Tuesday’s Tips — Staking & Pruning Tomatoes

Is there any plant in gardening that provokes more passionate discussion than tomatoes? There are as many “surefire” tips for growing the “best tomatoes ever” as there are gardeners who grow them, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few tips that will help you grow great tomatoes.

The first thing you need to know is if the plant is a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate varieties bear fruit over a one to two-week period. (You may want to consider growing several varieties that set fruit at different times so you can have a longer harvest period.) These plants are usually more compact and good for growing in containers. Some people will tell you that you don’t need to stake this type of tomato, but it’s usually a good idea to tie them loosely to a stake or put a wire cage (the commercial type will work here, but it should be 4′ tall) around them when you plant. As for pruning, determinate don’t require it.

Indeterminate tomatoes are larger vining plants — from 6′ to 12′ or larger. These tomatoes will produce fruit throughout the growing season until they are killed by frost or the days are too short to support their growth. Many old varieties and heirlooms are indeterminates. These plants definitely need to be supported. You can let them sprawl on the ground, but you will lose a lot of fruit to rot and pests.

There are lots of ways to stake tomatoes, but there are two important points to keep in mind. First, indeterminates can get really, really big. Add lots of fruit and you’ve got a surprising amount of weight to support. Second, it’s best to stake your tomatoes when you first plant them; just be sure that you’re thinking about how big they’ll eventually get.

One method of staking is to make a cage out of 5-foot tall 6″ x 6″ hardware cloth. Cut a piece long enough to create a 2 foot wide cage. Bend it into a circle and secure the edges. Be sure to stake the cage into the ground so it doesn’t get blown over in the wind. Another option is to drive 8-tall stakes a foot or two into the ground and to tie the plants to the stake as they grow.

The last method we’ll talk about is a trellises. This is our favorite option and there are several ways to do it. Here’s one that I built for a client last year.

These plants (Better Boys I think) were in a very tight space, but it was really sunny and warm and the plants grew like crazy. As a matter of fact, I should have used 2″ x 4″s instead of 1″ x 2″s and I should have used a metal rod across the top because by the time we got to August the plants were so heavy with fruit that the wooden dowel was bent to the breaking point. In spite of its limitations this trellis worked great and my client harvested an unbelievable amount of fruit.

The list could go on and if you’re interested search the web where there are lots of clever staking systems. One thing you shouldn’t bother with are commercial wire cages. They are too short and will not be able to support a mature plant that’s loaded with fruit.

To prune or not to prune indeterminates? Again, there are lots of opinions about this. My client never bothered and I can’t say it was a bad choice. Still, when I grow my tomatoes I always remove any leaves or stems from the bottom few inches of the plants to keep them disease-free (water can splash fungus spores up onto low-growing leaves) and I remove suckers early on so that there are only two or three main stems. After that I remove enough of them to keep the plants somewhat controlled and to ensure good air circulation. Plants need leaves for photosynthesis so don’t take off too many. It’s a little bit of an art and you’ll just have to get in there and develop your technique.

The stem growing out of the crook is a sucker.

Small, thin suckers like this one can be pinched out; larger ones should be cut with clippers. Make sure that your clippers are disinfected before you prune your plants and clean them when you move to the next plant to avoid transferring disease from plant to plant. If you’ve previously had blight, it’s probably best not to prune your plants, as cuts might leave the plant open to infection.

Finally, tomatoes need full sun, fertile soil with lots of organic matter dug in, organic fertilizer (fish emulsion and seaweed extract or Stress-X will make your plants happy) and regular deep watering.

Then just sit back and enjoy those delicious red, ripe beauties.

3 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Tips — Staking & Pruning Tomatoes

Add yours

  1. My gardening expert built me a trellis that looks and acts ~remarkably~ similar to the one in your picture, even down to the crosspiece bending under the tension of the cords drawing taut after getting wet and then drying. The trellis survived the winter. This spring I took a length of 1×2 and bound it to the dowel with cable ties, in the hopes that this year it won’t bend so much.

    I found that pruning does help. I got to the point where I could tell the difference between a branch that was going to bear only large coarse leaves, and a branch that would bear smaller leaves and flowers and fruit. The coarse branches got whacked.

    This year I am growing Daniels, a potato-leafed heirloom variety. The branches and leaves have a different texture from those of Better Boy, and I can’t tell yet which branches are going to be productive and which not.

    Thanks for the picture of a sucker. I’ve heard the term but didn’t know what it meant in real life.

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