The Biggest LIE About Growing Tomatoes

The biggest myth about growing tomatoes
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 Am I a tomato-growing expert? I'm not sure I'd give myself that title, even though I've successfully grown tomatoes for 16 or more years. But Craig LeHoullier? Yep, he's definitely an expert. He's trialed more than 1,200 varieties of tomatoes and introduced 100 new or "lost" tomatoes to the world. This guy knows his stuff. So when he says there's one big lie - a persistent myth - that haunts the gardening world, we should listen. Especially since it's something that wastes our time and reduces our tomato yields.

"I am most often asked about pruning and suckering of tomato plants," LeHoullier writes in his book Epic Tomatoes. Suckers are side-stems that grow at the junction between the plant's main stem and its leaf stems. Conventional wisdom says gardeners must remove all suckers from tomato plants - or end up with a smaller tomato harvest.

I've long wondered about this, because back in the days before I "knew better," I never did cut off suckers. When I finally read somewhere that I should, and began implementing my new found "wisdom," if anything I saw a reduction in the production of my tomato plants. Well, LeHoullier confirms my observation. "Contrary to pervasive urban legends, " he writes. "[suckers] do not sap energy from the main tomato plant."

Suckers grow between the plant's main stem and a leaf stem.
Further, LeHoullier maintains that removing suckers may result in a smaller tomato harvest. He explains:
"Picture a tomato plant that has all of its suckers removed, tied to an 8-foot stake. A blossom cluster is produced at 8- to 12-inch intervals, starting at 2 feet from the soil line. During the season, the majority of the flower clusters open a times when the temperature and/or humidity is not suitable for pollination, leading to blossom drop*. As a result, only a handful of fruit is produced on the 8-foot tall plant, with no mechanism available for producing additional flowers. If just one sucker would have been maintained, the number of flower clusters would have doubled, and it is highly likely that flowers on that additional growing shoot would have opened under more suitable conditions, thus significantly increasing the yield of the plant."

* "Blossom drop" is when a flower is produced, but is never pollinated and therefore cannot produce fruit.

Allowing suckers to stay on the plant also offers an additional bonus: giving the plant more leaves, which in turn helps reduce sunscald on fruit.

But LeHoullier doesn't just leave it at that. He goes on to further explain why you might want to prune your tomato plants, anyway:

* Snipping off some suckers helps control the size of the plant. You don't want the plant sprawling all over the ground, where it may pick up disease. Too many branches may lead to poor circulation, which also may cause disease.

* Removing some suckers prevents plants from becoming so big you have a tough time harvesting tomatoes that aren't on the edges of the plant.

* If you want additional tomato plants, and your growing season is long enough to allow younger plants to produce, removing suckers is a cheap and easy way to accomplish this. After snipping off suckers that are about 6 inches long, put each one in a jar of water. (Alternatively, push the cut ends into a pot filled with wet potting mix.) Keep out of direct sunlight and the suckers should begin producing roots within 2 weeks.  If you've started the rooting process in a jar (which better allows you to see how many roots each sucker has), transfer well-rooted suckers to a pot and keep in a shaded location for a few weeks before planting out with your other tomatoes.

* Topping plants also maintain control over the plant's size. This is an especially handy technique toward the end of the season: If frost is nearing and the plant is producing flowers that likely will never have a chance to turn into ripe fruit, topping puts the plant's energy into growing and ripening fruit already on the vine, instead of putting it into creating new flowers. This method also prevents large tomato plants from breaking or topping over. To top a tomato plant, snip off the top stem just above the final flower cluster you want to turn into fruit.
Staked tomatoes, courtesy of
However, do bear in mind that determinate varieties (which have a natural growing limit) should never have their suckers removed because this considerably decreases yeilds. (Indeterminate tomato plants lack this growing limit and will get bigger and bigger until frost kills the plant.)

So there you have it. Growing tomatoes is easier and less time consuming than some people would have you believe! Happy growing!

* Cover image courtesy of Jennifer C.

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