If you’re a sucker for a vine-ripe summer tomato, don’t hide it. Flaunt it.
Better yet. Snap it off and plant it.
Suckers, the shoots that sprout in the “V” between a tomato plant’s main stem and its branches, can easily be broken off, rooted and planted. They will grow into mature plants that will bear fruit.
With careful planning, this simple exercise is a great way to get a second, free crop of fall tomatoes. And, if you get lucky with the weather, the vines can produce fruit past Halloween and into the holiday season.
Here are the steps to pruning, rooting, planting and growing tomato suckers.
Determine the anticipated date for the first frost for your area. You can find this out by asking your local extension service.
Count backwards from the frost date by at least 85 days to determine when to snap off the suckers. This will allow time for the suckers to root and for the minimum of 55-60 days that many tomatoes need to produce fruit. (They prefer night temperatures above 60 degrees F and actually will do better when the night temperature is above 70 degrees F.)
Select the plants from which you will take the suckers. These could be varieties you found particularly flavorful or those that are growing especially well for you. Then just snap off as many suckers as you have space for in the garden. The suckers should be about 5-6 inches long and without developing vegetable clusters. (To remove the sucker, simply hold it between your thumb and forefinger near the base of the sucker and rock it back and forth. It should snap off easily. The “wound” on the mother plant will heal easily.)
Root the suckers. Some people root suckers in a jar or cup of water. If you root them in water, they can be potted or planted in the garden when the roots are about an inch long. Other gardeners root them in pots filled with potting soil, wet sand or wet vermiculite. If the suckers are rooted in pots, it’s best to place the fresh cuttings out of the sun until they recover from transplant shock. After a few days, they can gradually be moved back into full sun. During this time the potted plants will need to be watered daily. The main challenge if you choose to pot them is to keep the potting medium moist until the plants recover from transplant shock. The plants will wilt for the first few days, but should spring back after that. If remembering varieties is important to you, be sure to label the the suckers as you snap them off. (Depending on your risk tolerance for getting the suckers though transplant shock, you can even place the jars of water or pots beside the plants from which the suckers were taken to help you remember varieties.) In any case, you will not need rooting hormone to root the suckers. It generally takes two-three weeks for the suckers to grow roots and become ready to plant in the garden. The good news though, is that there is no right or wrong way to get the suckers to start growing roots.
Plant the suckers. Some people even plant freshly cut suckers directly into the garden. Whether you choose this method or root them and plant them, you will want to keep them moist after planting them into the ground to help them get established in the heat of the summer.
Growing suckers into mature plants. Once they have become established, treat them as you would seedlings you planted in the spring. Provide support in the form of a stake or cage and begin a regular fertilizing program.
Harvest. Depending on how lucky you were with timing — when you rooted the suckers and whether frost was early or late in arriving — and where you live in the country, you could be harvesting your second crop of tomatoes as late as Thanksgiving or early December.
Enjoy. Whether you use the green tomatoes in a salsa, ripen them on a window sill or flour and fry them, they will be a wonderful reminder of one of the true joys of the summer garden.