By now your tomato plants should be starting to bear fruit, tantalizing you with their green promises of what’s to come. After all, no store bought tomato can ever compare to the juicy sweetness of a homegrown tomato.
However, tomato plants can quickly become overburdened with long heavy limbs and dozens of fruits. Sometimes a tomato cage won’t cut it. Here are four tips for wrangling and managing your tomato plants this summer.
Tip 1: Cage ’Em
I know I just said that sometimes a tomato cage won’t cut it, but there are times when a cage will cut it—namely while the plant is still young. You can buy tomato cages at any home improvement or gardening center or you can make one by wrapping chicken wire into a tall cylinder. Whatever you use, place the cage over the tomato and carefully thread the limbs through it, allowing them to rest on the cross wires or the center rings. It’s easiest if you place a cage over the tomato when you plant it so that you can help the limbs use the cage as they grow.
Tip 2: Stake ’Em
Organic tomatoes growing in Darla Antoine's garden in the "cloud forest" of Costa Rica.
Stakes are a great solution for a larger vegetable garden. Your stakes should be at least 1-inch thick and five or six feet tall. Plant the stakes at least a foot in the ground. You can use wooden stakes you buy at the home improvement center, you can harvest large branches or small trees from your property, you can use bamboo or you can use fencing stakes—you get the idea. Use smaller pieces of wood or tightly pulled baling twine to create cross supports between the stakes. Carefully thread the limbs through the support system. You can also secure the limbs to the system with twine, twist ties or zip ties.
Tip 3: Net ’Em
Even if you cage and/or stake your tomatoes, they may still require another layer of support—depending on how far out their limbs decide to reach. I like to buy tomato nets and secure them to the top of their support system. Zip ties work great for this. Use the netted squares to support the ends of the limbs.
Tip 4: Prune ’Em
It’s not completely necessary, but your plant will benefit from a little pruning. The very bottom leaves (they often look wilted or yellow) are great ones to prune because they aren’t going to produce anything. You can also prune or pinch off the little “suckers” or leaves that shoot up in the elbow between two limbs. These suckers also won’t produce anything and they really do suck the plant of energy and nutrients that the plant could send to the tomatoes. You can also selectively prune back some of the leaves on the plant—namely the ones that are inadvertently shading tomatoes or blossoms. Don’t prune too much though! The leaves are gathering the sunlight that create the sugars and other nutrients the plant needs to produce and survive (photosynthesis, y’all).
And there you have it. Four simple tips to help you get the most of your tomatoes this summer. Here’s to many tomato sandwiches.
Darla Antoine is an enrolled member of the Okanagan Indian Band in British Columbia and grew up in Eastern Washington State. For three years, she worked as a newspaper reporter in the Midwest, reporting on issues relevant to the Native and Hispanic communities, and most recently served as a producer for Native America Calling. In 2011, she moved to Costa Rica, where she currently lives with her husband and their infant son. She lives on an organic and sustainable farm in the “cloud forest”—the highlands of Costa Rica, 9,000 feet above sea level. Due to the high elevation, the conditions for farming and gardening are similar to that of the Pacific Northwest—cold and rainy for most of the year with a short growing season. Antoine has an herb garden, green house, a bee hive, cows, a goat, and two trout ponds stocked with hundreds of rainbow trout.
Courtesy Darla Antoine
Darla Antoine on a recent visit to Washington State