Among passionate tomato growers, the same debate rages every summer: to prune or not to prune out suckers. Suckers are the growth that emerges where a branch of a tomato joins the plant’s main stem. If left to grow, suckers develop into branches that eventually produce fruit. Some gardeners feel strongly that the suckers sap energy from the plant, while other gardeners are equally adamant that tomato plants with more foliage produce tastier fruit.
Each approach offers some good points for debate. When you pinch, plants stay more compact, which is especially nice for container-grown tomatoes. And reducing the amount of foliage improves air -flow at the center of the plant, which can reduce disease problems. It also allows the sun to reach the fruit, improving ripening.
On the other hand, not pinching out the suckers means that more branches develop. And more branches equal more fruit. Plus, plants with lots of foliage can photosynthesize more, which means that there are more sugars available to the fruit.
So what’s a gardener to do? I say take a balanced (also known as the lazy gardener) approach. Pinch out some suckers as they develop. Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch off the suckers just as they begin to emerge. Aim to take enough suckers out that the middle of the plant stays fairly open, allowing lots of air to circulate amongst the foliage. If, like me, you don’t have time to rigorously inspect your tomatoes daily for suckers, a few will surely escape your attention and begin forming a baby branch. Pinching out these larger suckers tends to leave a wound on your plant (never a good thing), so go ahead and leave the bigger suckers alone. They will grow up to be branches that producer fruit, and that is never a bad thing.
This, of course is my approach to suckers, but I’m curious how all of you approach pruning your tomatoes. Please weigh in on the great debate!
PHOTO: Remove suckers just after they emerge, when you can pinch them off without leaving a visible wound on the plant.
PHOTO: A sucker that is on its way to becoming a branch.
Willi Galloway is the author of Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, and she writes about organic vegetable gardening and seasonal cooking on her blog, DigginFood.