By Lee Riech
A month from now, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Tomato seedlings that were planted neatly near garden stakes are already beginning to take matters into their own hands, and if allowed to grow willy nilly will turn into a tangled mass of vines with tomato fruits — many of them rotting — hidden in a dark jungle of stems. So, if you were planning to stake and prune your tomato plants, start asserting yourself now.
Tomatoes do not have to be staked and pruned to be grown well, but if you planted them anything less than 3 or 4 feet apart and put stakes beside each one, that obviously was your intention.
Staking is admittedly the more troublesome way to grow tomatoes. But in return for your troubles, you reap earlier fruits, larger fruits, cleaner fruits and more fruits per square foot of garden space. (Only so-called indeterminate tomatoes — those whose stems are forever elongating, as indicated on the seed packet — can be staked.)
To keep the plants neat through the season, the stake has to be sturdy, no smaller than an inch-and-a-half-square piece of wood, bamboo or metal pipe. To accommodate that ever-elongating growth, a stake also must be about 7 feet tall, enough for one end to be plunged solidly into the ground while the other extends as high as you can reach for pruning, tying and harvesting.
OK, your stakes are in the ground. Your tomatoes are growing well and you’ve been pruning them by snapping off shoots, called suckers, that appear wherever a leaf meets the single stem. So what more do you need to worry about?
Those tomato plants are going to need more attention than you think. Turn your back on them for what seems like a few minutes, and already little new suckers are picking up steam. Or, the plant has grown another 12 inches and is starting to flop over.
Time for another tier of soft twine or a strip of cloth looped tightly around the stake, then loosely around the stem to hold it up.
Most frustrating is when you’re startled by a giant sucker, almost as robust as the single main stem, on a plant that otherwise has been so neatly trained. This common situation results, ironically, from paying too close attention to the plants. While you were staring at small details like little suckers trying to get toeholds, a large one that went unnoticed kept growing larger. It doesn’t take long for a large sucker to take on the proportions of the main stem.
There are a few ways to handle such a delinquent shoot. The first is to lop it off at its origin. The plant doesn’t like losing all this photosynthesizing greenery, and small tomatoes might even be forming on it. Still, lopping the overgrown sucker off keeps the plant neat and uncongested, which are long-term benefits that make this option best earlier in the season.
The second option is to let the shoot grow, tie it up, and now consider your staked plant as having two main stems instead of one. Diligent pruning from here on can usually prevent congestion, although two stems provide twice the opportunity for delinquent suckers to sneak up on you.
The third option is just to ignore the delinquent shoot, except to harvest its tomato fruits when the time comes. This is the best course of action near the end of the season, when it becomes well-nigh impossible to keep up with suckers anyway. Tomato plants sometimes acquire odd growth habits, and toward the end of the season, new shoots even sometimes start growing from the ends of leaves.