More Better Tomatoes

tomatoes-greenhouse-2008sept08-lah-296Summer is just around the corner and the weather is (hopefully) settled. You’ve finally planted your tomato seedlings and you’re dreaming of luscious, red, ripe tomatoes—the sooner the better.

However, this is Colorado, and there’s no guarantee when it comes to growing tomatoes. Now that your plants are in the ground, what’s the best way to care for them to ensure the biggest, fastest harvest?

Much ado is made about the kind of tomato you are growing. Tomatoes come as determinate or indeterminate varieties. The difference is that determinate tomatoes produce a finite number of branches, all of which will produce flowers and fruit. That limits how big they can get—once the terminal bud flowers, that branch won’t get any longer. Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing until frost takes them out. In parts of the country with a long growing season, this matters. Here? Not so much. They all die when it snows, and only rarely do indeterminate plants have a chance to get much bigger than the determinate varieties. Still, if you aren’t sure what your plants are, it should be on the seed packet or label, or google the cultivar name to find out.

Ripening tomatoes @home 2008sept23 LAH 303It’s best to get your plants off the ground. The main tomato disease along the Front Range is early blight, which is transmitted by spores that overwinter in the soil. Making sure soil stays off the leaves goes a long way to keeping plants healthy. Additionally, supporting your plants will result in earlier fruit.

There are two ways to support tomatoes—stakes and cages. At high altitudes, cages are a far better choice. With cages, you simply keep poking branches back inside the wires as the plant grows. You don’t need to remove any foliage. Another advantage of cages is that you can wrap them with clear plastic, sheltering young plants from spring’s cold, dry wind, raising humidity around the plant, and increasing temperatures a few degrees. Leaving the top open ensures that plants don’t overheat in our intense sunlight.

The best cages are those made from cylinders of concrete reinforcing wire, about two feet across. Those little peony rings aren’t nearly big enough.

Staking tomatoes is a constant job. Not only must you tie the plants as they grow, but they must be pruned or they get out of hand. In spite of what you may have heard, pruning will reduce the size and quality of your crop.

There are hundreds of websites and gardening books that tell you to prune your indeterminate tomato plants. Someone learned it from their gardening friends, they read it somewhere, or their parents grew tomatoes that way, and they pass this “knowledge” along as gospel. But pruning has two major drawbacks, and should only be done out of dire necessity—in cases such as broken branches, disease, or a tomato that is trying to suffocate the entire garden (although if you allow sufficient space between plants, this shouldn’t be an issue).

Tomatoes - cherry Sunsweet @home LAHOne problem with pruning is that it removes foliage that shades the fruit. (We all know that botanically, tomatoes are fruit, right?) The result is sunscald, not a pretty sight. You can’t eat the damaged part (well, you could, but eww), and the tomatoes won’t keep as well either. Especially here at high altitudes, keeping the developing fruit in the shade of nearby leaves is pretty important.

There’s another reason not to prune. The usual advice is to remove the suckers—the extra branches that grow at a 45 degree angle out of every place where the branches join a main stem. This is because these suckers don’t produce fruit. The idea is that you redirect that energy to the productive branches. But plants don’t work that way.

The more leaves a plant has, the more food it makes. Those suckers full of leaves are giant factories, using photosynthesis to provide sugar to your tomatoes. Leaving them on gives your plant more resources, allowing it to produce more tomatoes.

Some gardeners claim that pruning allows each leaf to get plenty of sunlight. You don’t want leaves that use more sugar than they make. But leaves that are too shaded will eventually yellow and die all by themselves. We don’t need to decide for the plant which ones to keep.

I have better things to do than spend time and energy pruning my tomatoes—starting with some online research for new tomato recipes.

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