Pruning and removing tomato leaves and 'suckers' is more of an art that is shaped by experience and preference. With time and experience you will find your own technique for pruning and managing your tomatoes. Many factors determine how you might prune your tomatoes and they include planting zone, tomato type, planting location and local diseases. So many factors in fact, that I can't give you a cut and dry method for pruning tomatoes and removing tomato 'suckers'.
What I am going to do this year is give you the situation and the method I use for my area. I will present many pruning and tending scenarios over the 2013 gardening season. Today's entry is about pruning indeterminate tomatoes in 5 gallon containers.
I am in Maryland Zone 7 and the main diseases that attack my tomatoes are Septoria Leaf Spot and Early Blight. I am growing many types of tomatoes in 5 gallon containers. The tomato I am pruning today is the 'Black Plum' indeterminate variety. It can get up to 8 feet tall when planted in the ground. The pruning goal for this tomato is to manage the size of the plant so it can grow well in a 5 gallon container.
Why Prune Indeterminate Container Tomatoes?
I will keep the 'Black Plum' to a single production stem (main stem) for couple months. As the season progresses I may let more main stems or productions stems develop. A tomato 'sucker' is actually a main stem that will become a production stem. It will produce leaves, flower clusters and fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes will produce 'suckers' or new production stems at just about ever leaf joint on the tomato. If you let them all develop when growing them in a container, the plant will over-whelm the container and cause watering and nutritional issues down the line. You have to prune indeterminate tomatoes that you are growing in containers if you want to maximize fruit size and plant health. And to not go insane.
A tomato 'sucker' really doesn't suck the life from your tomato plant. It makes it bigger and creates more opportunities for fruit. More fruit comes at a cost of overall smaller sized fruit. There is only so much a tomato plant can do to produce larger or full sized tomatoes. You may or may not be concerned about this as some gardeners want bigger fruit and some want a higher yield. But... in a container you have to prune out the tomato 'suckers' to insure your tomato stays healthy and produces quality fruit.
Identifying and Removing the Tomato 'Suckers'
Your newly transplanted tomatoes are single stems with a growing tip. As the transplants mature they will obviously grow, leaving behind leaves and flower clusters. In the joint where the the leaf meets the initial main growing stem, will come a new shoot. That new shoot is often called a 'sucker'. What it really is - is a new production stem. It will produce leaves and flower clusters. Flower clusters become tomatoes. That new growing stem will also produce 'suckers' in the joint. You can imagine what would happen to your container tomato if you didn't prune out most of the new production stems or 'suckers'. It would be massive. That is why determinate varieties are often grown in containers instead of indeterminate varieties... plant size management.
The video shows you how to identify and remove the 'suckers' or new production stems from the freshly transplanted 'Black Plum' indeterminate tomato plant. A general rule of thumb is to prune from the bottom and leave the upper 1/4 or 1/3 alone as to not accidentally prune off the growing tip. As the plant gets taller, you work you way up it and prune out unwanted growth.
How Many Main Stems or Production Stems Should I Grow?
That is up to you but I would recommend 1 or 2 main production stems if you are just starting. They are just easier to manage while you gain tomato container growing experience. It also depends on the variety of the indeterminate tomato. Cherry tomatoes might merit many productions stems, where large beefsteak tomatoes merit fewer. Keep in mind that you want fewer main stems when growing indeterminate tomatoes in containers verses earth beds.
I also suggest 1 or 2 production or main stems for about 1/2 of the growing season and then letting the top of the plant develop more stems. But as you might notice there is no set way or set formula or exact technique that tell all gardeners how to prune a tomato. It becomes a practice in creating a living sculpture. You become an artist with your own technique. Good luck.
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