Tomatoes Growing Up

 photo IMG_0407.jpgIn the past several years I’ve had a fair amount of garden success.  We’ve had tons of greens, homegrown broccoli and cauliflower, peas, green beans, bell peppers, leeks, chives, potatoes, onions, raspberries and asparagus. And ohhhhhh the strawberries. All of this glorious bounty has been overshadowed by a string of defeats in the tomato patch. And folks, where I live, if you don’t have tomatoes, you don’t have a garden.

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I’ve tried a lot of things. I’ve tried different varieties, growing from seed, growing from seedlings, growing from not so “seedlings,” watering with a timer, drip irrigating, growing upside down, and I won’t even go into the soil amendments and natural cure alls. I’ve rarely had lasting success, and when I have, either the deer, the squirrels, or some climate induced illness takes over.

So given that I am not ready to give up on tomato growing (which clearly indicates that I have serious issues), I decided to get a little radical. This year, we’re going vertical. Why? Because all my garden gurus say it’s a good idea, and it’s the only thing I haven’t tried. And, given that diseases associated with humidity have been one of my primary enemies, it seems like a good idea.

So what am I really talking about? Easy – there’s a structure overhead. You can make it with PVC, with fence posts, whatever, but it has to be tall if you’re growing indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. For each plant, you hang a line (well secured, think of all the tomatoes they can support before the squirrels steal them). I staked my lines into the ground. As the tomato plants get to be 18 inches or better, you simply wrap the central stalk around the line. Eventually it will crawl up the line like a vine. Great! So what?

So the other critical part of this method, aside from creating a support structure is pinching off the “suckers” of the tomato plant. What the heck am I talking about? What person in their right mind would limit their tomato plant in this way? (No wonder she can’t grow any, she’s crazy.) Limiting the plant to its central vine and main branches serves two purposes as far as I can tell: 1) the plant puts its energy into fruit rather than plant production and 2) the plant becomes less bushy and dense, which allows more airflow, crucial to limiting disease.

Great! Now what the heck is a sucker? Form an “L” with the thumb and forefinger on your left hand. Now imagine your forefinger is the main tomato vine, your thumb a branch from that line. Suckers, which are just more branches, grow in the join of the two, right in the weird flap of skin that stretches taught when you make the “L.” Pinch that bad boy off (I mean the sucker, not your weird flap of skin). Yep, just get rid of it. You will be okay. Just to be clear, you are not trying to pinch off the little clusters of buds and flowers that sometimes grow nearby – those will be your maters. If you’re unsure, just give it a day or three and you’ll be able to tell a bud cluster from a sucker, and aren’t you lucky. 😉

What did we use for our support? Well, that’s a story all on its own. We used to have a  gazebo on our back deck – you know one of those metal deals that has a canopy. It’s a long and not very self-aggrandizing story to explain how ours got completely destroyed, so let’s just suffice it to say that it didn’t make it through the polar vortices and leave it at that. While the structure as it stood (or rather leaned dramatically) was not functional, many of the parts were okay, so we took one side of the gazebo, and in an uncharacteristically inspired and handy frenzy, we sunk the vertical columns in cement poured into large flower pots, connected them with a horizontal piece, all kind of fancy by the way, and used the resulting frame as the hanger for our tomato lines. There. Take that polar vortex.

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The results? So far so good. We’re still early in the season here, and there’s a fair amount of growth to go, but I see potential in the way the plants are climbing the lines. Now I just need to figure out what to do about those darned clever squirrels.

How are your maters?

5 responses

  1. I do pretty good with my maters. I actually have gotten two crops the past two years from my heirlooms. I started pinching off the suckers too. And after the first bounty I kind as let the plant do its thing. Let the branches die somewhat and prune it like a tree. Then it comes back, albeit long and more viney like your doing but I get a whole other batch of tomatoes. But how the beck do you grown cauliflower and broccoli I live in east san diego and all it dis was grow up ans flower. Any suggestions?

    • Cauliflower and broccoli can be tricky. I was told that they really don’t like the heat, so I originally planted them where the full sun blast was lesser and they did OK, but not great. On a whim I moved them to my main patch, which gets super sun, and they did much better. Go figure. I have found that they can go from ready to unusable very quickly. Many varieties don’t form the nice round heads that we see in the store, so maybe yours were ready but you didn’t know it? I also am sure, with broccoli, to plant a variety that sends out side shoots, then I get the main head and side stalks after I harvest that big one. Hope that helps – I seem to have lucked out on these and don’t have a great explanation. 😉 Such is gardening, right?

  2. Living in the shade, tomatoes were the only thing I could grow – in the middle of my front yard! Alas, we will be in Kenya for 3 weeks so I decided not to plant since they surely wouldn’t survive that long without me. Now to find someone with a bumper crop and tomatoes to spare…

  3. There is nothing better than a garden tomato, with bacon and lettuce on soft bread! Yum!! Or with basil and mozzerella on french bread? Oh. My. Goodness. I hope mine grow this year! I really appreciated your tips!! Will try!

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