Ask a gardener: tomatoes

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? 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 cathartic 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 a 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.

Happy planting!

12 thoughts on “Ask a gardener: tomatoes

  1. Shango

    That was a frickin’ wonderful read. Exactly the stuff I needed to know right now. You saved me a bunch of web reading…and such a snappy delivery. =) Thanks.

  2. meg

    I always prune my tomatoes too! I think in Seattle it is necessary. It is a rare summer we’d get enough heat to get full tomato production and so many things can go wrong. I think it is best to get as much circulation as you can. I plant them real close too =)
    However, mine this year are awful. So puny. I just never got around to covering them this year…survival of the fittest I’m afraid. Next year…. =)

  3. Tom @ Tall Clover Farm

    Stacy, fear not your tomatoes will fare well I’m sure. After a lifetime of growing tomatoes, I’ve found that in the Pacific Northwest they will produce what they are going to produce whether you pinch or not. I just find not pinching is one less thing you have to or need to do. Yippee-skippee.

    I would say the most important thing you can do to encourage a great tomato harvest is have great soil, don’t over water, and make sure you give them as much sun as you possibly can. And Variety has a lot to do with it too, pick Tomatoes well suited to the Northwest. Usually big slicers like Rutgers or Beefsteak are more of a challenge.

    Here are some of my favorites:
    Good Luck.

  4. Donna Hartmann-Miller

    The first three years I gardened, I didn’t pinch. It included one “bad” weather year, a “good” one, and an outstanding one. The fourth year, a typical Seattle summer, I pinched and the difference was noticeable. The next year was a terrible summer and I pinched and I once again had a good production. So I’ve pinched ever since. I haven’t planted a garden yet this year, I’ve been way too busy with community volunteering and home remodeling stuff. Too many things to do in too short a time period. And I must admit, my soul is a little sad when I look at my gardening area. I will get the lettuce in for sure (and maybe some basil, I always have luck with basil)

    (and maybe some carrots. oh, and radishes! I love the crunch of a radish)

    (hmmm, maybe I can get some spinach going . . . )

  5. Joanna

    Thanks for sharing. I saw you had such an early harvest last year and I was curious what you did. In the past I think I’ve done about half of what you recommend. This year I’ve done all of them, so I hope that I get a good turnout! Do you ever have any luck getting cucumbers to go in the early summer?

  6. Valerie

    Awesome article! Just one quick question, do you leave the plastic on all day or do you remove it so they can get direct sunlight? Sorry if this seems like a silly quesion, this is my first year attempting tomatoes =)

    1. stacy Post author

      That’s not a silly question at all! I leave the plastic on all day and have it vented at the sides so that it doesn’t get too hot in these and so there’s more air circulation. I had to take the plastic off this weekend though because it wasn’t working with my new trellis situation, so they’re out in the real world now. :-/ We’ll see how that goes!

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