I used to think of gardening as an exact science, including a right way and a wrong way of doing things. Now that I’m older, I realize every gardener has a style. Some are neat, some are messy. Some are consistent in what they grow, others try new things all the time. Some learn and grow better gardens each year, and some muddle along in the same old way, finding variable success depending on the year. Of course, science is involved, but how you apply it depends on your style. For example, some gardeners “pinch back” suckers on their tomato plants. This means removing the shoots that appear in the “V” or “axil” that is created between the branch and the main stem of tomato plants.
In northern regions like Pennsylvania, many gardeners remove all suckers as they appear. In warmer zones, experts often recommend “Missouri pruning,” where the leaflets on the end of each sucker are pinched off, leaving the two base leaflets in place. As these leaves enlarge, they help shade fruit and protect it from sunscald.
The practice of pinching back suckers allows only one or two main stems to grow. It channels the plant’s energy into the existing fruit instead of growing new branches, allowing larger tomatoes. And while pinching reduces overall production (less fruit), the plant grows sturdier with branches that are easier to stake. Branches break less and tomatoes are easier to harvest.
There is a caveat on the practice of pinching back tomato plants, and it depends on whether a tomato plant is a determinate variety or an indeterminate variety. Determinate tomato plants grow to a specific height and stop growing. They produce smaller tomatoes and ripen earlier in the season. Indeterminate tomato plants ripen later in the season and continue to grow throughout the summer, producing fruit until they are killed by frost. You can tell whether your plant is indeterminate or determinate by looking at the plant tag or by consulting a garden center worker or the internet.
The caveat is: Only indeterminate tomato plants benefit from pinching suckers. Determinate tomato plants are naturally more compact even without pinching; fruit sets after branches are fully grown, and no new fruit develops after pruning. Therefore, nothing is gained by losing the tomato suckers on determinate plants.
Whether you pinch back your plants or not is entirely up to you. My style is unpredictable. I pinch back suckers one year and forget all about it the next year. Sometimes my plants produce nice big fruit and other times my plants are wild and unruly with limited harvest. Gardening is an exercise in experimentation and may depend on the weather as well as how much space and time you have in your own personal garden. Whatever you do, enjoy your harvest this year with a simple tomato soup recipe.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 white onion, thinly sliced
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
- 2 cups water or vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- garnish with fresh basil, cilantro, oregano or parsley
- In a frying pan, over medium heat, combine the olive oil and onion slices. Cook the onions until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes, reducing the heat if necessary to avoid browning.
- Add garlic, tomato, 1 ½ cups of the water/broth to the onions and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
- Add the remaining water/broth (1/2 cup) to a small bowl or measuring cup. Stir the flour into the liquid using a fork or a small whisk to make a roux. Set aside.
- Transfer the tomato/onion mixture to a food processor or high speed blender. Blend until smooth. Return blended soup to the frying pan. Add the flour mixture to the soup and bring the mixture to medium heat and stir with the whisk or fork to thicken the soup. Season with salt, maple syrup, pepper and fresh herbs of your choice.