The Great Sucker Stumper - Pruning Veggie Plants
Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Chronicles & Confessions of the Veggie Patch
An unfolding adventure tale of amateur vegetable gardening, peasant style.
-With detailed steps for establishing your own organic vegetable garden.
Series Post 8
“But what causes them??” I mumbled out loud as I typed the same question into the search over again.
Suckers, they were called. A very interesting, non-scientific name. It seemed these plant shoots were so despised by the gardening community that they never even bothered to sound professional when they wrote about them. Unwanted due to their supposed vampiric attributes, many gardeners faithfully snip or pull them from plants, trees and shrubs. Others advise leaving them alone so as to not risk wounding the plants. But over all, there are mixed feelings about them.
My investigation into suckers began when two of my tomato plants mutated into monsters. Unfortunately, I had planted them too close together, so when they started to overtake one another, I wondered what I should do. Should I prune them? I remembered reading that without proper air flow, tomatoes are at risk for disease. But if pruning was necessary, how did I do it?
My internet research went something like this…
Google, Alexa, Siri, whoever you are… how do I prune tomato plants?
Remove the suckers.
Okay? What’s a sucker?
It’s a little shoot that begins to grow from the place where a branch is attached to the stem of the plant.
I can’t visualize what you mean.
It would be like an extra arm beginning to grow from your armpit or neck.
Just look at a picture.
Okay, got it. Why do suckers need removed?
They will continue to grow into a full-sized branch if not removed, taking energy away from the rest of the plant and fruit production. By some definitions, suckers do not produce flowers or fruit of their own.
That made sense to me. I had already learned a little about this with the herbs. What seemed strange though was that if suckers hindered the plant’s purpose and Master Gardeners recommended they be removed for better fruit yield, why did they occur naturally? God wouldn’t have created the plant wrong… right? That just didn’t sound like a God thing to me. Did the ancients and the peasants really have to prune suckers all the time?
So my question became, what causes suckers?
There’s nothing that matches your search, the internet seemed to say. (I could hear Siri’s voice in my head even though I no longer had an iPhone.) But here’s hundreds of articles about how to remove them. Oh, and here’s some about why you shouldn’t remove them.
Okay, but where do they come from? Do they always form, or does something cause them?
It took a while, but I finally found the answer. I wasn’t surprised. I had a hunch.
It turns out that most trees, shrubs and other plants are capable of suckering, but when healthy, they don’t sucker often. Stress awakens the sucker response in almost all of them.
Suckering, then, is often a defensive attempt by the plant to grow more branches when it has been injured in some way or pruned too much, or another condition threatens it.
I was right then. Suckering wasn’t meant to be this way, and to prevent it, plants should be healthy!
So to answer my question, “to prune or not to prune,” I decided that since pruning wounds are some of the “injuries” that can cause suckering in the first place (and can be places where microbes enter!), I’ll join the “no prune” camp and let my sprawling tomato vines go as wild as they want. They are very green and thick and growing many tomatoes right now, so hopefully they are hearty enough to withstand the risks that may come with that choice.
(Besides, I remember a special pastor always saying, “God is the pruner. We don’t do the pruning. We’ll cut the wrong things off!” His advice was for “pruning” one another, but I can hear his voice in my head nevertheless.)
On the other hand, since farming abounds in the Bible, God Himself does give us an interesting description of pruning in this symbolic analogy…
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2)
From these verses, I would conclude that joining the “prune the suckers” camp isn’t wrong, either. Dad just told me that he has been pruning suckers from tomato plants for years. For him, spindly plants always explode vibrantly when he does.
However, from what I’ve read about gardening, harvesting fruit and vegetables when they’re ready is what encourages more production. Often, harvesting requires literally cutting the stems. This may be what Jesus is referring to when He says “he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful,” not necessarily pruning away so-called “suckers.”
What do you think? Some food for thought, I suppose.
In the meantime, I learned an important lesson! Plants do need plenty of space so that they stay healthy.
Apparently, gardening pros advise newbies like me to plant fewer tomato plants spaced farther apart. Growing only a few plants with lots of space between produces a bigger harvest with better quality tomatoes than growing several more plants with spacing issues. (And use Compost for disease control. See Post 1.)
I laughed to myself when I read about this. As with the rest of my gardening adventure, I knew I could relate the concept to life if I thought about it for a moment. It didn’t take too long to remember the “Fixer Upper” song in the Disney movie Frozen…
People make bad choices
If they’re mad or scared or stressed
But throw a little love their way…
And you’ll bring out their best!
But just like our own lives, sometimes “suckering” still happens even in healthy plants. After all, no one can live in perfect conditions all the time! Not to worry though, suckering isn’t all bad.
The story goes that hormones in the growing tips of plants are responsible for preventing “wrong parts” from growing. Harm to the tips or to the tissues that transport the hormones makes suckers more likely. But even without harm, some species of plants are more prone to suckering than others. So, why sucker?
God created the plants exactly the way they are for a reason. In the wild, plants do amazing things to keep the cycle of life flowing. Suckering plants produce bushier, sprawling, spreading, wild tickets. Wild plants are home and food to countless species of birds, animals, insects, microbes, and more, in addition to doing all the other jobs required of plant life that keep the world functioning. So in these cases, suckering isn’t terrible. It’s part of life. Plants by design have dormant buds that are there to form suckers when the need arises.
Actually, it’s necessary to tear out a sucker (rather than cutting it) to remove the buds inside that would otherwise be left to awaken and form new suckers. This is the only way of preventing suckers at the site, and not surprisingly, the earlier it happens, the easier it is to do. (I’ll let you analyze that one.)
In addition, it’s possible to use suckers to grow new plants! Put them in water until roots form, then plant in soil! (Only with non-grafted plants.)
Relating this back to us, people can “make bad choices” (or produce suckers) even when they’re not “mad or scared or stressed.” But God makes beautiful things out of our mistakes no matter where our hearts were when we made them. Since He created within us the ability to make our choices (and He’s never particularly surprised by our decisions), He’s right there to turn everything around for our good – and for the good of those around us.
Organic Veggie Patch, Step 5: Pruning
Prune outside branches, leaves, flowers and fruit as needed:
Remove dead or damaged portions.
At your discretion, remove older leaves to allow light to reach developing fruit and improve air circulation.
If it’s been very wet and plants are crowded, remove entire branches that have rogue leaves.
It’s a good idea to research the appropriate care for your specific plants and stick to those guidelines.
*For tomato plants – remove discolored leaves when you see them so they do not infect others.
(Note: Gardening Maintenance tips are in Post 4.)
May you bear much fruit!
Meg is a writer, dreamer, church secretary and member of her church council. When she is not working in ministry, she spends her days uncovering secrets of the historic past and trying to snatch as much free time as she can to pen her book ideas. Meg is committed to living a healthy lifestyle according to what she understands from God’s Word. She drags everyone that she can along for the ride, especially her husband and pets.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
*Tree Suckering Notes: In trees, suckering at the base of the trunk is often caused by damage to the tree’s roots. When suckering occurs higher than at the base of the trunk, the suckers are called “watersprouts.” These are usually at the site of a pruning wound, crack or other damage.