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How to Train Your Tomatoes

Ted Lare Blog Feature Tomato Plant

Garden-fresh tomatoes are the very best of summer. Most gardeners can’t help but to feel a little nostalgia as they work with their own tomato plants, and the fruits of your labor practically taste of sunshine. With so many varieties offering different types of deliciousness every summer, it’s no wonder these edibles are always among gardeners’ favorites.

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Tomato Types:

Before concerning yourself with questions about the shape and color of tomatoes, your first decision comes down to choosing between determinates and indeterminates. These two varieties are often separated by question of their lineage, in addition to their more important differences in growing habits and in how much fruit they produce.

Determinate: These tomatoes tend to be the newer hybrid varieties. These are your no-fuss garden plants: they are well-behaved, sit up straight, keep their hands to themselves and won’t need any training. Determinates thrive in containers or gardens, and require very little intervention from their gardeners. The trade-off is that they often yield considerably less than their ganglier indeterminate cousins.

Indeterminate: These varieties of tomato are a little more unruly. They can be a handful if they are allowed to get out of control, and can be a bit of a challenge to keep in line. The tomatoes of these varieties grow on vines instead of compact plants, and are noticeably more bountiful than determinate plants. The world’s most delicious and prized tomatoes, including the famous heirloom varieties, are all indeterminate. But they need some training to keep them in line as they produce their delicious fruits.

Tomato Tough Love:

Tomato plants are sugar-producing factories. They take the summer season to gather all the energy and nutrients they can from the soil and sun to grow stems, leaves, and their prized fruits. All of the best plants in your garden are experts at growing in the summer, but they need a bit of guidance – and even some tough love – to make them produce the fruits you want.

Tomatoes are explosive growers that thrive in the summer heat, but a lot of their new growth will simply not be able to yield before frost cuts the growing season short. Pruning is absolutely essential to tomato care and is just as important as tying for keeping your plant in line. Well-pruned plants are easier to manage, look better and, most importantly, will be able to focus their sugars towards fruit production rather than creating new stems that won’t yield. Proper pruning is essential for a tidy and organized garden, but is also vital for healthy plants that produce delicious tomatoes as a reward for your efforts.

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Tying Your Tomato:

An “untrained” indeterminate, or a plant that is left to its own unruly ways of growing, will inevitably end up a complete mess. Without some guidance, these plants become tangled and disease-prone, without producing any of the tasty tomato treats we want. Proper training of your vine will reward you with a clean and tidy garden that reflects your efforts. You’ll have an incredible harvest of tomatoes that are more numerous and ripen sooner than untrained plants.Supporting your tomato can be as easy as using a stick, or as complicated as a trellis. Whatever device fits the style of your garden will work just fine, as long as the fragile stem has some structure to cling to. Because the stem is so fragile, it should be tied loosely to your support every 6-8”. Avoid using wire, since it could cut into your tomato. Gardeners will find much more success using thicker ties (such as thick twine, plastic plant tape, or strips of pantyhose) to secure their delicate plant.

Handling tomato vines with care is vital to their success, but can be more challenging than many gardeners think. To create the most productive – as well as tidiest and most attractive – tomato garden, gardeners have to think carefully about how they secure their plants. Ties should be just loose enough to support without damaging, and always secured above flowers so that the heavy, ripening fruit doesn’t damage the stem.

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Tomato Pruning 101:

Your tomatoes will need some basic pruning to keep them at their best. Pruning helps your plants stay healthy, produce as much fruit as possible in your growing season, and divert as many growing resources as possible into creating perfect tomatoes.

Pruning for Health: Keep your tomato plant healthy by pinching all the side stems that appear below the first flower cluster. It might seem a little extreme, but boosting air circulation will help your tomatoes ward off disease. Not only will your garden look tidier and cleaner, but you will have healthier plants that are less susceptible to fungus or rot.

End-of-Season Pruning: Once the growing season starts to slow, you’ll need to prune to help your plants prioritize. When cold and frosty weather is approaching, you will want to direct your plants to focus their energy on ripening the fruit they have, instead of creating more new stems. In order to give your plant the time it needs, pruning for the end of season should start a month before the first frost. This pruning – called topping – might seem harsh, but is important if you want to get the most from your plant in one season. Find the existing fruit clusters and pinch off the stems just above each of them. Here in Iowa the first frost typically happens in October. The actual date changes a lot year to year, so finding the right time to top your plants can be a bit of a guessing game. To be safe, you’ll probably have the most reliable results if you start pinching off in early-mid September.

Pruning for Tomato Maximization: Regular, ongoing pruning will divert as many resources into growing fruit as possible, while continually cleaning up your plant’s messy growth. You’ll need to target growth that doesn’t produce fruit. Focus on pinching these parts of your plant to help it produce tastier fruit:

• Suckers grow at an angle from the joint between the leaf and main stem. These should be the first to go, as they will never yield any fruit and will make your plant look far messier.

• Side stems low on the plant are also not useful for creating tomatoes. Once your plant is flowering, anything below the first flower cluster can be removed.

• For large tomatoes, pinch off the smaller half of the developing fruit clusters. The remaining clusters will receive all the sugar and resources that the clusters would have had to share, helping your plant to produce the large, juicy tomatoes you want for your dinner table.

Keeping Your Tomatoes Healthy:

Any tomato plant is very vulnerable to disease or damage. How you handle and work with your plants can make a big difference to their health. Keeping your plant’s dainty structures in mind can make the difference between a healthy and attractive plant that produces tons of tasty fruit, or a sickly plant that underperforms.

Pinching with your fingers is highly recommended for your tomatoes, rather than cutting with pruners. The steel of your pruner’s blades often hosts old pathogens that can easily be transmitted to your vulnerable plant. It is also important to know that your tomato plant is more susceptible to damage and disease when wet – the open wounds you leave after working on your tomatoes are an open door for fungus to enter from water into your plant. To keep it safe, simply avoid handling your plant – whether pruning or tying – while it’s still wet from rain or watering.

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Indeterminate tomatoes might sound like a messy challenge with so many guidelines, but their care is actually quite simple. By knowing the basic rules of how and when to prune and tie your plant, your garden will be set up for success. These classic varieties bring so many benefits to your garden in exchange for some relatively easy upkeep. By choosing indeterminates for your garden, you’ll be rewarded with more delicious tomatoes for your dinner table this summer, and a charming nostalgia that can’t be found anywhere else.


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