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Tomato Supports in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Small and delicate, tomato blossoms give no clue that they will soon give way to fruit that can weigh but an ounce, or as many as seven pounds.

Your Small Kitchen Garden was going all hot-and-heavy about planting tomatoes but then it went off in other directions. Well… tomatoes have returned! I imagine many of you have already figured out how to support your tomato plants, and a few have decided to let your plants “free-range.” If you’re in neither of these categories, stick with this post. In fact, even if you’ve created tomato support for your garden, please hang in. I’ve been a tomato-staker for forty years, but I never again will be. This post explains the tomato support I’ll use in my small kitchen garden from now on.

No Suckers in my Small Kitchen Garden

In an earlier post, I explained about how to manage tomato plants. I, personally, am a sucker-plucker; even on determinate varieties of tomatoes, I remove suckers and tie the tomato vines to supports.

Every year that I’ve grown tomatoes, I’ve diligently plucked suckers and tied my plants to wooden stakes. I sacrifice an old tee shirt each season, and tear strips from it to harness the plants. It’s a pleasant task that eats up a lot of time when you have a lot of tomato plants.

Because my dad did, I have always tied my tomato plants to stakes. Within a week of setting a tomato seedling in the garden, I’d drive an 8-foot tall wooden stake into the ground a few inches from the seedling. Then, as the seedling grew, I’d tie it to the stake using strips of cloth I’d tear from an old tee shirt.

I have about 24 tomato stakes that I made by ripping 2×4 lumber into thirds and then cutting one end of each into a wedge-shaped point. (By ripping, I mean cutting the 2×4 along its length with the grain.) These stakes are hefty and strong. Since an eight-foot 2×4 costs about $2.50, my 24 stakes cost about $20—not even a dollar apiece. Of course, the stakes wear out; the pointy ends rot while they’re in the ground. So, some are no longer eight feet long… but the cost of replacement remains low enough that I can maintain my inventory for decades and the cost per stake wouldn’t be punitive.

I planted about sixty tomato plants this year.

I make my tomato stakes by ripping 2x4x8’ lumber into thirds on my table saw. Then I cut a point into one end of each stake—sometimes using a hand-held jig saw, and sometimes using the table saw along with a jury-rigged jig to hold the stakes at appropriate angles as they move through the saw blade.

My first completed trellis wouldn’t win an award from the “gorgeous garden glamour” judges. To erect the trellis, I stood on the step ladder and used a crack hammer (with a four pound head) to drive the uprights about a foot into the ground. I also stood on the ladder when I lashed the horizontal crossbars to the tops of the uprights. It took about twenty minutes to build the first trellis, and three more went together in about 15 minutes each.

Support for Crowded Tomatoes

A standard square lashing is easy to tie and very strong. You can drill holes and bolt your trellises together, twist wires around the joints, hold them together with plastic quick-ties, or otherwise substitute for the square lashings.

For my first time ever, I started tomatoes indoors from seed this past winter. I planted lots of seeds because I expected to have problems… but every seed sprouted and thrived under fluorescent lights on my ping-pong table. So, I’ve planted a row of tomato plants with one-foot spacing between plants. In my other tomato rows there are only 18 inches between plants. Were I to support all these plants with 8-foot stakes, I’d be buying and ripping a lot of 2x4s. This appeals neither to my budget, nor to my lazy gardening style. Goodness, who wants to hammer 60 tomato stakes into the ground?

I’ve seen tomatoes supported by strings hung from overhead supports and figured that would be a low-cost alternative to planting 60 stakes. I already had 24 stakes to work with, and I figured I could repurpose them to make supports from which to hang strings. I’m very excited by the results.

The scheme is simple: My tomato rows are 14 feet long. I pounded a stake in at each end of a row, and a stake in the middle of the row. Two further stakes became cross-bars that I mounted across the tops of the uprights. I didn’t want to damage the stakes (in case I hated the result and decided to stake each plant individually after all), so I lashed the cross pieces in place with string.

It’s hard to capture a single meaningful photo that illustrates how the twine looks when wrapped around the stem of a tomato plant. These three photos give you a pretty good idea. Because you tie the twine to the crossbar above the plant, it can be a little tight, requiring more extreme flexing of the stem when you add a wrap around the plant’s newer growth.

With a row of 14 tomatoes all supported by twine hanging from above, it takes only a few minutes to support the new growth on all plants in the row. About once a week, I pluck suckers and work the twine around the newest growth at the tops of the plants. With traditional staking, I’d spend more than twice as much time at the task.

Once a plant is 18 to 24 inches tall, I tie it into the support. To do this, I tie a piece of string to the cross bar directly over the plant. I cut the string off at ground level and wrap it three or four times around the plant’s stem. If the string tries to unwind from the plant, I pin the end of the string under the last wrap it makes near the ground. Usually, the string stays in place, particularly if it ends immediately beneath a leaf.

