By the end of June, most gardens are fully planted and have had several weeks to settle in and start to grow. If your rows were fully weeded when you planted, you’ve probably had a few weeks of vacation from this ongoing garden chore. Pests can start to be a nuisance, praying on small vulnerable leaves and stems (read more about pest control here).
Right about now is a great time to get ahead of the game and create a plan to sucker, trellis, or stake any plant that will likely grow tall and may become top-heavy with fruit. In our garden, I tie pepper plants to stakes; make sure beans, peas, and cucumbers have a trellis to climb on; and sucker and cage my tomato plants. Most of this makes sense to the average person, except: what the heck is suckering?!
Plants that are naturally bushy and sprawling, like tomatoes and tomatillos, grow new “heads” (or “suckers”) at every point where a leaf grows from the main stem. When I worked in school gardens, I would tell the kids that suckers grow out of the armpits of the plants. If you want a huge sprawling bush, that’s great! BUT, if you want to be able to find all your mature fruits, keep the plant from sprawling all over the row and plant neighbors, and want to keep it off the ground to avoid disease, you’ll need to take action.
There are many trellising techniques for tomatoes. What you choose should be based on the amount of space you have, the number of plants you want to grow, and how many extra supplies you’ll need to invest in. Feel free to let me know if you want my thoughts on your specific circumstance! In general, I recommend starting with a large tomato cage, and suckering your plant to keep it airy, growing up, and focused on producing fruit off its main stem.
Now that my tomato plants are over a foot high, they’ve started to grow suckers. At this age, I can simply pinch them off with my fingers. If suckers get very large, you’ll want to use snippers or scissors so you don’t rip the main stalk of the plant. By removing suckers when they are small, I encourage the plant to focus on growing up rather than out. In August, this will result in a more orderly tomato row with plants that are (mostly) growing within their cages. This makes for easy harvesting, less spread of disease (which usually happens when rain splashes dirt up onto your plant or when leaves are densely packed together), and less breakage if there are high winds.
Suckering is an ongoing chore throughout the season, but is quick and easy, and fits into walks through the garden when you can also keep an eye out for maturing fruit, find new pests before they cause much damage, and take a moment to pluck a few weeds.
Want to get creative? Let a few suckers grow in a strategic way. Tomato espalier anyone? Last year in my garden I planted a single plant at the base of a trellis. I let one sucker grow up each wire, and then removed the rest. I used string to periodically tie each branch to it’s assigned wire – tomatoes don’t send out tendrils or curl around wires like peas, beans, and cucumbers. My yield per plant was very high because I was essentially growing multiple “trunks” from one plant.