Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tommy Bound

Tommy the San Marzano tomato is growing by leaps and bounds. All of our tomato plants are thanks to the organic compost I planted them with and regular watering during this annoying drought. I’ve had to pay close attention to keep them from growing into an unrestrained tangle. Last year I tried pruning and staking my tomato plants. It’s not just my inner Bondage Master at work, either. Tomato plants are vines. Except for varieties that have been bred to stop growing at a certain height, they continue to grow through the season and can become a big, sprawling mess. I prefer to keep my plants up off the ground. I do this by pruning them to one or two main vines and tying them to upright stakes.

Pruning tomatoes is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. On a tomato vine the leaves grow out each side as the vine grows longer. Left to its own devices, another branch of the vine called a sucker would sprout from the vine right above each leaf. Here’s a pencil-sized sucker that I’ll remove to keep the vine restrained. The vine is on the right, the leaf is on the left and the sucker is sticking up between them.



To remove suckers I just snap them off with my fingers if they’re small, or snip them with shears if they’ve gotten big and woody. Then the plant looks like this. The spot where the sucker was removed right in the middle.



The second part of this equation is keeping the pruned vines up off the ground. Those wire tomato cages you see everywhere? They’re pretty much worthless for any but the smallest plants. I use wooden or plastic-coated steel stakes eight feet in length buried about eighteen inches in the ground. The vines are tied to the stakes using old t-shirts ripped into strips. The fabric is soft and doesn’t cut into the vines if they blow around in the wind. I first tie the strip tightly around the stake, then bring the vine next to the knot and tie a loose loop around it so it has some room to move and grow.



Why go to all this effort? It’s more than just keeping the garden neater. The spores of diseases that can damage the leaves and fruit of tomatoes are harbored in the ground. Splashing rain—assuming we ever get any again—would move the spores up onto the plants more easily if they’re laying on the ground. Also, by keeping the plants slender and up in the air, they dry off quicker. It’s also been claimed that by limiting their growth this way that they produce less fruit but that it’s larger. That may be true because last year I had some pretty big tomatoes. I don’t particularly want larger fruit, but I do want the other benefits of pruning and staking. Training the plants this way also makes it easier to monitor and pick the fruit. Less stooping is always welcome.


Thanks to this tough love Tommy and his friends are coming along well in spite of the uncooperative weather. Before long these green tomatoes will be ripe and ready for eating and preserving.



How do you grow your tomatoes? Do you prune and stake them? I’m interested to hear about others’ experiences and what they’ve learned.

2 Responses:

Mil said...

I use those tomato cages, I'm embarrassed to say, but they were free as we got them from the neighborhood.

Yes, there are definite disadvantages to the cages. You have to keep on top of slipping the vines inside the cages or else you risk ripping them trying to do this when the plant is older. Yeah, I just did this recently!!

How deep do you have to drive in the stakes for the toms?

Shady Character said...

To be honest, there probably are varieties where the cages would work just fine. I've got a Roma type that is staying small and may actually be determinate (should look that up!) that looks like it would never outgrow a cage. I started putting the posts 18" into the ground. I even put a mark on them to be sure they were in that far. This year they're probably only a foot or a little more deep. We haven't had any windy storms to test them so it might not be enough in a normal rainfall year but for now they seem to be doing fine.