All of our cool weather seed trays are sown and we’re looking forward to all the yummy produce that comes with cooler weather: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, cabbage and more. However, that doesn’t mean we’re ready to give up on getting a bunch of warm-weather produce while we still can.
To accomplish this aim we have a few little tricks that help extend our summer growing season. If you love tomatoes as much as we do (and our ducks do), then you’ll enjoy having some simple tricks up your sleeve to help you get another big round of tomatoes out of your garden before the first frost of the year.
Tomato Growing Temperatures
As long as your daytime temps are regularly above 60 degrees and you don’t have frosts at night, you can still get good tomato yields from healthy plants. However, by this time of year, most tomato plants are well past their prime, having been drained of energy from fruit production or succumbed to various insects and diseases (for instance, late blight has been bad in the southeast this year due to record rainfall).
Even though most of our tomato plants are well past their prime, many of them continue to grow healthy “suckers” and growth tips. A tomato sucker isn’t a vampire. “Sucker” refers to the new growth section that emerges from the joint between a primary stem and branch on a tomato plant.
Many people recommend keeping your tomato suckers trimmed off throughout the growing season to get larger fruit and healthier plants. However, we grow way too many tomato plants to keep all of our suckers cut, so we don’t bother to remove them. We haven’t noticed any difference in our plants’ health, yields or fruit size either way, and we like not having to spend hours each week suckering all of our tomato plants.
As you may know, tomato plants root very easily, and the “fuzzy” white texture you see on their stem surface can actually become new roots. Each year between mid-July and mid-August, we cut off suckers from some of our favorite tomato varieties and grow a last batch of healthy new plants that yield an abundance of late-season fruit.
Here’s how you can also use the same trick to easily extend your tomato growing season:
Step By Step: How to Extend Your Tomato Growing Season With Suckers
Step 1: Cut Your Suckers – This step sounds like the title of a bad action movie, but bear with us… Cut off a few healthy suckers from some of your favorite tomato plants that are already past their prime. Use suckers that are at least 4-5″ long and already have a couple of healthy leaves/branches on them. Trim all but the very top leaves/growth tip on the sucker. If the suckers are large enough to already have flowers on them, pinch off the flowers so that the new plant can put its energy into root growth rather than trying to set fruit.
Step 2: Dip In Rooting Hormone – Dip the stems of your suckers in rooting hormone. Because tomatoes root so readily, this step is really optional. We just so happen to have some on hand this year, and every little bit helps!
Step 3: Pot– Put the tomato sucker in a small seedling pot filled with moistened compost/potting soil and bury the stem up to the first leaves. Remember, the white fuzz on the stem will all turn into new roots. The more roots, the healthier the plant will be. During this period, keep the new plants moist and in a part-sun location (mist or water daily as-needed if the plant looks limp). If you put the plant in a full-sun spot, it could dry out and die before it establishes new roots.
Step 4: Harden off & Plant In the Ground – After about 7-10 days, your sucker should have established new roots. You’ll notice its vigor increase and healthy new leaves forming when it’s ready to go in the ground. Allow your new tomato a few days to harden off to full sun again. Generally, we follow this schedule for hardening newly rooted plants: Day 1-3: 4-6 hrs AM full sun // Day 4-6: 6-8+ hrs all day sun. Keep your eye on them for signs of stress. Finally, once they’ve acclimated, find a good, sunny, tomato-friendly location and get it in the ground as soon as possible.
Step 5: Harvest – Where we live in South Carolina, we often don’t get our first frost until late October or November, so we can get a lot more tomatoes before fall sets in. Select a smaller-fruited tomato variety if you’re worried about not having enough time to get a good harvest before first frost (larger-fruited tomatoes take longer to ripen). Or if you see a frost about to hit before your large tomatoes are fully ripe, you can always make a big batch of green tomato preserves, a delicious new treat we have fallen in love with this year (recipe coming soon).
This method of extending your tomato-growing season doesn’t require any seeds and produces new, robust plants far faster than growing them from seed. We hope you get a big late season tomato harvest!