it’s best just to let the plant sucker, because it means more tomatoes in the long run. I did a little “test” last year, and on the CHERRY types where I let the suckers go, it produced many more, but less tasty fruit… of course it wasn’t really scientifically exact because I didn’t have a control – but I saw what I saw with my own eyes!! (or mouth! :D )
    And I made the mistake of planting suckers one year… hahhaa! I never had so many tomato plants!
    Now because of the whole possible-hosting-of-a-fungus-thing – do you compost the suckers/extra leaves, or do you throw em’ out?

  15. Mark and Gaz says:

    Was helping my dad in his greenhouse clear all his suckers.

    I may be strange but i love the scent of tomato plants in a hot greenhouse when you are up close to them!

  16. Margot – I’m almost envious of you in Australia who are just heading into winter!

    Rosemeri – So glad you found the pictures useful.

    Donna B. – I usually root a few suckers, but compost the rest.

    Mark and Gaz – Not strange at all. To me, the scent of tomato foliage is the scent of summer!

  17. Abe Yonder says:

    I’ve been trying to save my tomato suckers and they just die. I’ve tried planting them in soil, setting them in a pop bottle of water, with cut flower food and without. I’ve tried big ones and little ones, none have survived. What gives?

  18. Abe – Not sure why your severed suckers are not rooting. Try cutting the stems — 4-6 inches in length — early in the morning, when plants are more likely to be turgid (filled with water). Bury the entire stem so that only the leaves are above ground. Then water the soil well, and keep it watered. If the sucker wilts, spritz it with water twice a day for 2-3 days.

    In which region do you live? I only ask because if it is very hot where you are, you’ll probably have better rooting-success if you plant the suckers where they are protected from direct sun.

  19. Heidi says:

    Have you ever heard of making insecticide with your tomato trimmings? I just read in an newspaper article that featured a gardener who does this but it didn’t go into details. It was the first i’d ever heard of it.

  20. Michele says:

    Kevin,

    I would love to see a shot from further back to see how your support structure looks for the tomatoes. Are those branches?

    Thanks!
    Michele

  21. Elaine says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the pruning. Not only for tomatoes but for many other fruits as well. The need it to produce exceptional fruit otherwise the plant produces squat to eat.

  22. Jane says:

    The other reason to remove those suckers is that as soon as they start growing, the plant almost immediately starts to bend the branch the sucker is next to down, which also adds to the leafy congestion lower down.

    Another good thing to do with tomatoes to reduce fungal diseases is to trim off the lower branches so light and air gets inside the bottom foot or so of the plant, which is typically where these diseases start. I trim off every branch that comes within an inch or so of touching the ground.

  23. Constance says:

    :-) Thanks Kevin for answering my question! I will check out my plants and replant those suckers!

  24. ArtistryFarm says:

    I always forget how to tell what’s a sucker and what’s not a sucker but your info always seems so obvious and easy to remember. You really have a gift for communication, Kevin…

  25. Rita says:

    Those little suckers do have a life of their own. My Father will root them and then have late blooming tomatoes for end of, end of season fruit!

  26. Lisa says:

    Hi, Do you take the suckers from determinate and indeterminate tomato plants?

  27. Sunny says:

    I went out to cut the suckers off all my plants and probably didn’t do it right. Your picture was helpful but it was very bushy around the bottom of the plants that I couldn’t see well enough. So I just thinned out branches that didn’t have any tomatoes or buds. This is the first successful year I’ve had in a very long time with my plants and I have tons of Roma tomatoes growing!
    Also, I found a very cheap way to fertilize – Epsom Salt.
    One question, and I read this a few years ago but want to get verification. I don’t want to use any pesticides on my garden. I read that just a soap and water mixture is good for keeping bugs off, but what would be the ratio?

    Thanks for all your helpful tips!

  28. Anna Lapping says:

    I only de-sucker determinate tomatoes. Most of the heirlooms are indeterminate and I don’t de-sucker those. I keep the plants free of suckers until the first true branching of the main stem, then I leave the suckers until the first fruits start to ripen. After that I only take off the suckers to manage the size of the plants. Indeterminates, by their nature, keep growing and producing until fall when the daylight hours are less than 9 or 10 a day. I use the stackable tomato cages from Gardeners Supply. I stack 3 ft cages two high, and my vines are always way over the 6 foot level, with huge fruits. Please note that if you grow determinate tomatoes you must de-sucker the vines. Not so with indeterminates.

  29. Zona Ruth says:

    Thank you, I knew there was a method /’ system for pruning and trimming tomato plants to ensure healthy abundant fruit but didn’t know the precise details. I’m about to pot some starter plants and I’ll be sure to trim the suckers.

  30. Deanna says:

    I am new to gardening, to some this will be a silly question, what is the difference between indeterminates & determinate? I will be planting my first vegi garden this yr. I have a raised garden bed filled with composted dirt. trying learn as many tips & tricks as I can!

  31. Deanna – Determinate, or “bush” tomatoes grow on compact plants (about 4 ft). The plant stops growing after the fruit has set, and once the fruit has ripened, the plant dies. The benefit of determinate tomatoes is that all the fruit ripens at about the same time.

    Indeterminate tomatoes (which is what I have) are like weeds — they keep growing and growing, usually maxing out at 10 feet. The benefit of indeterminate tomatoes is that the plants produce flowers and fruit continuously over a long season. The plants do not die until they are nipped by the first hard frost.

  32. Cynthia says:

    When living in Austin we had only a few freezes during winter months. I would take suckers from my favorite plants, tend them in the kitchen window and replant them in late January giving me very early, wonderful crops. Doesn’t work in Albuquerque w/o a greenhouse as our winters are too long and suckers get leggy and pale.

