How to Cage Your Tomatoes

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For convenience sake, grow your tomatoes in cages.

Tomatoes are ramblers, that is, in nature they climb, but only very weakly. They have no tendrils and their stems don’t twine, so they lean on and mix their branches into nearby shrubs to get their lift off the ground.

Home gardeners rarely allow them to invade their shrubs, though, but instead, have learned to grow them on tall stakes. Since the stems can’t cling to their support all on their own, you have to tie them to it, then tie them again and again as the stems lengthen… and that’s a job a laidback gardener can do without. Most have come to prefer tomato cages.

The idea of a tomato cage is to put a supporting structure around the plant, setting it in place while the plant’s still young. It then grows inside the cage by leaning against its sides, which allows it to grow upward. The only “work” involved is to push any stem that tries to escape back into the cage.

Small Cages for Small Tomato Plants

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Classic tomato cage: it won’t be enough for many larger tomato plants!

The classic commercial tomato cage is made of wire and is shaped somewhat like a funnel. Typically, it measures 33 in (83 cm) high and 1 foot (30 cm) in diameter. Hundreds of thousands are sold every year… but it isn’t always very effective.

Of course, it will work perfectly with smaller tomato plants (determinate tomatoes), but it is usually too low and too frail for indeterminate tomatoes, which produce enormous plants, 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at least, many nearly twice that height. Not only will an indeterminate tomato quickly overflow its now tiny cage, but its weight often bends and twists the thin wire supports, causing it to collapse.

Another problem: since these cages can’t be folded or taken apart, how are you supposed to store them for the winter? You can try nesting one into another, but as they become twisted over time, that soon becomes difficult or even impossible.

The result is that many gardeners start their gardening experience with these cheap tomato cages only to abandon them after a few years.

A Big Cage for Big Plants

If you grow indeterminate tomatoes (and most gardeners migrate towards them over the years, as they are so much more productive than determinate ones), look for a larger tomato cage, one made with stronger supports. You’ll find different models in just about any garden center or hardware store.

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There are all sorts of models of larger tomato cages. Photo: Greeden Tomato Cage Company

Some are composed of 3 or 4 panels that you assemble to form a column and I find these particularly interesting, as they are easy to dismantle and store over the winter.

However, you can also easily make your own tomato cages. What follows is a model I’ve been using for years and that I find very convenient. It’s not only much stronger than most commercial cages, but taller as well.

A Cage of Concrete Mesh

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A roll of concrete mesh cut into 6 foot lengths will give you  plenty of tomato cages.

You need concrete mesh, also called concrete reinforcing wire. It’s used to make reinforced concrete and is available in any hardware store. You can find it with either 4 or 6 inch (10 to 15 cm) openings, just the right size so you can slip your hand inside to harvest tomatoes, and in widths of 4 to 6 feet (120 to 180 cm) (6 ft/180 cm is better if you’ll be growing really tall tomato plants). Cut it with wire cutters into sheets 6 feet wide … or have the guy at the hardware store cut it for you. At home, roll each sheet into a column, bending the metal ends into hooks to hold the column together.

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Just place the cage over a young tomato plant … and let it grow! nillesfm.com

Now just place the cage over a tomato plant and hold it in place with tent stakes or some other kind of staking method so it remains upright … and let your tomato grow! All you have to do, as mentioned above, is to push any wayward stems back into the confines of the cage.

When Plants Overflow

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By summer’s end, the cages can be overflowing… but so what? Photo: vomitingchicken.com

By the end of the season, any good indeterminate tomato will have risen above the cage and its stems, arching under their own weight, will start dangling down, sometimes almost touching the ground, creating a fountain effect. That’s not a problem and no pruning is required: every arched stem will, by then, be bearing dozens of fruits and just harvesting them all will keep you busy enough without you having to think of pruning.

At the end of the season, just unroll the cage to form a sheet again and place each sheet one on top the other in a garage or tool shed to save storage space.

Rust and Durability

True enough, concrete mesh is not made of stainless steel and will soon rust. I suggest discovering that its new reddish-brown color is just charming rather than trying to paint to prevent it from rusting.

And how long will a homemade tomato cage last? I don’t know, but my oldest cages are nearly 20 years old now and are still going strong.


There you go: is DIY project for a rainy day that can keep you waist deep in tomatoes for years to come!015.K

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The Truth About Tomato Suckers

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This growth is not a sucker, but a stem… and you don’t have to remove it.

I’ve written about this subject before, but I keep getting so much feedback on the subject I figure the information is worth repeating. And what I’ll try to get across here—hopefully more clearly this time around—is that you don’t necessarily need to remove tomato suckers … and, in fact, you can’t, because tomatoes don’t produce suckers. And you can’t remove something that doesn’t exist, can you?

Definitions

A sucker is, by definition, a stem that never produces either flowers or fruits. Logically, you’d want to remove suckers from your tomatoes if they had any.

The thing is, though, they don’t. Those green stems that start to form at leaf axils (see the photo above) are not suckers, they’re simply secondary stems. Branches if you prefer. Left to grow, they will produce both flowers and fruit… and therefore aren’t suckers. Studies show that tomatoes whose side stems are left in place produce more fruit than ones whose secondary stems are removed, although the fruit may be somewhat smaller. Still, there is a net gain in total tomato production by weight, so you get more “tomato” to eat by not pruning… sometimes considerably more.

Suckers Drain Energy, Stems Provide It

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Bloodsuckers suck the life out of fish, but tomato “suckers” are not only harmless, but beneficial. Illus.: Allthingsclipart

It’s important to understand that, as the word “sucker” is clearly pejorative. When you hear it, you automatically imagine the sucker stealing energy from the plant. It sounds like something you should get rid of. On the other hand, the word “stem,” the true term, is a neutral word, neither negative nor positive. You have to ask yourself what is the advantage of removing a stem from a tomato plant.

