Tomatoes

by Harold Schrock | May 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Tomatoes are one of the world’s favorite fruits; there are thousands of varieties of tomatoes grown around the world. Yes, they really are fruits, but, as the saying goes, “You wouldn’t use them in a fruit salad.”

Tomatoes are typically started in a greenhouse and then transplanted outdoors a few weeks later. This is only strictly necessary in far northern or high-altitude areas. In much of North America you may actually get better results by starting seeds directly in the garden. Transplant stress is one of the biggest problems I see with tomato production. A high-quality, carefully grown plant can be set out in the garden with very little shock. A good potted plant for setting out in the greenhouse or garden needs to be medium dark green and stocky looking. Ideally, it will not be more than 6 inches (15 cm) tall, with a stem twice as thick as a pencil. Unfortunately, purchasing a high-quality tomato plant is impossible in many areas. I have never seen a good-quality tomato plant at a big box store and only rarely at a private garden center. If you have been relying on purchased plants for your tomato production, I encourage you to try starting some from seed. They will be cheaper, and you can try various varieties. You are also likely to end up with more fruit and less disease pressure.

Tomato seedlings are very susceptible to damping off. If you have a soil health problem, you may not be able to start the tomato seeds directly in your garden soil. Sometimes it works to scoop out a depression and start your tomato seeds in a handful of potting soil. In any case, whether you set out transplants or try direct seeding, do not put out tomatoes until the soil is over 60° F. and all danger of frost is passed.

There are two main types of tomatoes—determinate and indeterminate. This information will be found in the catalog or on the seed packet. Primarily, the difference is the way the tomato plant produces fruit.

Determinate plants tend to ripen a large quantity of fruit nearly at the same time. This can be an advantage if you wish to process a lot of tomatoes into sauce or other food products. Indeterminate plants will ripen fruit somewhat uniformly over a much longer time span and may be preferred if you’re mainly looking for fresh eating.

The other difference between determinate and indeterminate plants is the way they are trellised and pruned. For optimal production, all tomatoes need to be pruned and staked, or tied up in some way. Pruning mostly involves removing suckers. Suckers are the additional stems that grow out between the main stem and the main stem’s leaves. Suckers can be identified as additional growing points below the tip of the plant that, when broken off, look like a complete plant. With experience, they are very easy to identify and can be removed as soon as they begin to grow. If you are not experienced at identifying suckers, it is best to let them grow a couple inches to ensure identification. You definitely do not want to remove the growing tip of the main stem. This mistake is especially easy to make on determinate plants.

Determinate plants do not take a lot of suckering. You should only remove the suckers on determinate plants below the first set of blossoms. Anything that grows above the first set of fruits can be left growing for the remainder of the season.

Determinate plants need to be supported. Many growers use either stakes and twine or wire cages. For the home gardener wire cages are usually the simplest.

Indeterminate plants can also be staked or caged, but, since they get much larger, they need taller stakes or larger cages. If staked or caged, indeterminate tomatoes should be allowed to grow three to five of the lowest suckers into main stems. These stems are then trained up opposite sides of the cage. Ideally, all the rest of the suckers are removed.

Sucker removal on indeterminate tomatoes is a steady job; when they are growing rapidly, it should be done twice a week. Try to remove the suckers before they are 4 inches (10 cm) long. Allowing the plants to grow too many large suckers will really cut into the productivity. If your cage is big enough, you can neglect sucker removal, but it will slow down tomato ripening and make your plants much more susceptible to disease in the late season.

Another way of managing indeterminate tomatoes is keeping them trimmed down to one stem and clipping them to a single twine on a spool clipped to an overhead high tensile wire. This is typically done in greenhouses, but can also work outdoors, particularly if you’re growing in a small area that is sheltered from the wind. When you keep a tomato plant trimmed down to a single stem, the top will be out of reach by mid-season. However, by the time it grows over your head, ripe fruit will be ready to harvest off the bottom. As the bottom fruit is harvested, you can lower the plant and move it sideways, allowing the bottom of the vine to drape along the ground. Trim off the bottom leaves so only the stem lies on the ground.

If you use this method, I highly recommend purchasing some plastic clips designed for securing the stems fast to the twine. In indoor production or in sheltered southern areas, it is possible to keep tomato plants alive and producing for more than two years using this single-stem method. Of course, this only works if you can keep a very healthy plant.

If the oldest leaves at the bottom of the plant are starting to turn yellow and brown and dry up, you may be running low in potassium. This usually happens when there is a heavy fruit load sizing rapidly. If the new growth at the top of the plant appears weak and spindly, it most likely is a calcium shortage. If you see blossom end rot (a dead sunken brown or black area on the blossom end of the fruit), you’re definitely running short in calcium. Sometimes the calcium deficiency is a result of uneven moisture. For best results and highest yields, tomatoes should be kept evenly moist. Mulch is definitely recommended, either plastic (especially in northern areas) or straw. Grass clippings also make great mulch if they come from an organic lawn. Tomatoes are very susceptible to some common lawn pesticides.

Editor’s note
One way to string determinate plants is to drive a stake between the second and third plants throughout the length of a row (i.e. Stake, 2 plants; Stake, 2 plants; and so on). While the plants are young, the first supporting strings will form a figure eight to better hold the plants in position. As the plants mature and grow together, the string can go around the foliage of both plants to the next stake without the figure eight pattern between the stakes.

Once the plants have reached a height of 12-15 inches (35 cm), it is time to run the first string. We use a box of tomato twine that is secured to a belt we wear. The twine is run through a piece of PVC pipe about 4′ (1 m) long, then tied to the first stake at the beginning of the row. Using the PVC pipe as a guide for directing the path of the twine through the plants, go around the right side of Plant A and the left side of Plant B. Wrap Stake 2 three times before going around the left side of Plant C and the right side of Plant D to Stake 3. Repeat this to the end of the row; then come back the other side to the starting stake. The return trip completes the figure eight pattern between the stakes around the plants. The purpose for wrapping the stake several times as you go along is so the twine remains tight for the length of the row, should it happen to get cut somewhere.

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