  33. Amy says:

    I haven’t heard of de-suckering before, but will definitely give it a try. Last year, we did this with our tomatoes:
    http://calicohen.blogspot.com/2011/06/tickling-tomato-plants.html

    The kids were great help and I love the time that they spend in the garden.

    How do you secure your plants to so that they do not topple over with fruit? We have some tomato cages, but not enough for all of our plants. Thanks!

  34. Amy – Looks like your kids were having fun!

    I secure the tomato vines to trellises. You can see two versions of them here:
    My Super-Duper Sumac Trellis
    Sumac Trellis covered with Tomato Vines
    My Joan Crawford-Approved Tomato Trellis
    JC Trellis (nearly) covered with vines

    And.. stay tuned for this summer’s tomato-trellis model!

  35. Abe Yonder says:

    Thank you for the information about how to get my suckers to survive. So what is “tickling”? I never heard of it before. How do you tickle tomato plants.

  36. Lucy says:

    Learn something everyday, when I get home from work, I will be lucking for those suckers. I am also going to stick them in water like you say, and hopefully I can turn them from suckers to productive tomato plants.

  37. cmkrause says:

    Am I wrong thinking suckers should only be removed from indeterminate tomatoes? 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. Since indeterminate tomato plants 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.

  38. Janet says:

    Thanks Kevin for your blog. I really enjoy reading about the tomato desuckering, scape pesto, the gorgeous kale quiche and looking at your garden picture. I use many of your ideas such as newspaper mulch and using uncolored wood chipping natural mulch. Thanks for sharing!

  39. cmkrause – Sorry for the delayed response! Yes, I’m referringto intederminate tomatoes– the kind that grow and grow, and produce tomatoes up until frost.

    Janet – So glad you enjoy this site. Thank you for reading it!

  40. doneva says:

    my first year with a greenhouse and my tomatoes are doing great. and have started 6 tomato plants from suckers. going to try growing the cherry tomato indoors. figured can’t hurt and am out nothing. freezing whole tomatoes works great when you have more than you can deal with at a time which sometimes happens here where i live because we sometimes lose our first planting to frost-of course have found out since that if you cut the plant back it witll just grow again–hence the too many tomatoes and new greenhouse. love the info on your site.

  41. Linda Caulk says:

    thanks for telling me about the suckers.

  42. Thank you, I am always nervous to thin and prune but it must be done.
    Happy gardening!

  43. Teri says:

    We live in WY and certainly don’t have a problem with grey, rainy days!! Growing up we never trimmed our plants and they always did great. Here where the growing season is shorter, we have a problem with the tomatoes not ripening fast enough. I had a dozen plants loaded with huge green tomatoes and then we got our first frost. We had nothing to cover the plants with so they all froze. Some of my friends picked theirs green but i wasn’t sure if they’d ripen. So this year i’ll have to try trimming the suckers and see if it helps any.

  44. LeDena says:

    Can you tell me if this also works on dwarf Lemon trees and flowering plants such as Dahlias?

  45. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    To LeDena above….I have pruned early small branches off my Dahlias and gotten them to root in a propagation tray with a water reservoir below the tray of cells. Of course it’s a perfect match for the parent plant.

    I plan to try using the tomato suckers the same way, aiming to help a friend who lost most of his tomato plants to a surprise late frost. This idea is perfectly timed for me. Thanks Kevin!

  46. george goetz says:

    I got my first ripe tomato today.

  47. Ann Marie B. says:

    I know tomatoes and tomatillos are not the same, but the plants seem to grow the same. Should I de-sucker my tomatillos as well?

  48. I always plucked the suckers just because Grandma did. Thanks for telling me why!! But the determinate and indeterminate rocked my boat. How do I know which is which when I am buying seeds or plants? You always have the best info!

  49. Mary I says:

    I, like Ann Marie B, am looking for some help with my tomatillos. Any information regarding sucker plucking on my tomatillo plants would be very helpful.

  50. Hi george goetz – Congratulations on your first ripe tomato!

    Hi Ann Marie B. and Mary I – Yes, tomatillos are pruned exactly like tomatoes. For the best tomatillo-harvest, you’ll want just two main central stems.

    Hi Betty Blalock – Seed packets and seed catalogues usually indicate whether the tomatoes are determiniate or not. If no indication is listed, assume indeterminate.

  51. Jolene Wemyss says:

    thx for the info…all good to know since i’m new at this :)

  52. Jean says:

    I have about 4 large plants. 2 are Heirloom, I have cut off lots of what I think are suckers. Now they look like I have given them a short haircut. Can you take too many leaves off?Mine look like trees.

  53. Sharon says:

    careful not to trim off too much foliage, you can sun scorch your tomatoes

  54. Paul says:

    I noticed my suckers had flowers and the branch they were ‘over’ didn’t. On one plant I did an expire net. I pruned the lower branches and left the suckers to grow and develop. They produced plenty of tomatoes and the bonus was that they were straight up and easier to stake.
    What do you think?
    Paul

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Maintenance: De-Suckering for Better Plant Health and Harvest, Staking Tomatoes, Pruning Tomatoes [...]

  2. [...] into such gnarled beasts? While bumbling around the Internet, I found the answer: I didn’t prune the suckers. According to Kevin from A Garden For the House, pruning the little side shoots (the [...]

  3. [...] I de-suckered them & decided to try rooting the stems in water.  It’s all an adventure in this gardening thing, so we’ll see how it goes… [...]

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