I have Instagram. I love Instagram. If you keep up with my Instagram, you know that my Instagram lately has been a collection of tomato pics, because my garden is a collection of real life tomatoes, to date 50 pounds of tomatoes. Because it’s August. And that’s what happens in August. But…let me rewind a little.
I didn’t always have 50 pounds of August tomatoes. I once had 2 pounds of August tomatoes, and lots of frustration and determined reflection. That was three years ago. Here is a summary:
Year One: I planted four tomatoes and used those inverted conical hoop cages that seem all the rage. Thought I could plant one tomato plant per square foot LIKE A MORON. Tomatoes quickly filled the cages, and then some, lifting the cages out of the soil and wrapped tomatoey vines in and out of the wire, soon around each other, giving the appearance that one gargantuan tomato plant ate four tomato cages. If I was lucky, I think I got 3 tomatoes.
Year Two: I planted four kinds of tomatoes but I knew something now. No cages. I staked them! Using wire, I tied the stems to 6-foot bamboo poles. I kept tying to the poles as they grew. And grew. And grew past 6 feet so I had nothing to tie them to. Then they went all psycho tomato like the previous year. I did manage to wrangle a decent haul around 10 pounds, enough to eat fresh.
Clearly, my first two years of tomatoes were not what I thought they would be. I remember listening to acquaintances and neighbors go on about their tomato harvests like “ohhh there are soooo MANY I just don’t know what to do” and thinking, “ohhhh well I HATE you. And I will take your extra tomatoes, please.” Why were my tomatoes not working? Tomatoes are supposed to be the friendliest of the garden vegetables, that’s why everyone grows them.
I did a little reading and quickly learned that you can’t just tie them to the poles, you need to actively prune them. Good lord, more work. So I set about this year determined to plant, stake and prune my ten tomato plants. And plant, stake, prune I did.
To prune a tomato plant there are a couple things you want to do:
- Always prune out any leafs/stems that grow in the crotch of the main stem and a leaf branch. The stems that grow in the crotch will are called “suckers” but I call them parasites.
- Prune away all leaf branches below the first foot of the plant. One the plant starts blossoming and setting fruit, these lower leaves might just yellow and drop off anyways.
- Don’t just take my word for it, photo google “tomato pruning” and the diagrams will come forth.
These are the basic pruning methods I use for my indeterminate tomatoes. Most of my tomatoes are indeterminate. All that this means is that they will continuously set fruit until their tomato life has ended, whether by frost, deer, or overwhelmed gardeners. If a tomato plant is determinate, it means it will produce fruit all at one time. These guys usually stay manageable and small, but there are much fewer tomato options for determinate types. I grow tomatoes in a very tight space, about a 6’ x 4’ square, so I should grow determinate types. But I don’t. What can I say? I bring on my own demise.
Something crazy happened this year, year three. I set about planting, staking, tying pruning my ten plants and one night, not wholly unexpectedly, one of my tomato plants lost his head! I mean this literally. A deer (I feel safe in assuming this) made off with the very top of one of my Pink Brandywine tomato plants, when it was a mere 4 feet high. I thought for sure it was a goner. It had already blossomed and had 4 small green tomatoes, so I was upset at the prospect of losing the fruit. Quickly, I made a dash to get a temporary fence in place to prevent further damage to the rest of the vines.
Writing off this one plant, I thought “this is why you always have a backup” and I focused my attention on the rest of the tomatoes. But…something happened. The deer-mangled tomato plant did not die. It did not grow. But, it did keep plumping up those tomatoes. I harvested all four 1.5 pounder Pink Brandywines from that 4-foot tomato and was really impressed with the little-tomato-that-could attitude. I thought to myself…what if I topped off all my tomatoes? (Imagine me with a cocked eye brow and slightly evil smirk.)
You know what I did? I deer-mangled my tomatoes my own self! I waited until the remaining plants were at or above 7 feet (at which point I have trouble reaching), and lopped off the growing tips. Just like that! I will admit, I was a little scared, but each plant had a good amount of fruit coming in. Worst case scenario, I would get a good crop of green tomatoes. Fortunately, my risk paid off…in 50 pounds and counting. Not only did my tomatoes stop growing at whatever point I cut, but they put their focus on setting fruit, and setting fruit they did.
For all intents and purposes, I determinated my indeterminate tomatoes. Once I finish harvesting all the fruit, the plants will be done because I stopped any further growth. I am okay with this, seeing as how I spent a full 10-hour day making frozen roasted tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, fresh marinara sauce, tomato soup, and zesty tomato salsa. I feel that I have lived a true tomato August and I am ready for an overwhelming harvest of something else. Come at me tomatillos.
If you prefer to let your tomatoes sprawl, this process is not for you. I have heard it said that when you pole stake your tomatoes, you get a small yield. To that I say, how many more tomatoes can a person use? Pole staking, tying and pruning works well in a small garden space as I have, and topping the tomatoes off after they have a good set of blossoms affords a little more sanity during the bumper crop season.
How are you handling the August tomato rush?