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6.20.2012

Tomato Maintenance

Stringing up Tomatoes.
Last year I took the lazy approach to maintaining my tomatoes. It wasn't my intention exactly, but the problem was that I lacked intention altogether. I had a really loose plan for supporting my tomato plants and even that was sorely lacking. The result- a hot mess. The plants suckered like crazy and, due to their less than sufficient support system they sprawled all over, making it next to impossible to harvest certain parts of the tomato patch.
I had four 15 foot beds of tomatoes last year- I believe it was about 50 plants. It was too much for me. Not too much tomatoes, mind you- there is no such thing, which is exactly why I planted so many. But because they were such a mess and so hard to get to I probably only harvested about half of the tomatoes, with all the rest getting eaten by pests, splitting, or literally rotting on the vine before I could get to them. The two rows I planted last I barely harvested at all, because by the time the fruit matured I was tired of processing tomatoes. I wouldn't say they went to waste- my chickens got a LOT of tomatoes last summer, both carried to them by the bucket load and when they got the clean up the garden in the fall, and even tomatoes that dropped and rotted into the garden added to soil fertilitiy. But I would rather the garden space go to producing more food for my family, so this year I planted half as many tomatoes- 31 plants in two beds. And this year I've committed to a bit more maintainance.

 Long before I could even think about planting tomatoes outside I planted a cover crop in the beds I planned to plant the tomatoes in.  I simply broadcast seeded oats, clover, and hairy vetch.  The oats didn't grow, but I had a pretty good stand of clover and vetch by the time the tomatoes were ready to go in.  Unlike the cover I planted in my 3 sisters patch (more on that later) I didn't even dig this one in- I simply covered it with the red plastic mulch (see below) and planted the tomatoes, pulling the clover and vetch that pokes out of any holes.  It was easy, and as the cover breaks down under the hot plastic it will provide food for the tomatoes.  Plus the clover fixes nitrogen which, while the tomatoes don't need much, will benefit future crops.

And let's talk about support.  Tomatoes need a good support system, and I don't just mean for their emotional well being.  For starters, I hate cages. At least, I hate commercially available cages. They are super overpriced for what you get- a flimsy piece of wire that barely does the job you need it to do. My mother in law, who plants no fewer than 125 tomato plants every year (she sells at a farmer's market), uses much more sturdy cages that she made out of concrete wire and secures them with T posts- a much better system if cages are the direction you wish to go. But the reason I tried the less than successful method I tried last year (which in all fairness I did wrong) was because I want something other than a cage, but I wasn't sure what. I don't like the expense or worthlessness of purchased cages, but I hate working with anything wire so I dreaded the idea of making my own as my MIL did. What to do?

You know how sometimes God seems to put someone in your path just when you need them? It happens to me a lot, it seems. Well, a lot of people in my neighborhood have plant sales in the spring where they pot the extra perennials from their yard (the ones that split or seed or whatever) and sell them in their driveway. There are probably 7 or 8 of them within a mile of me over the course of the spring. On a whim I stopped at one and the woman hosting the sale turned out to be quite a kindred spirit- right away we found several things in common (both interested in growing food, both had chickens, both had used cloth diapers, both used herbal medicine...) so we talked for a completely unreasonable amount of time on two different occasions, and she even showed us her gardens and her own chickens. In the course of our conversation she asked if I had ever heard of stringing tomatoes, which I hadn't. She kind of explained it to me but also suggested I see if I could find a youtube video to explain it further, and I actually came across a video from one of my favorite garden blogs, This Garden is Illegal (she's so funny in a way I truly appreciate!).   Here is her video:
I was going to explain how I did it, but the video is much more efficient, but I will show you some pictures of what my plants look like now that I finished.  Oh, but first, let me strongly suggest that you DO NOT use the blunt side of an axe to pound in your fence posts.  If your ground is soft enough to pound in a fence post, I guarantee you will expend less effort digging a fence post hole than you expend sharpening a fence post and pounding one in, and using an axe is just plain dangerous.  Of course this is assuming you have a post hole digger, but if you don't you should buy one!



No, that probably didn't require three pictures, but I really like the way it turned out.  I mean, for me looking good is almost as important as being practical, and I like the way this support system looks.  And it's easy, but not so easy that you walk away and forget to look at your tomatoes again.  Since you have to wrap the twine around the trunk as the plant grows, you have to check your plants every week, which is a great time to do the other thing I'm doing for the first time (at least consistantly) this year.

Pinching Suckers!  No, I don't mean THAT kind of sucker.  Suckers on tomatoes, silly.  What's a sucker?  It's a stem that forms in the crotch of another stem, and eventually turns into another vine.  Here's a helpful illustration, because it's something I never understood until I saw a picture.
The sucker is the stem in the middle that is detached from the plant.

According to the website I got the illustration from (Pruning Tomatoes from finegardening.com) you're supposed to leave a few suckers on indeterminate varieties of tomatoes and pinch all the suckers below the first flower cluster on all varieties.  I pinched them all.  Even the super huge ones, since I waited too long to do this (cause that's how I roll).  None of my plants are dead, so we'll just have to see how it goes.

And I'm sure you noticed the gaudy red plastic.  This is my second year using tomato mulch, which I believe I get from directgardening.com, but you can get it at a variety of places.  I generally dislike using non-renewable resources in the garden, BUT I love tomatoes so much it makes me a little unreasonable, and we don't get a long enough stretch of hot enough weather to make great tomatoes here in the upper midwest.  Further, the first year I had tomatoes I had absolutely epic late blight, and I read that plastic mulch can help with this as it prevents splashback from potentially fungus bearing soil.  I've since decided that my fungus was NOT in the soil, but was coming in on plants I was buying from a neighbor, as it always started just after I bought tomatoes from her, and this year I haven't bought any from her and don't have a lick of blight yet (knock on wood).  Either way, the plastic helps.  But most importantly it is to warm the soil, preserve moisture (which a good organic mulch does a better job of, I believe, but organic mulches cool the soil and promote fungal growth, neither good for tomatoes), and supposedly the red color reflects certain UV rays that make tomatoes grow better or some such voodoo.  I think it works, which is the most important part I guess.  But I only do plastic in two places- tomatoes (and peppers if I have extra tomato mulch, but I go either way with them) and sweet potatoes, which I am trying for the first time this year.

To feed my tomatoes this year and last I have used tomatoes alive fertilizer, an organic fertilizer from Gardens Alive!.  My goal is to build up my soil fertility and the amount of compost I generate each year to a point where I don't bring in any fertilizer, but while I work on them I am using some outside sources including this.  But, I bought the bigger bag last year and it has been enough to feed last year's tomatoes and peppers and this year's tomatoes and peppers, and I still have some left.  It's mostly lasted this long because I only feed them at planting and skip the second feeding they recommend.  However, with a little research I would imagine it would be relatively easy to mix something cheaper at home- just keep in mind that tomatoes need less nitrogen and more of certain trace nutrients like calcium.  I actually have made a foliar fertilizer for my tomatoes by soaking egg shells in vinegar, but I haven't used it yet because I'm scared it will be too acidic.  Has anyone done anything like this?

I know, this sounds like a lot just to grow tomatoes.  But I love tomatoes.  And on a weekly basis it isn't much work.  I got the supports up in about three hours (with help), and weekly I simply have to wind each plant around it's support and pinch a few suckers.  And hope for a big harvest:)
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