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Tomatoes: Are You a Sucker-Plucker?

If you grow tomatoes in your small kitchen garden, you face an important decision: will you pluck suckers, or leave them alone? Suckers? Simply, suckers are branches on your tomato plants. Typically, a sucker sprouts where a leaf meets the main stalk of the plant. Many experienced gardeners tell you that your plants grow stronger and produce better if you pluck the suckers. It just isn’t so. But there are reasons to be a sucker-plucker.

Tomato varieties

There are two categories of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties stop growing after producing a season’s crop. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow until some outside influence (such as a frost) kills the plants. When you select plants to grow in your small kitchen garden, you might evaluate several characteristics:

  • How big will the fruits be?
  • What color tomatoes does the plant produce?
  • Is the variety of tomatoes meaty or is it juicy?
  • Does the variety have a reputation for good flavor?
  • Are the plants resistant to diseases?
  • How large do the plants grow?
  • Are the plants determinate or indeterminate?

A tomato plant sucker

I like to heft a purplish-red three-quarter pound fruit, knowing just two or three will make a salad for as many meals. So, I choose large, disease-resistant varieties such as beefsteak, big boy, better boy, and big girl. All are indeterminate and with a reasonably long growing season, a single plant could stretch eight or nine feet along the ground, covering four or more feet on each side of the main vine.

A tidy small kitchen garden

To preserve space (and to keep my tomatoes out of the dirt), I plant a tall wooden stake next to each tomato plant. As the vine grows, I tie it to the stake. As suckers appear, I pluck them. The reason? If I don’t pluck, I’ll end up with dozens of branches on my tomato plant, and each will grow as aggressively and crazily as the main vine. In fact, the suckers themselves will develop suckers. It would become a major chore to tie all those suckers to the stake holding the tomato plant.

Were I growing determinate varieties, such as romas (there are even determinate beefsteak tomatoes), I wouldn’t bother at all about suckers. To keep them under control, I’d invest in big tomato cages—metal hoops on uprights that provide a framework to hold the branches within a limited space.

I’ve let indeterminate plants grow as many suckers as they wanted, and compared the tomato production with that of plucked plants. There was no appreciable difference. So, if you stake your tomato plants in your small kitchen garden, pluck the suckers to keep things tidy and ease maintenance. If your plants are determinate, and they aren’t growing much beyond four feet anyway, then let the suckers grow; you may get more fruit that way… for less effort.

How to pluck suckers

Oh, and how do you pluck suckers? If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, just pinch the stalk off as close to its base as possible. Alternatively, use a knife to cut the sucker close, or use gardening shears to snip it.

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6 Responses to “Tomatoes: Are You a Sucker-Plucker?”

  • [...] an earlier post, I explained about how to manage tomato plants. I, personally, am a sucker-plucker; even on determinate varieties of tomatoes, I remove suckers and tie the tomato vines to [...]

  • I didn’t even know there was a name for those little offshoots. I’ve been growing tomatoes in my dorm room. Pretty cool!

  • That was a very helpful article. Thanks, Daniel. Now I think “indeterminate” would be the way to go.. heirlooms?

  • Great article, as I read for the sole purpose of whether or not to pluck suckers….the key point that there is no difference in production, basically.
    I have 175 Romas, which are determinate and I am letting the suckers alone. Since they are in 8 rows, I use poles at intervals with a heavy wire and tie-off each plant to the wire.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Baxter: 175 Romas? With about 85 total plants last season, trellising and plucking suckers was a considerable undertaking. Just for the work you’ll save, I agree with your decision not to pluck. As well… as tomato plants go, Romas are fairly compact and make nice “bushes” when you surround them with cages or other trellising. Were I to grow determinate varieties such as Romas, I’d lean hard toward caging them and letting the suckers grow. The crazy indeterminate varieties I grow usually go at least 3 feet above my trellises, totaling 10 feet from ground to terminus. They’d be much shorter if I left the suckers to grow… but trellising would be a nightmare. Have a terrific growing season, and thanks for visiting!

  • Kula May R Ellison:

    Hi Nice good information on tomatoes and suckers :D Thank You :D

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