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Gardening Columns

Tips for Terrific Tomatoes

First published on on June 5, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

By now you've planted your tomatoes in the garden. Have you thought ahead and set up some sort of training or staking system? Mulched around the bases? It's not too late, but the sooner the better. Tomatoes are often cited as one of the easiest garden vegetables to grow. Yes, they're easy to grow, but if you want the best and longest harvest, you'll need to help the plants along.

Left on their own, tomato plants sprawl, making the fruits difficult to harvest. And the tomatoes rest on the soil where slugs will happily take one bite from each fruit. (I wouldn't mind if they ate a whole tomato, but to sample them all? What are they, Goldilocks, looking for the one that's not too hard and not too soft?)

Mulch is Key
If you do nothing else, mulch your tomato plants. Some people like red plastic mulch but I prefer a thick layer of straw. The plastic mulch supposedly increases yields, but a few tomato plants usually yield more than I can eat anyway. Straw not only keeps tomatoes off the ground, it also allows air circulation beneath them, reducing rot. It keeps soil from splashing up on the leaves, minimizing problems with soil-borne diseases. It conserves soil moisture, important for the health of the plant and for helping to prevent blossom end rot. And at season's end you can rototill it in, adding organic matter. At around $5 per bale it's a bargain, and my favorite mulch for the vegetable garden.

Types of Tomatoes
Before you set up your cages or stakes, it's helpful to know what kind of tomatoes you have. Tomatoes are categorized as determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes, sometimes referred to as "bush" types, grow to a certain height, then set their fruit all at once. They usually produce ripe tomatoes earlier than indeterminates, but the harvest season is shorter.

Indeterminate varieties are true vines, continuing to grow until something -- frost, pruning, disease -- stops their growth. They produce fruit over a longer season, and ultimately produce more fruit per plant, but they produce their first fruits later than determinates. And the plants can get really, really big. Like, 8-feet-tall big.

Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate; hybrids can go either way. Seed packets may tell you, or you can do an Internet search on the variety. When in doubt, assume they're indeterminate and that the plants will get large.

How Tomatoes Grow
If you examine a tomato plant you'll see that shoots arise from the branch axils, where branches meet stems. Left intact, these shoots, called suckers, will develop into stems with their own branches. From these secondary branches, more suckers arise, and so on. The plant grows into a tangled mass of stems and leaves.

Plants in this state will produce fruits, but the first fruits will form later, the tomatoes will be smaller, and the overall harvest will be less than on pruned and trained plants. Why? It has to do with foliage-to-fruit ratios and the difference in plant hormones on horizontal vs. vertical stems. Plus, air circulation around pruned and trained plants is better, which reduces disease problems and can mean a bigger crop. Plants defoliated by disease aren't productive.

Should you remove developing suckers? Some gardeners do it religiously, some don't do it at all. Pinching them off when they're small does several things. It strengthens the main stem by removing competing branches and helps the plant direct its energy to the vertical shoots and fruits. It also makes staking and trellising easier, by limiting the number of stems per plant. However, pinching suckers also removes leaves that would otherwise photosynthesize and feed the plant, and can expose fruit to sunscald. One popular method is to remove all suckers that arise below the first flower cluster. This helps keep the main supporting stem strong, but it doesn't remove upper suckers that will eventually produce flowers and fruit.

And speaking of fruit (and yes, a tomato is, botanically speaking, a fruit), tomato plants produce clusters of yellow, starlike flowers, which are self-pollinated (they don't require an insect pollinator). After pollination, you'll see a tiny green fruit begin to form.

Support Systems
The most popular options for supporting tomato plants are cages, stakes, and trellises. You'll have to experiment to see what works best for you.

Cages. Tomato cages are a good choice for bushy determinates. You can purchase cages or make your own by bending concrete reinforcing mesh into a cylinder. Make sure the wires in the mesh are spaced 4 to 6 inches apart so you can reach in to harvest. Always anchor cages with a sturdy stake or two -- it's heartbreaking to have a fruit-laden plant topple in a strong wind. Indeterminate tomatoes need tall cages, at least 4 feet tall and preferably 6 feet. The benefit of cages is that you can let plants get as bushy as you want.

Stakes. Tomatoes tend to form multiple strong stems, rather than a central trunk. To support plants with a stake you'll need to remove suckers and side branches to encourage a central stem. Staked tomatoes look tidy, get good air circulation, and are easy to harvest. Removing side branches removes foliage, however, meaning your first ripe tomato will come later than on an unpruned plant, and the overall harvest will likely be smaller.

Trellises. By setting up a trellis next to the tomato row, you can weave branches through the supports as they grow. The benefit is that you can have multiple-stemmed plants. In my experience, though, it's easy to damage the growing shoots as you bend them toward the support to weave them through. And the trellis must be very sturdy to support a row of fruit-laden plants.

None of these systems has worked particularly well for me. So this year I'm trying something new. I've suspended a sheet of concrete reinforcing mesh over the plants, about 2 feet off the ground. I'll guide the tomato shoots to grow through the mesh. The idea is to let the plants grow as big and bushy as they want, while keeping the branches and fruit off the ground. This is a variation on the quonset hut -- a sheet of reinforcing mesh bent over the row.

Pest Patrol
Tomato hornworms. Huge green caterpillars with protrusions that look like stingers but aren't, tomato hornworms can be controlled by hand-picking. Or spray with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a biological control for caterpillars (moth and butterfly larvae). Hornworms are the larva of a large moth called the sphinx, hawk, or hummingbird moth.

Whiteflies and aphids. These small insects feed by sucking plant juices from foliage. Tolerate a small amount of damage because these insects are the prey for beneficial insects like ladybugs. Control a heavy infestation by spraying insecticidal soap on the leaves, top and bottom.

Diseases. Tomato foliage is attacked by numerous diseases. It's not that important to identify the particular pathogen. Plant at least one variety labeled as disease resistant, space plants generously to ensure good air circulation, pick off infected leaves and throw in the trash, and clean up plant debris. You can spray a fungicide containing copper or another organic control, but in my experience if you can keep the plants alive until late summer, you'll end up with a good harvest, even if the plants are straggly.

Many tomato fruit problems, such as catfacing, cracking, sunscald, and blossom end rot, are caused by environmental conditions, not pests. Good cultural practices can help minimize problems. Don't overfertilize, keep soil evenly moist, and leave enough foliage on plants to prevent sunscald. Some varieties are more prone than others to these problems. In any case, just cut away affected parts and enjoy the rest of the tomato.

Now wasn't that easy?

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