As the plant grows, I gently flex the leading stem and leaves out of the way while working the supporting string around the stem. After a week’s growth or so, there’s enough new stem to make at least one twist, and sometimes two.

This tomato support is so stupid-easy to manage, and so effective. It’s way quicker than tearing up an old tee shirt and tying tomato stems to stakes. The materials in a given season will cost two or three dollars until I need to replace stakes (a decent ball of twine is the only expense). If I’d started using this approach 15 years ago, I’d have saved, perhaps, 60 hours for other activities.

 

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11 Responses to “Tomato Supports in Your Small Kitchen Garden”

  • Joan:

    Great idea! I only have three tomato plants this year (heirloom), so I’m using metal cages. Say, the string from above trick would work with peas, wouldn’t it? How about cucumbers? I remember something about using a trellis for cucumbers.

  • I can’t wait to see how these work for you, Dan. Eight foot tall tomatoes? I had no idea. I’m such a newbie!

  • TC:

    That’s a good support system. I made one just like it in the past for my pole beans. The only drawback, for me, is taking it down at the end of the season. Stakes are much easier. And like you, I was indoctrinated into staking (and “sucker plucking”) at a very young age, and you know the cliche- old habits die hard. I save my tomato ties too, I had a bunch of strips cut from pantyhose, they stretch and are not as hard on stems as some other tying material. But I’ll have to use grass string this year because the pantyhose strips finally wore out and no one in my household wears them anymore (strips from an old t-shirt would work, but I’m lazy and cutting grass string is easier).

  • Matt:

    I just set something like this up on the weekend, though I used bamboo stakes, and I built a sort of A-Frame instead of a single stake for support.

  • admin:

    Joan: Yes, there’s a whole school of “vertical gardening thought” that involved dangling strings from overhead supports and providing tall fencing and trellises for all produce. One important trick for trellised melons, squash, and pumpkins: hang slings to support the fruits as they grow or they may overwhelm the stems holding them.

    Cindy: Amazingly, my tallest plants are but 18 inches shy of the trellis crossbars already, and it’s not quite mid-July! I’m afraid I’ll have 10-foot plants before the first frost. Awesome!

    TC: I hope my trellises come down more easily than stakes… I’m counting on removing 12 uprights rather than 24 stakes. Seems as though that should go quickly. Of course, there will be a lot of string to remove… but I’ve used natural fibers so I can toss them in the compost heap. You won my heart with the phrase in your comment that reads “…but I’m lazy…” The club accepts all applicants.

    Matt: I’ve seen the a-frame approach. It looks very classy, especially when you use bamboo. Seems about as much work, but it does require more space and more materials. If you want it to look good, use bamboo tripods!

  • [...] first wrote about how I built supports for my over-crowded tomatoes in a post titled Tomato Supports in you Small Kitchen Garden. This morning I added a cross-piece that ties together three tellises. The tops of the trellises [...]

  • TC:

    My method, using cages rolled from old wire fencing, is much simpler I think. Once the cages are made they last forever. And all I do is drop a cage around my plants shortly after I set them out.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    TC – I agree: cages are far less complex. But they also require more space per plant and more storage space during the off season. With such a small garden and intense enthusiasm for tomatoes and tomato products, I’m always experimenting to squeeze in as many plants as possible (this year 76 plants in about a 12′ by 14′ rectangle). I’m growing some tomatoes in deck planters and those will soon have cages. Thanks so much for your comments.

  • TC:

    Of course space would be a concern for some folks, I keep forgetting that not everybody lives on almost four acres! And yes, my cages do take up a little space in the shed! And why do you grow so many Daniel? I have 18 and know it’ll be too many.

  • Paula:

    Daniel how about an update on your tomatoes and disease with such close quarters? Ouside Philly, I am picking off leaves daily that have the beginnings of blight, the little yellowish borwn dots…seems i can stay ahead of it without any spraying if i do that. I have black plastic right under them and straw mulch in the aisles so they do not get splashed with soil. Tough to rotate in a limited space fenced garden. This yr. i dug out all tomato holes and filled with organic potting soil and compost to try to reduce amt of potentially fungi soil right close to the roots. Too much work!

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    TC – In a good year, I’ve been able to can about 20 pints of tomato sauce from 12 plants after all the tomatoes we consume in-season. Last year I canned about 100 pints of sauce and diced tomatoes and ran out mid-winter. With nearly twice as many plants in the garden, perhaps I’ll finally put up enough tomato products to get us through to next season.

    Paula – So far (beginning of August), the worst problem my tomatoes have shown has been dying lower leaves as I see every tomato season. Some of these show symptoms of early blight so I’ve been breaking them off and discarding them when they start to look ill. I’ve treated quite religiously with copper-based fungicide and there’s no sign of late blight. With nearly two potentially-productive months remaining, I’d hate to see any blight take hold. Your leaf-picking sounds sensible; I’ve heard that any leaves below developing tomatoes add virtually nothing to the health of a plant; I’ve yet to test this or to see research that supports the claim, but I suspect there’s some truth to it.

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