Patsy Bell Hobson is a garden writer and master gardener emeritus. She inherited her love of gardening from her grandmother and mother. Her favorite flower is whatever is blooming now. Her favorite season is whatever is next.

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Support for Big Tomatoes
by Patsy Bell Hobson    

This sounds like a vegetable self-help group, but it is really all about keeping tomatoes off the ground.

Long-time gardeners have usually tried several tomato trellising systems in search of a heavy-duty solution. 

Determinate Vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes

Tomatoes are determinate if they eventually form a flower cluster at the terminal growing point, causing the plant to stop growing in height. ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Roma’ tomatoes are determinate. Tomato plants that never set terminal flower clusters — only lateral ones and continue to grow taller, indefinitely — are called indeterminate. Most of the older varieties are indeterminate, including ‘Early Girl’, ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Supersteak’.

Determinate tomato varieties require less support than indeterminate varieties that can continue growing right up  until frost. Simple staking or tomato pens are usually adequate for determinate tomatoes. Paste tomatoes are determinate or semi-determinate. Their tomatoes ripen in one flush, a short but heavy production period. 

Most heirloom tomatoes grow on huge, indeterminate vines with fast-growing, often unwieldy branches. These are the plants that can produce 1 and 2 pound tomatoes. Long, heavy vines with super-sized fruits require sturdy support. 

One way to prevent vines from snapping off is by reducing the load. Thinning or removing some of the green tomatoes will lighten the stress on the vines. Those thinned green tomatoes are the original source of fried green tomatoes. 

The heavy vines of heirloom tomatoes will grow up and over the top of this arch. Use ties to connect the arch in the middle (optional). To create the arch, bend the construction panel at 6 feet, using a 2-by-4 as a guide. Place panels 4 feet apart to create the arch effect.

But for heavy vines with big fruit, consider making your own heavy-duty tomato support system. These supports will last forever and do not require storage space. This support system can also be used for vertical crops like cucumbers, squash and pole beans. 

Use cattle panels or construction panels supported by fence posts for an affordable, sturdy and easy-to-install tomato trellis. Although these are very sturdy, they can also be moved to different locations for crop rotation each year. It is a one-time investment in construction panels, which are 8 feet by 20 feet, and two metal fence posts. It won’t blow over in summer storms or collapse under the weight of a heavy harvest. 

Install the panel system before planting tomatoes. 

At the end of the season, move the tomato fence to another part of the garden to rotate the crop. Now your fence is ready and waiting for the next season. 

Plus, in early spring, you can sow peas along the fence before the weather gets warm enough to plant tomatoes. Nitrogen-fixing peas are a cool-season crop. Follow snow peas, sugar snaps or shell peas with warm-season tomato plants.

Tie One On

Cool-season peas use the trellis support well before the warm-season tomatoes are planted.
Start weaving tomato vines into the trellis early in the season — this will go a long way to support a tomato vine. Sooner or later the plant is going to grow too big and too fast for this method alone. So you will have to tie the vines up.

•  Ties such as Velcro® tape and vinyl ribbon come on spools, rolls or precut lengths.
•  Foam-covered wire is soft but sturdy in precut lengths or on  a roll. It’s easy to use, reusable and the foam is soft against plant stems.
•  Paper or plastic twist ties, precut or on a roll, are also an option.
•  Organic materials like jute, kitchen twine or cotton rag strips can go directly in the compost pile with the old tomato plants at cleanup time. 

When choosing plant ties, a deciding factor is: Can the tomato plant be safely tied up without cutting off plant circulation? Another consideration is whether or not you want to conduct a search-and-rescue mission to retrieve reusable ties.

In a week or two, you won’t see the plant ties. These 8-inch soft foam covered wire tomato and plant ties are reusable.

Vinyl ribbon or tape comes in a roll. It gently stretches as the tomato vine grows heavier, never cutting off plant circulation.

From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013. Photos by Patsy Bell Hobson.


Posted: 08/28/13   RSS | Print


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