Rainy evenings like this here in Brooklyn are some of the best times to do a little thinking/reading/researching/planning for your farm/garden/homestead/life.
I cut out from the farm I manage, Brooklyn Grange, a little early today... I normally enjoy the rain, and boy do the crops need it, but after several hours in a trashbag poncho and mud up to your ankles shoveling raised beds and sowing seed, lust for comfort starts to take over.
Now home, nice warm shower taken, emails checked and answered, cup of foraged/grown linden and clover tea at my side, I figured I'd say hello to my homesteading friends after a while being away and tackle a gardening subject that has been a big focus of mine over the past few weeks.
The subject of this post is suckers. Already a pro? Get on with some knitting or whatever.
If you're scratching your head or have heard of suckers but don't really understand how to deal with them or why, read on. Spoiler alert: I am in favor of removing them, but I'm not a sucker about it.
If you've grown a tomato plant, you've dealt with suckers unwittingly or wittingly.
Some background! Tomatoes come in two main types according to growth habit: determinate and indeterminate. Most heirloom and open-pollinated tomatoes are indeterminate, while most "patio" or "bush" cherry tomato starts you'll find at the grocery or hardware store are determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes are vines, which, given infinite amounts of nutrient, space, light, and water, would probably grow infinitely on (or, indeterminately), whereas determinate tomatoes grow into compact, bushy-like plants, set and ripen fruit in a short period of time, and then retire.
If you don't want to start seed; don't want to do any pruning, staking, or maintenance; and don't care about the delicious amazingness of the tomato's most true and ultimate form, then determinate tomatoes are right for you. Stick some in pots, water here and there, and away you go. (If anyone has found a really good patio tomato, I'll get off my high horse to check it out.)
But if green zebras and pineapple bicolors and black krims and brandywines and sungolds are more your style, you'll be dealing with indeterminate plants. How much you deal with them is up to you, of course, but I'm going to make a case for why, and explain how, to sucker and prune.
Things would be much simpler if tomatoes (henceforth of the indeterminate type) grew neatly and cleanly in one straight line onward and upward to infinity. But they don't. Tarnation.
I think of the tomato as the hydra of the garden crop world. Either through centuries of being bred for production, or a willful, inborn, inextractable propensity to overwhelm its grower (when you've been pruning tomatoes for weeks, you tend to believe the latter), the tomato just wants to grow as much as possible as fast as possible in as many directions as possible. One tomato vine will quickly become a jungle of tomato vines if you let it out of your sight for a minute.
Especially when growing tomatoes for the first time, the common reaction to that tangle of green in the garden is an excited, "Wow! Look how well they're growing!" I remember feeling the same way my first season with tomatoes. And, technically, it's a pretty right-on analysis of the situation. Jungly tomatoes are happy, well-fed, and really kicking back and enjoying life.
But, remember, your tomato plant's duty is to provide you with good amounts of tasty fruit. Growing vines and leaves all willy-nilly is slacking off on the job. And suckers are to blame.
The suckers are the neverendingly proliferating heads of the tomato hydra. They develop all along the stem from the growth tip all the way down even sometimes beneath the soil line. Usually they're easy to spot - a branchy thing with little leaves jutting out between the main stem and a leaf - but sometimes they fool you or hide. Left alone, that sucker will develop into a vine of its own, and, yep, spawn more suckers. Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning.
It stands to reason that if you have more vines, you'll have more tomatoes. Well, that's also pretty right-on. A plant with, say, three main vines will probably bear more fruit than one pruned-back vine.
So why remove them?
Here's where the name comes in handy. Suckers "suck" resources away from the main vine as they grow into a vine of their own. Each sucker isn't its own plant, no matter how big it gets, so it has to share water and nutrients from the same rootstock as the others. Whenever a new sucker shows up, all the other suckers at the party get less beer and chips. And the host has one more broken vase to clean up the next morning.
The same reasoning extends to fruits. If you don't prune your plant at all, you'll have more fruit, but it'll most likely be watery, bland, and blah. Fewer vines produce fewer fruit, but each one gets a lot more attention (i.e. all of the good stuff we love about tomatoes: sweetness, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants).
Ready to kick some sucker butt? Skip down to techniques. Otherwise, let me gnaw on your ear some more.
Letting suckers have their way is also risky for overall plant health. More vines creates more jungle effect, which puts plants straight in the crosshairs of insect, fungal, bacterial, or viral attack. Tomatoes are susceptible to lots of baddies, and many of them do their dirty work when there's darkness or low airflow below the main canopy.
How about now?
OK, well, a plant with lots of vines is also more difficult and resource-intensive to stake and support than a singly-vined plant.
Still not convinced? You're not alone. For as many varieties of tomatoes there are out there, there's as many ways of growing them. Many folks find great success in letting their tomatoes do what they want. Figure out what works best for you. Do you have the time to pull off suckers here and there? Do you care about quantity over quality?
It's also not a zero-sum game. You can remove some suckers and leave some behind, which is probably one of the best ways to go about it, maximizing production and flavor/nutrition while minimizing disease/pest risk.
Fortunately, dealing with suckers is a breeze if you are vigilant. The best time to remove them is when small (1/2"-1"), before the plant has spent too much time and energy investing in a new top. Simply pinch them off at the crotch between the main leaf and stem. If one has gotten away from you and is already quite large, you can choose to leave it on the plant to minimize wasted investment or clip it off.
Some tips earned after several tomato seasons, and, not least, this season's 4,000 plants-worth of work:
-Start from the top and work your way down. Sometimes the plant will curiously give up on its main stem (terminating in a weird leaf-seat or awkwardly large flower) and focus all energy on a sucker below, so you'll want to leave that sucker behind to take over.
-If you remove all suckers and, darn it, find that there's no growth tip left, mark the plant somehow so you remember to leave at least one sucker behind next time, because...
-Suckers will regrow, so check your plants often!
-If you're having trouble telling which vine is a sucker and which is the main stem (sometimes the plant splits almost perfectly down the middle), either leave both, or decide which one to cut based on size and vigor.
-If you have to cut a sucker off, use a sharp blade to make it as painless as possible
-Wear gloves if you're working with lots of plants, unless you don't mind sticky black sap all over your fingers
-Don't stress. If you leave some behind, you'll have more fruit. If you remove all growth tips, the plant will most likely rebound.
-While you're suckering, remove any discolored lower leaves. Also, pinch off any flowers unless your plant is already tall and well established so it focuses energy on growth. Some folks pinch off flowers and fruit for up to a month after transplanting depending on original seedling size.
-If you're looking to expand your garden, you can actually make a new plant from each sucker clipped, if it's large enough. There are lots of ways to root a tomato sucker, but one of the easiest is to just stick it in a pot and keep it moist until roots form from the base.
For some live-action suckering, here's a good little video on the subject: