Removing Epicormic Tomato Shoots: Here’s How It’s Done

If you remove the epicormic shoots from you tomatoes regularly, i.e. break off the shoots in the leaf axils, the plants will develop a better quality of fruit. We show you how to do this in our garden tips.

Apr 09, 2021 02:23 pm
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Removing epicormic shoots from tomatoes

Regularly removing epicormic shoots promotes fruit formation and healthy tomato plants

Tomatoes belong in every vegetable garden – and they even grow superbly on the balcony or in containers on the patio. In order to keep the sometimes exuberant growth under control, removing the epicormic shoots of most tomato varieties is an important measure that should be carried out regularly and carefully during the vegetation period.

Removing Epicormic Tomato Shoots: Key points
  • Removing the epicormic shoots means taking off the shoots that grow in the leaf axils.
  • These are removed every week from June to September.
  • Thicker shoots should be carefully removed with a sharp knife.
  • The first axil shoots can be left in water to take root and cultivated as new plants.
What does removing the epicormic shoots mean?
Ripe tomatoes
The epicormic shoots on tomato plants should be regularly removed to ensure large, red fruit
Why should I remove the epicormic shoots?

Gardeners understand the epicormic shoots to be the young shoots that grow in the leaf axils of tomato plants - predominantly on stake tomatoes grown as single shoot plants. This actually includes all large fruiting varieties, but also many cherry and vine tomatoes. Removing the epicormic shoots reduces the shoots and fruit buds overall. As these epicormic shoots develop later than the main shoots, but form more leaf mass and fewer flowers, they also have smaller fruit - i.e. they have a ‘greedy’ yield. If you don’t remove the epicormic shoots, the side shoots will get longer and longer over time and generally hang heavily with the weight of the fruit, unless you provide them with extra support. They also form lots of leaf and shoot mass, making the maintenance and harvesting work more difficult.

Many hobby gardeners ask themselves whether removing the epicormic shoots is worth it, after all, a plentiful tomato harvest is a good thing. However, the fact is that modern tomato plants which are bred for high yields develop so many shoots and fruit buds on the shoots that the large plant mass can no longer be maintained. If you allow all the shoots to grow, they will form lots of fruit, however these will remain small due to the short central European vegetation periods and some will not ripen fully. As with pruning tomatoes, removing the epicormic shoots promotes the growth of aromatic fruit, under the motto ‘quality over quantity’.

Epicormic shoot on a tomato
Small shoots in the leaf axils of tomato plants quickly turn into big shoots and disrupt the growth

A further reason for removing the epicormic shoots is to allow the light to reach the plants. Tomatoes require a lot of sunlight in order to ripen well and develop a sweet, fruity aroma. After a rainfall the leaves also need to dry out quickly. If the plant foliage is too dense due to heavy growing shoots, the fruits will not get enough sunlight and the leaves will remain damp for a long time due to a lack of ventilation, which could lead to fungal infestation such as brown rot and leaf blight.

Regularly removing the epicormic shoots on tomatoes also makes it easier to handle the plants. Potted tomatoes in particular need to be regularly tied up and should therefore also grow as straight as possible. If the tomato plant grows shoots in all directions, it is almost impossible to tie it up and heavy shoots including their fruit can easily break off in a gust of wind. By removing the epicormic shoots early, you can get the tomato plants in shape and guide them up their supports so they grow stable and secure. This makes harvesting later easier and at the same time reduces the not inconsiderable space requirement of large stake tomatoes.

Optimizing the use of space in a greenhouse is also a good argument for removing the epicormic shoots from tomatoes. If you remove all the side shoots, stake tomatoes will manage with less space and can therefore be planted more closely together. This gives you a greater and higher quality fruit yield than you would get if you cultivated the plants in a larger standing space with side shoots.

Harvesting tomatoes in a greenhouse
If you regularly remove the epicormic shoots from your tomatoes, you will have space for more tomatoes in your greenhouse
Should epicormic shoots be removed from all tomatoes?

Epicormic shoots are not removed from all species and varieties of tomato. Bush, shrub, and wild tomatoes do not require corrective attention. There are also some varieties which also do not require the removal of epicormic shoots. You can usually find the corresponding information on the plant label when you make a purchase.

You only need to remove the epicormic shoots from tomatoes which are grown as single shoot plants, known as stake tomatoes. Bush or balcony tomatoes can be left to grow several shoots - epicormic shoots are therefore only removed sporadically from these varieties, if at all. They also form high-quality fruit on the side shoots and they are naturally weaker growing with small fruit. The cultivation of stake tomatoes, on the other hand, is similar to that of columnar apple trees – here, all the stronger side shoots are also cut off closely behind the so-called branch ring on the trunk.

Removing epicormic shoots and shoot tips from stake tomatoes
Make sure that the stake tomatoes only have one shoot tip and are not too heavily branched
When are the epicormic shoots removed from tomatoes?

Break off the epicormic shoots as early as possible, while they are still very soft. The longer you wait, the greater the danger that the bark of the main shoot will be damaged when breaking off the axil shoots. If you have missed the ideal time, the shoots are best cut off from the main shoot with a sharp knife.

Start removing the epicormic shoots from tomato plants very early in the summer, as soon as the first side shoots grow. Choose one to three main shoots which are forming the tomato ‘tips’ and clip out the growing shoots that could disrupt the straight growth. You should remove the epicormic shoots from tomato plants about once a week during the growth phase. As soon as the shoots become thicker and develop fruit, they should be tied to a supporting stake. Tomato fruit grows rapidly with good care and the branches quickly become very heavy. If you also want to leave two strong side shoots next to the main shoot, it is best to secure these to angled bamboo sticks.

Removing Epicormic Tomato Shoots: The steps
The proper way to remove epicormic shoots from tomatoes
It’s easy to remove epicormic shoots from tomatoes - however it needs to be done regularly

You do not normally require tools to remove epicormic shoots. Inspect the tomato plant for new shoots in the axils and check which of these should grow and which should not. Tip: Only leave a few shoots, as the classic stake tomato grows extremely readily and easily becomes a thicket. Then simply pinch off the still very young, small axil shoots from the plant with your fingernails and enjoy the fantastic tomato fragrance on your finger tips. Somewhat larger shoots can be bent from side to side until they break off. If they are already too fibrous you can use secateurs.

Removing epicormic tomato shoots
When removing epicormic shoots, the side shoot is broken off from the leaf axil

If you have overlooked a shoot when removing the epicormic shoots from the tomatoes and it has already grown quite thick, it’s better to use a sharp knife to remove it. Carefully cut off the branch close to the main shoot, without injuring the main shoot. You should take care not to leave any cuts or wounds on the tomato stem when removing epicormic shoots, as these could become a gateway for pathogens. So make sure that any wounds are kept as small as possible.

Frequently asked questions about removing epicormic shoots from tomatoes

How do I remove the epicormic shoots from tomatoes?

When removing epicormic shoots, remove the shoots that form in the leaf axils of the tomato plant. If you begin doing this early, you will not need any tools, instead you can simply pinch or break off the epicormic shoots with your finger nails.

Which tomatoes require the removal of epicormic shoots?

Bush, shrub and wild tomatoes do not require epicormic shoot removal, this type of maintenance is also unnecessary for some specific tomato varieties. However, you should definitely remove the epicormic shoots from stake tomatoes in order to harvest a better quality of fruit.

When should I remove the epicormic shoots from tomatoes?

You should regularly remove the epicormic shoots from tomatoes in the period from June to September. This is when the plants are in the growth phase.

How often should I remove the epicormic shoots from tomatoes?

Remove the epicormic shoots from tomatoes once a week.

Why should I remove the epicormic shoots?

Although most tomatoes grow thick and fast, removing the epicormic shoots in good time promotes healthy plants and fruit quality at the same time. This means that later you can harvest larger and, above all, better tasting tomatoes.

Which other plants require the removal of epicormic shoots?

Removing epicormic shoots is not only important on tomatoes, but also on other vegetable species from the nightshade family, such as egg-plants and bell peppers.