Tomato Patch: Is that a sucker or a fruiting branch?

Know what you’re pinching

How can you tell the difference between a tomato plant’s sucker and a fruiting branch when they’re both just beginning to grow?

If you don’t pinch suckers, I suppose you don’t have to worry about the difference.  You just let everything grow.  But if you want to pinch suckers—I explained in an earlier posting why you might want to do that—you certainly don’t want to prune off the fruiting branches by mistake.  If you do, you’re removing future tomatoes.

Most information about suckers mentions that they grow at the junction of a main stem and a leaf.  That junction is called the “axil.” 

But don’t fruiting branches grow from axils too?  No, fruiting branches grow from the main stem, not at the intersection of Main Stem Street and Leaf Avenue.  So when you’re removing suckers, make sure you’re removing new growth at an axil.

If the new growth is just beginning and you’re just not sure if it’s a new fruiting branch or a new sucker, let it continue growing for a few days.  A fruiting branch soon will display its buds and then blossoms.  A sucker, by contrast, continues growing as a potential new main stem with new leaves and eventually fruiting branches also.

The first photo shows a fruiting branch and a sucker on an Amish Paste tomato plant in the Tomato Patch this morning.  Note the fruiting branch growing from the main stem and the sucker growing from the axil.

My mistake: Roma plant without
a main stem

Do I ever make a mistake when I’m pinching suckers?  Am I human?  I haven’t pinched a fruiting branch this year—yet.  I’ve done worse.  Somehow I managed to pinch the main stem of a Roma tomato.  Now, several weeks later as you can see in the second photo, I seem to have created an 18-inch high tomato shrub that apparently will remain forever fruitless.

If you want to read my more detailed posting about removing suckers, “Tomato Patch: Pinch that sucker?” (June 20, 2011), CLICK HERE.

Shadow-portrait: Ancient Gardener in straw hat

3 Comments on “Tomato Patch: Is that a sucker or a fruiting branch?

  1. I was just out pinching suckers this morning! Or rather, cutting them, because I waited too long to pinch most. Some I let grow – it depends on where they're headed.


  2. In general suckers are considered undesirable on a tomato plant. By removing suckers, plant energy is directed toward bigger and more fruit. I like more and smaller fruit, so I usually have two to three stems bearing fruit per plant. Also, it is recommended to remove all leaves between ground and first flower cluster. One reason – disease control. Does anyone practices it?

    I have 3 red tomatoes on my 'Sweet 100 Cherry tomato'. Hurray! There seems to be unwritten goal among local (HOCO) gardeners to have fresh tomatoes from a garden for the Fourth of July celebration. So, let us celebrate the Fourth also as the date when we become independent of the “grocery shelf” tomato! Fireworks, please!


  3. Yes, Paul, I remove leaves between the first flower cluster and the ground–not all at once–but over a couple of weeks as the plants grow overhead. Even though I mulch with straw, I still think removing the lower leaves helps prevent spread of early blight, which is endemic to our soil.

    I would love to pick a tomato by the Fourth. My best candidate is a Juliet, but, alas, it won't be ready for the big celebration. Congratulations on your Sweet 100s that are turning red. Mine are still a week or so from that point.


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