The tomato vine, in all its forms, is a floppy creature that needs the gardener’s help.
The plant’s sprawling nature is no weakness: It forces the person behind it to find wonderfully low-tech methods of supporting it. The resulting props reflect the utilitarian beauty of the summer vegetable garden, the creative ingenuity of every gardener and, best of all, the idea that there is no one way to raise a perfect tomato. (Or much else in the garden.)
But if you are into watching gardening “types,” there is nothing quite as revealing or entertaining as matching the tomato prop to its inventor.
The Innocent uses a short, 3-foot funnel-shaped cage and believes that the prongs will secure the cage, that the welds will hold and that the tomato vine will know when to stop. But it won’t. Use those cages for something smaller, like peppers.
The Gardener uses a single wooden stake (1-by-1-inch oak is excellent) that is 8 feet tall. With practice, a mallet and a stepladder, the Gardener pounds the stake vertically (more difficult than you think) 2 feet into the organically amended, double-dug garden bed.
Then the mania really sets in: The vine is pruned frequently, so that it has just two rising stems from the original leader and first sucker, and then all other suckers that emerge from the leaf joints are pinched out when young. This keeps the vine narrow and upright. The tomato harvest is less than with a caged version, but the fruit quality is high, and the Gardener can place the vines closer together, about 24 inches. The Gardener ties the vine every 8 inches as it grows with cotton strips from old shirts, precisely cut on long winter nights. The Gardener doesn’t get out much.
The Perfectionist makes the Gardener look like a slacker. The Perfectionist uses a cage and two stakes. The cage is made from concrete reinforcing wire fashioned into a cylinder 5 to 6 feet high. The grid is large enough, typically 6 inches, to reach in and pick a ripe tomato. The stakes are buried as deep as 2 feet and attach to each side of the cage to anchor it. The Perfectionist spaces the tomato plants a generous 4 feet apart to allow for uncrowded growth. With just three plants occupying a 12-foot bed, the Perfectionist needs a lot of real estate in the sun.
The Farmer has even more real estate in the sun. The Farmer grows many tomato plants in a row, spaced at least 2 feet apart, and then uses a support system called basket-weaving. He or she pounds in a stake between the second and third plant, the fourth and fifth plant, the sixth and seventh plant, and so on. The Farmer takes a ball of twine and weaves the string between the stakes. This is repeated higher up as the vines grow.
Another agricultural method is to put up a trellis with a single but sturdy cross member and run strings down to each plant. As it grows, each tomato vine’s leader is twisted around the string. The string method requires a lot of sucker removal.
The Architect builds a trellised screen and grows the most vigorous tomato vines into a living wall. The smaller the fruit, the more rambunctious the vine. The Architect is constantly pruning, tying and generally grooming the vines to create the two-dimensional vertical vegetative plane. Recommended varieties for this method include Black Cherry, Sun Gold, Super Sweet 100 and Yellow Pear.
The Urban Farmer
The trendy locavore with limited space turns to containers for her plants. Tip: Select a determinate variety, which will grow to 3 feet, stop and then fruit in one glorious go. Celebrity is a good pick. Use a large container, such as a half whiskey barrel.
The Hippie lets it all hang out, man. Well, the vine does. If you have the space and don’t mind the look, this isn’t so bad. The leafiness of a sprawling, unsupported vine will actually shade the fruit against sun scald as well as keep the plant well-fed and fruitful. Put down a thick layer of straw mulch to prevent the tomatoes from rotting on wet soil.
What is my tomato type? I used to use the Farmer’s second method, of growing plants up strings, but I am most comfortable as the Gardener, using a single stake. This forces me to spend more time in the garden. (Clever, eh?)
Because my garden has a deer fence, I’m also the Architect. This year I am growing Sun Gold and Yellow Pear on the fence.
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Tomatoes in Wichita commonly are developing a black rot at the base – signs of blossom end rot caused by calcium deficiency and uneven watering. Remove those fruits before the plant invests any more energy in them.
By late summer, tomato plants can look pretty ugly, and by early fall the fruit flavor declines with cooling weather.
Unless you are into green-tomato dishes, I would pull vines by Labor Day and use the beds to sow lettuce, arugula and other fast-growing salad greens for the fall.