Monday, 24 May 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: staking tomatoes

by Francesca

gardening tools 2
~ photos from last year ~

My tomatoes are finally going in this week. Finally, because I got the seedlings about three weeks ago, but spring temperatures this year forced us to wait, and tomatoes love warm weather. In fact, they only thrive in warm weather (temperatures not below 15-18C), and the year I planted two batches of plants 5 weeks apart, hoping for a second tomato harvest, I found that it's far better to plant a little late than a little early: I harvested my second batch of tomatoes well before the first, which never really recovered from a long cool spell in the spring, and were stunted.

tomato flower

Do you have a favorite vegetable to grow? Tomatoes are definitely mine! I love everything about growing tomatoes: the long and abundant producing season, the visual impact of the dark green and lush looking plants with their little sun-gold flowers and their shiny red fruits, and especially their strong tomatoey smell on my hands, after I've finished cropping the suckers and tying the plants to their supports. Tomato plants are in all senses exuberant plants!

grape tomatoes

This year I'm only growing two varieties, partly for lack of space, but also because I'm concentrating on the the two varieties that we enjoy most: date and beefsteak tomatoes. I'd never heard of date tomatoes until last year, when I unknowingly planted them instead of the cherry tomatoes I thought I'd bought. I was very pleased with their intense flavor and firm texture, and my kids love them, even snacking on them straight from the vine. Beefsteak and date tomatoes are indeterminate, vining varieties - rather than determinate, bushy tomatoes - and their vines need support and pruning as they grow.

staking tomatoes

We use the staking technique that all the local farmers use, which is very simple and makes use of the canes that grow wild around here (or that can be bought very inexpensively) to build effective A-frame supports. You dig a trench about 50cm wide and 15cm deep, and plant tomato seedlings in pairs on opposite walls of the trench. Next, stick a cane into the soil beside to each tomato plant, and tie the corresponding pairs of canes together near their tops. For added stability in the wind, link the pairs of canes together by running a wire along their joined tops (as in photo) or, even better, lay another cane horizontally across the joined tops and tie in place.

Aside from being very inexpensive, this technique combines the trench method – tomatoes need a lot of water – with a simple and stable trellis system that leaves the plants easily accessible for plant care and harvesting.

What growing techniques do you use for your tomatoes?


Hathor's Bath said...

Toms are a mixed business here in the UK as there's a lot of trouble with blight due to poor conditions. More often than not I've just ended up making a lot of green-tomato chutney as the growing season is so short.

This year I have my toms in plastic growhouses, which lately I've had to open up and air out during mid-day as it's actually been quite warm here. This year I'm growing Hungarian Heart and Pear tomatoes - both indeterminate.

I grow in pots, and I bury a stick, tied with twine, at the very bottom of the pots, and then I thread the twine through the top of the growhouse and loop that round a stick - the vines twine gently round the twine, and their own weight keeps them from pulling out of the ground. I really think growhouses are the way to go in our rather coldish clime so we'll see how I do!

Myrnie said...

A new way to stake tomatoes- great! :) So, "opposite walls"- does that mean to plant the tomatoes IN the trench, but on opposite sides? And how far apart do you plant the pairs? Thanks :)

Francesca said...

@ Hathor's Bath - this is very, very interesting: did you write a post about this growing technique? If so, would you mind leaving the link here for anyone to follow up on?
@ Myrnie, yes, inside the trench about 35 cm apart, two thirds of the way up the wall on each side (the idea is to make sure that the young and short roots can get to the water without drowning, and at the same time that the leaves and fruits don't sit in it once they develop!)

Hathor's Bath said...

I didn't actually post about it, but I'll do so tomorrow, if I can remember! I have my own blog at so if I've been able, it will be up on the morrow.

The Younger Rachael said...

I love this idea... I've tomatoes growing up bamboo, but in a tee-pee style. Its getting very crowded at the top! This method that you describe looks like it will work better. Now, I've just got to be good about pinching out those suckers.

Guusje said...

My oh My, that looks stunning, Francesca!!!

Sense of Home said...

