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Tie Those Tomatoes
The best growers know you don't want your tomatoes touching the ground.
By Susan Fishman and Jamie Cole, The Progressive Farmer
Tying tomatoes saves space because you can force the growth to go up instead of spreading out. It makes them easier to harvest because you have easier access to the fruit. It reduces some foliar disease problems because you get better air circulation when tomatoes are up in the air, and the fruit is not as likely to rot. Controlling vine growth by tying can even help fruit produce earlier.
Indeterminate tomato varieties have vines that can get quite large. But the determinate or semi-determinate varieties have smaller, less rangy vines and tend to stand up with a lot less physical support.
Indeterminate cherry tomatoes tend to be especially wild and wooly and make tremendous amounts of foliage -- these will definitely need support. Others are not quite as rangy and vigorous. And within the semi-determinate types, there are some that produce larger and more extensive vines than others and will need at least a cage.
No matter what variety you grow, there's a tying method that will work for you. Here are two of the more common ways as well as two new and innovative methods.
In the semi-determinate category, the best way to support tomatoes is with a wire cage, says Chuck Marr, a tomato specialist at Kansas State University. "You don't have to do any pruning, and the plants will pretty well stand up on their own if you have something to support them in a small way," he adds.
Marr's support preference is cement reinforcing wire cages. He uses 5-foot-length wire bent into a cylinder, which produces a cage that's about 20 inches in diameter. Many readers wrote us and said they use hog or cattle panels as well.
In windier areas, tie cages down by sticking a stake between two cages and anchor them to the stake so they don't blow over.
One of newer methods of tying tomatoes is the Florida weave, also called the "stake and weave." Here, you drive a stake between every two to three plants and attach a string, such as baler twine, at the end of each row. You then weave the string between the plants on one side of one plant and on the other side of another plant. Every time you get to a stake, twist the twine around the stake once and then go back to weaving again. When you reach the end of the row, go back and weave on the other side, guiding the plants so they are supported by the strand of twine and tie again at the other end.
Carroll O'Neal, who grows a variety of Mountain tomatoes in his garden in North Georgia, uses Florida weave. "It's the best method when you've got long rows," he says.
Barbara Sullivan and Karen Estevez-Gill are in the Davidson County Master Gardeners Program in Nashville. They have been growing heirloom tomatoes for seven years at the Grassmere Historic Garden at the Nashville Zoo. The trellis structure they've fashioned is a cube with bamboo poles that are lashed together. Sink three rows of 8 to 10-foot bamboo or cedar posts at least 2 feet into the soil and 4 feet apart from each other. To secure the outer stakes, take four bamboo pieces, secure them at the outside of the base from all four sides and tie them in with binder's twine or small grapevine. Then take another four pieces and secure them about 7 feet high and attach them on each of the corners with the same twine or grapevine. Place two more bamboo pieces diagonally on the top level from corner-to-corner and fasten at each intersection.
After the structure is complete, wrap some twine loosely around the pole and weave your tomato plant in between the twine on each pole. Train the nine plants to grow up each stake, and you will eventually have a canopy with plenty of room to harvest fruit.
The best way to support individual plants is with a single stake. A wooden stake is best, preferably oak. "Oak stakes are very sturdy, won't bend, won't break and resist rotting for an extended period of time," says Marr.
You cut the stake into 4 or 5-foot lengths and pound at least a foot into the ground. Loosely tie the plant to the stake with soft strips of cloth or even women's hosiery. You want something with a little give and stretch to it that will not constrict around the plant and that will allow the stem to expand as the plant grows.
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