And here’s the really important point: since stems produce leaves and leaves carry out photosynthesis, stems don’t “suck” the energy out of the plant. Instead, they provide energy. All the energy of most plants comes from photosynthesis and photosynthesis is carried out by the green parts of the plant. Since these secondary stems are not only green, but bear leaves, they add considerable energy the plant can use to grow more vigorously and produce more fruits.

Yes, tomato plants will actually be stronger and grow more vigorously if you don’t prune off the secondary stems. It’s as simple as that!

Why Then All the Insistence on Removing “Suckers”?

Generations of gardeners have been taught that removing secondary stems from tomatoes is important. In fact, the practice is now so firmly entrenched that most people just do it, without ever questioning why. But there is a reason people first started doing it… and here it is:

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Tomatoes are pruned so they are more amenable to growing on a stake. Photo: tomatodirt.com

When a tomato plant is grown on a stake in order to keep it from sprawling rather than on a trellis as had been the method used before the 20th century, there is a limit to the number of stems that can be attached to the support. Our ancestors decided to remove the secondary stems in order to better attach the plant to its stake. If you use a single stake, traditionally you’d keep only the main stem and remove all the others. If you use two stakes (a fairly common technique), a second stem is allowed to grow and produce fruit while all others are removed.

So, the reason behind removing secondary stems never had anything to do with improving the harvest, but rather was strictly a question of staking the plant in a logical manner.

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Caged tomatoes need no staking, yet produce more tomatoes!

When tomato cages first began popular towards the end of the 20th century, that changed the situation. As they support the plant on all sides, removing the secondary stems is no longer necessary: there is a structure around the whole plant that can hold up even the lankiest stem. As soon as any stem starts to grow outside of the cage, simply push it back inside. It couldn’t be easier! Except that most gardeners continue to remove secondary stems even on caged tomatoes without even asking themselves why.

Of course, typical tomato cages are designed for determinate tomatoes, which are relatively small plants. To support an indeterminate tomato, like the popular and very vigorous cherry tomato ‘Sweet 100’, a huge plant with multiple stems, takes a large tomato cage. They are less common, but they can still be found in better garden centers or you can make your own.

So there you go: if you’re using an appropriately sized tomato cage, you no longer need to remove any secondary stems.

The Advantage of Pruning Secondary Stems

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To grow giant tomatoes, choose a large-fruiting variety and let only one fruit mature per plant. It will be H U G E! Don’t prune off secondary stems, instead just pinch off all but one flower. Photo: onlytomatoseeds.com

There is, however, one advantage to removing secondary stems. As the plant will now produce less fruit, it will put a little more energy into its reduced crop and each fruit will be slightly larger.

The Advantages of Not Pruning Secondary Stems

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Unpruned tomatoes produce slightly smaller but far more numerous fruits, often twice as may as a pruned tomato. Original photo: simplyfreshdinners.com

If you don’t remove secondary stems, you will usually harvest about twice as many tomatoes, although they will be slightly smaller than the tomatoes produced by a pruned plant. On the other hand, they often taste better because the plant has more leaves and therefore more energy… and leaves convert solar energy into sugar.

Also, pruning tomatoes leaves a wound that harmful microbes can use to penetrate your plant, something you avoid if you don’t prune. If you do decide to remove the secondary stems, make sure you sterilize your pruning shears between each cut. It’s very easy to accidentally transmit diseases, notably viruses, from one tomato plant to another.

Obviously, though, the biggest advantage of not removing secondary stems is simply that it requires less effort. Long live laidback gardening!

A Few Misconceptions About Pruning Tomatoes

Some gardeners claim that letting all the branches grow will delay the harvest, but in fact, it really has no effect on maturation. The variety of tomato, the growing conditions, the weather and other factors do influence the speed at which tomatoes mature, but not pruning. An unpruned tomato plant will produce fruits as quickly as a pruned plant, sometimes more quickly. After all, it has more energy to put into it.

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Removing too much foliage from a tomato plant can cause sun damage to the fruit. Photo: Scot Nelson, Flickr

Other people claim that tomato fruits must be exposed to the sun in order to ripen and therefore on a pruned plant, with reduced foliage, the fruits will be less likely to be hidden by foliage and thus the fruits will ripen faster. But in fact, this is not the case either: even fruits that are completely hidden by leaves ripen perfectly well. It’s the leaves that must be exposed to the sun, not the fruits. Worse, fruits suddenly exposed directly to full sun as a result overzealous pruning can suffer from sun scald and becomes essentially unusable.

The gardeners in cold climates often insist they have to prune their tomatoes that because of their short growing season. They’re convinced that tomato plants whose secondary stems are removed will mature more quickly. I repeat, the more green leaves a tomato plant has, the more energy it will have … a big advantage when your growing season is short.

(There are ways to get tomatoes to mature more quickly in short season climates, notably by choosing extra early or cold-resistant varieties, growing them under cover to keep cold air away, fertilizing well, never letting the root system dry out and removing any late-season flowers that won’t have time to produce mature fruit. Removing healthy stems and foliage is not on the list.)

Do Remove Yellowing Leaves

No matter whether you grow tomatoes staked or in a cage, pruned or unpruned, it’s always wise to remove yellowing and dead leaves. They no longer contribute to the growth of the plant and can harbor diseases.


To Prune or Not to Prune?

Now that you know a little more about the situation, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to remove your tomato’s secondary stems so you can tie it to a stake or grow it inside a cage so you can forget about pruning entirely. Personally, I switched to tomato cages years ago and never prune healthy stems. Most years we end up with more tomatoes than we know what to do with… on only two plants!20170708A