Why and How to Prune Tomato Suckers

Why and How to Prune Tomato Suckers

By Michael Jenkins

Growing tomatoes is a special passion for many gardeners. We’ve written several times about the various tips, techniques, and magic that gardeners bring to their tomato plants. However, as with all things gardening there’s always more to talk about and always something new to learn, so this week we’re going to delve into the world of pruning tomato suckers. This is a subject of some discussion among tomato gardening enthusiasts, so we’re giving it our attention here. So—what are tomato suckers? Why and how should you prune them? Let’s dig in!

What Are Tomato Suckers?

Their name may sound goofy, or even ominous, but tomato suckers are a natural part of the tomato plant. Also called side shoots, these are the small shoots that grow out of the juncture between the main stem of the plant and a branch (fun fact, that join is also called an axil). Tomato suckers are not harmful to your plant per se, but they will keep growing and eventually become branches that produce leaves, flowers, and fruit while also giving you a really bushy tomato plant.

This doesn’t sound so bad, but the reality is that by pruning away tomato suckers you’ll help your plant be healthier and more productive.

Why You Should Prune Tomato Suckers

Tomato suckers are absolutely a natural part of the plant, but they can create some issues for tomatoes in your garden. By making your plant bushier and denser as they grow, tomato suckers ultimately cut down on air flow and circulation around the tomato plant. This, in turn, can lead to a number of health problems including fungal infections, pests, and mold. By pruning the suckers as they develop, you’ll create a less bushy plant that is more resistant to these problems and thus healthier.

Like all living creatures, tomato plants have a finite amount of energy, water, and nutrition to support their grown. Tomato suckers compete with the rest of the plant for those resources, which often leads to few blossoms, fewer fruits, and smaller fruit. By pruning the tomato suckers from your tomato plant, you’ll not only keep the plant healthy but you’ll encourage more and larger fruits to grow.

So with those two major considerations in front of us, let’s tackle the big question—should you prune tomato suckers? The answer is “yes”, but with some important caveats. Pruning tomato suckers is often healthier for the plants and may help you grow more and better fruit. However, it’s not strictly necessary and isn’t on your must-do list of garden chores.  Also, pruning suckers only benefits indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. Indeterminate tomato plants—also called vining tomato plants—continue to grow and produce new fruit throughout the season. Determinate tomato plants—which grow to a certain hight and then produce all their fruit at the same time. Pruning suckers from determinate tomato plants can actually ruin your harvest, so be careful and know which are which!

How to Prune Tomato Suckers

So, if you choose to prune tomato suckers from your tomato plants, there’s some good news: it’s really easy! All you need is a clean, sharp tool—we recommend small garden shears—and a bit of time and patience. The best time to prune suckers is as soon as you notice them, but a once-a-week inspection is fine too. Go over your plant slowly. Small suckers can be removed with your fingers—just pinch them off at the base—while larger ones are best removed with your garden shears. We recommend taking this time to inspect your plant, remove any dead leaves or other debris, and make sure that the bugs and pest are staying away. It can be a meditative, relaxing activity if approached with the right mindset.

As an added bonus—larger suckers can be cut away and used to start new tomato plants! We have a whole article about starting plants from cuttings, so take a look at that and give it a try!

Pruning Tomato Suckers for Healthy Tomato Plants

Gardening is full of experimentation, as we’re fond of saying. You have to try different thing to find out what works best for you, your plants, and your space. Pruning tomato suckers is a gardening decision based on personal experience and judgment—but you won’t know till you try. So if you have indeterminate or vining tomato plants this year, consider pruning their suckers and seeing if that gives you better results. If you’re a veteran tomato gardener, let us know how pruning suckers works for you. We love to hear from you all, and see photos of your gardens, so please share them!

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