by / Monday, 18 June 2018 / Published in Blog

Training Your Tomato

By Dave Van Raay

Tomatoes are our favourite part of summer. They capture all the nostalgia of our parent’s garden, and are a juicy taste of the best of Canadian gardens. They’re easy to grow, offer endless choices to gardeners, and have a can’t-be-beat flavour, making them the easy local favourite for a reason. 
 
Before diving into different varieties of tomato to fit your taste, you need  to learn about the two basic types of tomato plants. Determinate types tend to be the newer hybrids. These tomatoes come to your garden pre-trained: they are well-behaved, they sit up straight, and stay in line without much discipline. These are the types that thrive in containers and low-maintenance gardens, but they will often have less yield than their indeterminate cousins. 
 
Indeterminate tomatoes are the unruly and gangly branch of the family tree. They can make a mess and they will rebelliously try to live by their own rules, but gardeners love them. These tomatoes are vine growers that need some care and structure to grow right, but will yield like crazy. They have a reputation as the most delicious tomatoes – including the classic, but difficult, heirloom varieties – but they need some training. 

Your Best Tomatoes 

Tomatoes are sugar factories. Their main job as plants is to collect sunlight and nutrients from the soil to grow. They are experts at manufacturing stems, leaves, and fruit, but in order to work best in your garden, they need some tough love and guidance if they are going to optimize their work. To make them the best fruit producers you can, you need to help them focus their energy where you want it. 
 
Left to their own devices, your plants will produce a ton of growth that simply isn’t useful in creating more delicious tomato treats for you and your family. Over a short growing season, pruning is a crucial step in directing your plant’s attention and resources to use all the sugars they can for fruit production, rather than sprouting stems that will never grow anything useful. 

By Dwight Sipler from Stow, MA, USA (Tomato SupportUploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomato Training Bootcamp

Getting Started: Tying Your Tomato

Untrained indeterminate tomatoes will inevitably end up as a tangled, green, frustrating pile in your garden. Not only will they fall short of the bountiful harvests you imagined, but they will be fungus-prone and difficult to manage. Training your vine properly is easy if you start at the beginning, and will reward you with faster growing and richer harvests. You can have incredible results, with a properly tied and pruned plant giving you ripe fruit a whole 2-3 weeks early, compared to an untrained plant.

 
First, you’ll need a support. It can be as simple as a stick, or as complicated as a trellis, depending on your garden and style. Tie the main stem every 6-8” for support, and tie just above the flower clusters as they begin to develop. 
You’ll want to treat your plant gently to avoid damaging or breaking the vine. Whenever you tie, do so loosely, and with something that will provide gentle support like thick twine, plastic plant tape, or even strips of panthose. Handle with care and avoid thin ties, like wire, that will cut into the stem. Keep in mind the weight of your delicious fruit as it grows, and tie above the fruit so the whole stem isn’t pulled over. Treating your plant gently and providing support will be worth the tasty rewards as you harvest.
Pruning 101
The other important step to keep your indeterminate in line is pruning. We prune for three reasons: to keep our plants healthy, to divert resources to fruit production, and to maximize our end-of-season yield. 
 
Pruning for health is usually preventative. Pinch all the side stems that grow under the first flower cluster. It can seem extreme, but just take a deep breath and remember that improving air circulation just above the soil will help your tomato to avoid fungal diseases like blight.
 
Pruning for fruit production is all about keeping your plant focused on generating good tomatoes. This is something to keep in mind throughout the summer as each new tomato grows. Pinch off everything that isn’t working towards the ripening of your precious tomatoes. They are a waste of sugars and energy that could be improving your fruits! Suckers should be the first to go. Pinch off all the stems that grow at an angle from the joint between the leaf stem and main stem. They won’t yield and aren’t needed. Low-level side stems are just as suspect, and should be snipped off to improve air circulation anyways. Once flowers show, everything growing under the first cluster can go. 
 
If you are growing the famous beefsteak or other large varieties, you can help your plant focus its efforts by pinching off the smallest half of your developing clusters. You’ll have fewer tomatoes in the end, but the ones that do develop will get more sugars as they grow. This means bigger and better tomatoes than you ever thought possible. 
 
End of season pruning is also about helping your plant focus on fruit production. Start this process about a month before the first frost. We can usually expect to see the first frost in late October, so you should start preparing for it by the beginning of September. Pinch off just above each new fruit cluster – this is called “topping.” It can seem pretty harsh, but will force the tomato to ripen its existing fruit rather than start new ones, which is vital in the last weeks before the first frost ends your growing season. 

Tomato Troubleshooting

In a Fungus Funk?

As any gardener learns quickly when growing tomatoes, their plants can be delicate and very susceptible to disease and fungus. One of the first lines of defence to prevent them from infection is to prevent its transmission in the first place. Instead of using pruners or shears that can carry a number of pathogens right on the blade, use your fingers to pinch stems rather than cutting. For similar reasons, avoid pruning (or even handling) your tomatoes while they are still wet from rain, since open wounds on your plant’s stems act as a welcome mat to any fungus in the water. 
 
For even better defence against water-borne diseases, water your plants at ground level rather than sprinkling water from above, where it will get the leaves, stems, and fruits wet. Other steps like planting your tomatoes with plenty of space in between and allowing for air circulation will help to keep fungus away too.
 
These preventative measures are important in avoiding fungus, because once it steps in it can be difficult or impossible to treat directly! In extreme cases, some gardeners resort to fungicides, but these chemicals will still only get rid of the spores, without having an effect on the fungus already infecting your plant. If you have fungus setting into your garden, the best step is to remove affected parts – and change your planting strategy for next year. 

A Leggy Start?

While we wait for the right warm conditions to get our tomato plants into our gardens or containers, our starter plants can get a little impatient and leggy as they continue to grow. We have some good news here: while most other plants will struggle to recover if they get leggy, tomatoes have the ability to recover quite well, and will even grow roots from their stem! This remarkable adaptation gives them a “leg up” on the other plants in your garden when it comes to transplanting. 
 
Nice and bushy tomato plants are still ideal, but you can make it work if your plant has stretched a little. However, as much as your tomatoes have the ability to make a comeback after a leggy start, you’ll need to set them up in the right conditions to do so. Here’s how to help them make the best of what they have:
•   Choose a location that is favourable. Planting in a cool and shady spot will only make your plant more leggy. Find a spot with at least 6-8 hours of sun daily.

•   Boost their soil with compost and a 10-10-10 fertilizer to feed your plant as it tries to fill out in your garden.

•   Dig a hole to plant your tomato that is deep enough for the roots and the lower portion of the main stem. Make sure you remember to trim all of the lower leaves that will be buried. Fill in the hole around your plant and gently firm up the soil. Water your plant deeply.

•   Consider covering your soil with about 2” of mulch – this will help to manage weeds, as well as keeping soil temperature and moisture levels more consistent.

•   Try to keep up a regular watering schedule. While a mature plant can tolerate some dry spells, your young tomato plant will need to avoid temperature, light, and moisture stress during its first few weeks in the garden to help it recover and fill out better.

Indeterminate tomatoes are some of the most rewarding plants you can bring into your garden. They only take a little maintenance to set them up for success, and the trade off in ridiculous amounts of delicious fruits is worth every bit of effort. These fruit-making machines are perfect for new gardeners who want to try something new, experienced gardeners who want the best their backyard can offer, and anyone in between. With easy steps to follow, your best tomatoes are only a few months away!

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