A Master Gardenerd wrote in recently:
“Can you talk about pinching off some of the branches of tomato plants? Some people do and some don’t. Is it necessary and how does one do it?”
Good question. This is one of those concepts that breaks the hearts of many a gardener. The thought process goes something like this, “If I pinch off the branches, then I’ll get fewer tomatoes… I don’t want fewer tomatoes…but they say that if you pinch them off, your tomatoes will be bigger and better tasting.” In a nutshell, that’s the reason for pinching off suckers(we’ll define that in a minute). It isn’t absolutely necessary, but it falls under the category of “best practices”.
The other reason for pinching off branches is to keep things from getting out of control, and to prevent water borne fungal infections, to some degree. Low hanging branches often get wet when we water. If you remove the lower branches and keep them from touching the ground, you will stave off the conditions that rot tomato leaves. It is perfectly acceptable to cut off any branches from any part of the plant that have signs of deterioration, or any branches that are preventing air circulation around the plant. You can identify these easily because they are usually damp or “sweaty” and are crowded against other branches.
Now regarding “suckers”, here is an archived Tip of the Week from about a year ago:
“Suckers” are side shoots that spring up at the junction where the main stem meets the leaf. If left to their own devices, suckers will form new branches and more fruit. It is tempting to leave them alone, but if you pinch them off while they are just forming, you will have healthier plants, heavier fruit and better circulation for a better harvest.
The guideline for pinching suckers (aptly named because they suck life from the other tomatoes) is to start pinching when the plant has 4 clusters of flowers or established fruit. Simply bend, cut or pinch (with your fingernails) the sucker at the junction point and it should snap right off. You can also pinch off the top of the plant to limit production and focus all the plant’s energy on developing the existing fruit, but honestly I haven’t the heart to do it.
Ultimately, while it is highly recommended, it is up to the gardener whether to pinch or not to pinch. I would like to suggest an experiment. If you have two of the same tomato plants growing, pinch one back and let the other go crazy. Share your findings with us here at the end of the season. I have two Brandywine tomatoes planted side by side. I might just try this out myself.
Keep us posted on your results and thanks for writing in.