Friday, August 7, 2009

How to Grow Tomatoes

I'm a big believer in heavily pruning fruit crops. I've never really looked into the research, but it's the way my mom taught me and it's worked out well so far.

Here's a picture of the less ragged of the two tomatoes I have on my deck. It's a lot smaller than it would be if it was in real soil and the nights didn't keep going into the 40s, but I'm pretty happy with it. Each of the two plants has over two dozen unripe fruit.

I aggressively pinch off all suckers (shoots that appear out of the axils) and flower buds until the plant forms one strong stem about 4 feet tall. If my plants were in the ground, I'd allow them to grow 2-3 of these stems, generally by sparing suckers near the ground when the previous stem reaches full height. Suckers supposedly sap the plant's strength and are structurally weak, and definitely lead to a bushy plant that shades its own leaves and forms a tangled haven for pests and pathogens. Notice how open the canopy is on the plant in the picture - almost all the leaf tissue catches the sun at the same time.

Once the plant reaches a decent size, I allow the plant to pour its energy into making flowers, which I pollinate myself if there don't seem to be many bugs around. New shoots generally push out flower buds just ahead of leaf buds. I try to pinch the leaf section off, sparing the flowers. If I catch a sucker after it's already started to put out leaves I generally pinch the smallest part of the bud (meristem and leaf primordia), allowing the leaves that the plant has already invested energy in to finish expanding.

The lowest leaves tend to drop towards the end of the summer, but this is beneficial as it allows air flow around the plant when cool, humid fall weather begins to encourage diseases. In some greenhouses, they actually train tomato plants up chains hung from pulleys in the ceiling. As the plant keeps growing taller, they lower the chain, allowing the leafless cane to coil on the ground.

When I get a yard, I plan to build post and wire trellises to rotate tomatoes, melons and legumes on, and stronger ones for grapes, cane berries and espalier fruit trees.

btw, I'm shocked and annoyed at how much Miracle-Gro I have to dump into my patio veggies to keep them green. I grew up on deep black forest loam and cultivated a pretty serious compost pile with my roommate in grad school. I never thought that my attention to soil was really that necessary.

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