Last Thursday, I read this post about not pinching off the suckers on your tomato plants. Of course, in classic Stacy-like fashion, I started to panic. I just spent several hours pruning the heck out of my 20 tomato plants! As I scroll down reading more and more of this convincing post, I start to fall into a tailspin of self-doubt and stress. I start to second guess my own gardening decisions and question what I’ve always heard. I think to myself, wait, I thought I was supposed to prune the suckers! And now I’m learning that if I do I might not get as much fruit?! Now what?
When I start to regain my composer, I start to recognize this feeling. I’ve felt this kind of gardening anxiety before. Remember my chicken guilt?Â When you’re working with living organisms, so much time is spent trying to help them grow and there are so many variables that can effect their survival. We all just want to get it right. But the thing is, there is no right way. There are hundreds of theories out there. Have you been to the gardening section in your local book store lately? Where to begin? Lots of different strategies are effective. That’s before we even consider how the conditions in your personal micro-climate can impact your gardening experience. My backyard raised beds are in a south/ southwest facing spot next to a white (can you say reflective?) detached garage that surely increases the amount of heat and sun I have in the spot…when the sun actually shines here, that is. So, the conditions in my particular gardening space ultimately impact the growth of my plants.
Ok, so what does all this catharticÂ ranting have to do with the title of my post? Why, I’m sure you’re wondering, am I going to now share my tomato growing tips after just revealing my tomato anxiety? Because this is what’s been working for me. This is what I did last year, when I got my first red tomato on Father’s Day, during the lamest summer for tomatoes we’ve had in a long time. Because I’m trying some new strategies out and I want to share them with you. Because that’s what gardening is all about – trying things out, seeing how they go, and trying again next year. In teaching we call this “monitor and adjust.” I’m writing this post because a reader asked me what I do with my tomatoes and my friend Martine encouraged me to answer. Garden questions that is. This is the beginning of a new series where I will happily answer your gardening questions. Ask me a question and I’ll do my best to answer. I’ll share with you what works for me and you can do what works best for you.
So, here’s what I do with my Pacific Northwest tomatoes:
- Be a seed snob – I start seeds inside in late February and choose heirloom varieties that have the shortest days to harvest number I can find. If the packet or description says 50 to 70 days, I’m all over it. I also choose plants that will produce smaller sized tomatoes (especially cherry varieties) and look for descriptions that talk about being hardier in cool weather. With such a small window of warm weather, which we need for ripening tomatoes, I aim to set myself up for success.
- Push the envelop – I always put my seedlings out earlier than most gardeners recommend. Ideally, nighttime temps should be around 50 degrees for tomatoes to be happy, but I find that tucking them into a warm cloche does the trick. I set up the cloche a few days before planting my tomatoes out in order to heat up the soil a bit first.
- Keep the heat in – I try and keep the soil warm by putting black weed cloth on the soil around my tomatoes. A lot of gardeners recommend using black plastic, but the black weed block fabric lets water through.
- Pack it in – I plant one indeterminate (the vining type) tomato plant per square foot. Yes, I know that seems tight, but with a little tomato sucker pruning for good circulation between plants and good trellising to grow them vertically, they do fine. I think with this crop of tomatoes, I have a few dwarf determinate (bush type) tomatoes growing in there. I think they need more space than one square feet, but it’s too late now. I’m going for it and we’ll just have to see how that turns out.
- Give it roots – When I plant my seedlings, I use the trench method. I dig a small, deep trench, until I just about reach the bottom of my six inch bed. I prune off the lowest leaves and lie the tomato seedling in the trench, gently bending it up to rest against one of the sides of dirt. When I fill in the trench, I mound up a little dirt behind the main stem to help it stand up-right. The fine, grey hairs on the tomato’s stem will become roots when they make contact with the soil. This technique helps give my seedlings a stronger root system.
- Creative Cloche – When my seedlings are young and on the shorter side, I crisscross the PVC pipes so that the cloche and plastic are lower and closer to the plants. The goal is to keep the air warm around the plants. As they grow, I adjust the tubing so that the cloche size accommodates the taller plants. I also leave the plastic over the tomatoes for as long as I can – until they get so tall they need trellising. The more warmth you can keep around the tomatoes and the more water you can keep off them, the better. A quick note about my cloche – I recently invested in special greenhouse plastic for my cloche, which seems to be working a lot better than the plastic painters’ drop cloth I was using before. But, I need to paint my PVC pipes! When the plastic and PVC pipes come into contact, some kind of chemical reaction happens that causes the plastic to deteriorate. That’s not very sustainable now, is it?
- Grow up! – I have tried a plethora of trellis techniques. This year, I built aÂ wood frame on both sides of the tomato bed. Think goal post or clothes line. Then, I put three hooks, evenly spaced across each of the top bars, and strung wire across the bed, one string of wire per row of tomatoes (three). Then, I loosely tied a piece of twine around the the bottom stem of each tomato and tied it to the taut wire – one string for each tomato. I’ve started training them to grow up the strings (i.e. gently wrapping the stems of the tomatoes around the wire). I hope it works. If anything, I think it looks really cool and farm like, so I guess that’s something.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! – When you live on the west of the Cascades, you have to grow tomatoes with a sense of humor. Sometimes even the best intentions won’t result in a bounty of red tomatoes. But, that won’t stop me from trying next season. And if my tomato-growing techniques don’t work for me this season (a-hem, my tomatillo seed planting attempts all failed this year), there are lots of farmers at the market who can help me get my fill.