by Peter Heffelfinger
Posted May 4, 2020
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I plant a mix of cherry tomatoes, beefsteak types for slicing, Italian sauce tomatoes for freezing, and always a few heirlooms to try out for intense flavor or unique coloration. Once the soil has warmed to a toasty 60F inside the hoop house, usually by the end of the first week in May, it’s time to transplant. This year I have an improved metal soil thermometer that looks just like a large meat thermometer from the kitchen, but geared, of course, for much lower temperatures. Well worth the expense to know exactly when the ground is warm enough for heat-loving plants. I put a large pot or a box over all new transplants to shield them for a day or two to reduce shock, especially on the sunny days that have been more prevalent the past few years.
Growing tomatoes involves some form of staking, wire cages, or a vertical string assembly. When I was a kid back in the hot and humid East Coast, we just let the vines spread out on the ground, with the suckers sprouting laterally in all directions over a wide area, just like a pumpkin patch. With smaller gardens, and tomatoes inside greenhouses or hoop houses in the Northwest, growing them vertically saves space. A support system also helps prevent diseases, such as the blights that come from foliage contact with soil, and of course elevates the clusters of fruit, making them easy to pick.
The big issue is pruning: removing suckers on a regular basis. Otherwise you end up with a tangled mass of too many stems, too much overlapping foliage, and smaller, less numerous fruits. For me, the best advice comes from local NW Garden maven Cisco Morris: select 3-4 main stems and then let them rip. Prune out any additional long skinny stems that start creeping up from the base.
Most importantly, make sure the first set of stems is 4-6 inches above the ground to avoid contamination. Then, as the plant bushes out, trim off any lower branches of leaves that start to touch the ground. No leaf contact is the order of the day, to prevent disease.
As the bushes fill out, it’s also vital to thin the crowded upper areas of leaves for better air circulation and to allow sunlight to penetrate into the central area of the plant to ripen fruit. Be vigilant with your pruning. Remember that this is a rambling, tropical ground vine being reoriented to growing on a vertical support.
I prefer the tall conical tomato cages that allow the branches to drape over the hoops. I tie up a series of cages in a conjoined row so that the bed becomes one long connected tomato hedge. To keep the heavy clusters of ripening tomatoes from breaking their fragile branches, I run lengths of rope along the sides, connected to the wire cages, to hold them up. A bit untidy looking, but I think of it as a seasonal espalier.
A tomato orchard.