Tomatoes are my favorite to grow because you can't get that flavor any where else. I love your stake idea. I place a stack beside the tomato and tie the plant to it as it grows, but an A-frame would provide more stability.

denise said...

I've never seen that here! I have been experimenting with ways to stake the tomatoes for a few years, and haven't been satisfied yet. We have SUCH a tiny space I want it to be neat/look nice and be easy to care for. But I also want to grow the big tomatoes and not stick to small varieties.

We have tried several types of cages...all fail (and are $$!). We have tried the vertical string method that the farmers around here use (they raise tomatoes in greenhouses to get more heat on them in Wisconsin...and grow from ground pots up a single cable to ceiling. But that isn't logistically workable in small yard - too much twine, too tall to reach. I have tried up a tall metal spiral. Hanging upside down out the bottom of a hanging pot. Single vertical sticks. None great. I end up always with bamboo and cages tied together in some odd combination to keep them up. :)

I just planted my tomatoes out yesterday, and of course don't want to dig them up...but maybe...hmmmm.

Maeve said...

I adore tomatoes! I love them fresh, I love them canned (chopped, whole or sauce), and I especially love them dried (so delicious!).

I've found the smaller plum tomatoes make the best 'snacking' dried tomatoes. I simply slice them in half, put them on the dehydrator trays, and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt (one can skip the salt if they prefer), and dry. Sweet, tangy, salty yum!

I'm rather haphazard about how I grow them. I usually use those wire round tomato cages, but it's hard to find ones made from nice sturdy wire. The new stuff is ahem, crap. I was given some old ones made from a much heavier gauge and love them. They support the heavy fruiting vines much better.

I like the indeterminate varieties for the ongoing fruit set (I always am in the garden in late fall frantically picking all the green tomatoes to bring in and ripen in a dark place). But they tend to sprawl about wildly.

The ground I have to work with is an aggravating sand/clay combo and I'm very slowly amending it. I should have a source this year for some sheep manure/straw, and I have a source for horse manure /straw but have to travel a fair ways to get it (so um, haven't.)

So, I apply a slow-release fertilizer to all planting rows and holes, and then throughout the year if something seems to be missing something vital I can spot apply nutrients.

This year I finally had finished compost in my own heap that I have been top-dressing the rows with. That sounds like I've been working hard for weeks, lol, but really the season has been slow to start and I just got the seeds in the ground yesterday.

Tomato starts and pepper starts are in my unheated greenhouse (I've a space heater in there right now because the nights have been cold, around 40F).

When I remember, I put a spoon of epsom salts in the tomato planting holes. It was something I'd read about years ago and figured what the heck. It does seem to make a difference when you have poor soil.

This year some of my tomato plants are in buckets in the greenhouse, and some will go into the garden along the fence. I'll put cages around them, but can also tie them to the fence if need be.

The thing that has worked the best for productivity in my garden has been interplanting plenty of flowers as that attracts a lot of pollinators. I've also used a small dry paintbrush to hand pollinate the squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, and melons.

Regular, rather than sporadic/haphazard, watering really helps with the quality of the toms too.

Sometimes the early summer is cold and rainy, which adversely affects the tomatoes. Some years it isn't until early fall that I start getting fruit set (which always traumatizes me, I love tomatoes yes I do!). But our season is short. Record last frost date here is mid-June (and I recall a year where it snowed in July); and the early killing frosts can arrive as early as mid-September. So, anywhere from 2-4 months, depending on the weather.

renee @ FIMBY said...

Francesca, I will be planting my tomatoes this week. I bought starts (we call them) from a nursery. I'm planting 3 varieties based on what has worked well in the past and what was available at the nursery.

I use a metal fence to trellis my tomaotes but your frames look so much lovelier.

I have simplified my gardening greatly because of our families rather intense hiking and camping pursuits but tomatoes are a must have in the garden.

Nicola (Which Name?) said...

Tomatoes are among my favorites, too. I love seeing how you use the cane for tomatoes. I still use wire cages for tomatoes, but we have lots of bamboo canes that we got free and use for other plants, some as straight stakes, some as tripod/teepees.