Monday, August 22

I Hate The Tomato

"I am not going to do this again next year. There has to be a better way."

That is what I say to myself every fall after I have experienced yet another tomato apocalypse in the garden. And for some reason, no matter how much I think about it and try to come up with something better, I always end up using the same old techniques that result in failure.

It goes something like this:
-Plan which types of tomatoes to grow and buy seeds.
-Start seeds, sometimes too early, sometimes too late, in the basement under the lights.
-Transplant seedlings using spacing specification on seed packaging.
-Use tomato cages even though I know they won't work.
-Admire seedlings in neat rows with neat rows of cages, gently placing wayward branches into cages.
-See tomato plants explode into huge monsters, toppling cages.
-Stake cages up with anything handy - wooden stakes, broken rake handles, etc.
-Tie cages to stakes, plants to cages and watch as everything falls over.
-Not very gently haul plants and cages back upright and hold with more stakes and more twine. -Admire havoc of tomato garden with huge spiderweb of twine semi-holding-up monster tomato plants.
-Try to harvest.

I hate the tomato.

I should hate myself for not being able to come up with a better system. Or I should hate the garden store people for selling me cages that are meant to hold up a tiny plant with two tomatoes on it. But mostly I just hate the tomato. That is probably why I keep growing them - because one of these years I will conquer them and they will be perfect and I will have accomplished something. Maybe when I am about 90 years old. Until that wonderful, most likely arthritic day, I WILL find a better way.

Enter the internet. That wonderful piece of technology that us modern homesteaders can not live without. If anyone can help, the internet can. Currently, my tomato patch looks similar to this: I have used this type of cage the most. It usually falls over due to heavy plants and my soil being rocky so I can not get the "legs" in as far as they probably should go. I also have three of these cages. They started off promising but as the plants got bigger, they toppled like the other cages: Other than that, I have just used a combination of wooden stakes, metal stakes, twine, hope and prayer. I made something that resembles the following picture from three stakes and a lot of twine which also seemed promising: It looks to be more sturdy but I have found with the circular cages that the plants get too top-heavy and they fall. And the space for growth and support is limited once the limbs get too large to keep confined inside the circle. I think the way to go will be with a more sturdy, permanent structure such as the one below. It will allow for the growth and height that my tomatoes seem to crave. If made from wood, it can not be a totally permanent structure in my current garden. It would have be designed so that i can dis-assemble it and store it in the shed when not in use. If it is a "tent" shape however, the problem would be weeding and getting into the space under it, as it would be too short for the tiller or easy walking. I had that problem with my bean tepees in that the tiller was useless around them and they took up a great deal of space.

Or I might go with a more streamline approach such as two tall and strong metal stakes, spaced 1 foot apart at both ends of each row. I would run s strong but manageable wire and create a long, skinny cage, so there are three or four lines of wire going down both sides of the plant rows.

Either way, I will have to space the rows ever farther apart to allow for overhang.

My other option would be to be even more aggressive with trimming the "suckers" from the plants as they grow. This will help keep these my monster vines under control, and energy will go to producing really nice tomatoes instead of a bunch of foliage. The excess foliage that I allow to grow now will eventually grow into new branches that will form fruit, but that results in overhanging branches and tipping cages. In reading up on this I have found that most experienced growers advise that tomatoes should be pruned to not only produce larger fruit earlier in the season, but also to protect the plants against pest and disease problems. Pruning is a very simple process, although you may get the feeling of being a "killer" as I do when I thin seedlings. All you need to do is trim off the tomato "suckers," which grow in the "V" space between the main stem and the branches on your tomato plant.

Additionally, you may want to prune any branches off at the bottom of the tomato plant that are touching the ground, which helps to ward off insects and especially disease, such as blights and wilts. Just clip the one or two branches, with garden shears or scissors, that are touching the soil right near the stem. This also might help me eliminate my "tomato branches too low on the plant to adequately place up on the cage" problem. A website that I found helpful was Tomato Staking Techniques Evaluation One of my winter goals is to get down to business and plan my new garden. I can guarantee that one of the main design considerations will be the mother of all tomato staking contraptions. I'll keep you updated on what I finally come up with...


  1. Ah girl, this made me laugh. If only I was having the same danged 'ol tomatoes are having a heck of a year just growing this year. Maybe if we cross bred our tomato plants we'd both end up with wonderful, manageable plants. Hmm. :)

  2. Visiting from the Barn Hop. Wow, you have done a lot of research. I am picking up some good tips for my tomato plants. Yes, I know all about the the support/cages giving way.

    Thank-you for your post!

  3. We used cattle panels (not a fence but sturdy metal grids) for our tomatoes secured by T posts. They are exceptionally sturdy and we tied up the tomatoes with old panty hose so they would have some give. We also planted heirloom varieties which don't have much of a shelf life so you have to eat/can them quickly; however, since they are "natural" they seem to survive although they might be more susceptible to other things (but I'd rather not have GMO seeds). Our problem is that they stay green so long this year, although not normally. Cherokee Purple or Black Krim are pretty good. We do the same thing with the cucumbers. Then between the panels we hang twine with a disposable pie tin swinging from a dropped string to keep the deer away.

  4. I used to prune back my tomatoes but this year I didnt and we had a lot of tomatoes so despite what the "experts" say I wont be pruning my tomatoes ever again. We also didnt have enough cages this year to go around so there were about three tomato plants that were just on the ground. Guess what, they had a lot of tomatoes! and they didnt rot or get stink bugs on them like the others did. Go figure.

  5. You're probably being sold cages for determinate (grow to about 4 feet and are bushy) tomatoes but it sounds like you're planting indeterminate tomatoes (grow up to 10 feet and are vining). :)

  6. Check out the "Florida weave" system for trellising tomatoes! It's easy, cheap and most WORKS! Just google florida weave and you'll find tons of info on it. There are even YouTube videos :) good luck!