Tomatoes: up, down or sideways?

Tomato plants

The prospect of sliding a knife into a delectably juicy, lusciously red, vine-ripe tomato has probably drawn more folks into home gardening than any other fantasy. While nearly any fresh vegetable or fruit tastes better than the namesake stuff picked hours or days or weeks before and delivered to a farmers’ market or grocery, a fully ripe, slightly soft tomato, still sun-warm, is better yet. Way better.

Or consider cherry tomatoes. What moment could be more idyllic than plucking and popping the season’s first cherry tomato betwixt weeding a flower bed and stalking the ever-elusive hornworm?

For all their palpable pleasures, however, tomatoes definitely present a management problem: rank growth. They simply don’t know when to quit, leading gardeners to adopt all manner of coping strategies.

Most folks begin their adventures with this magic nightshade fruit as tomato stakers. As the tiny seedlings reach upward, branching and leafing in vegetative profusion, beginners drive a stake into the ground and attempt to tie the plant into some semblance of verticality. String or wire usually cuts into tender plant stems, so strips of rag make better ties. But unchecked growth almost inevitably demands more stakes, unless the gardener prunes new branches as they sprout and tries to limit the plant to a main stem. (Good luck.)

The higher-tech variant on staking is to buy tomato cages. Installed while the plants are small, these wire supports tend to work somewhat better than stakes, since they provide rings of support for multiple branches. If you go this route, it’s best to purchase taller models. You’ll be reusing them year after year, and some varieties of tomatoes are growth rockets.

The principal downside to cages is the same as with tying with string or wire — the metal structure can cut into stems, which may then break as the weight of the ripening fruit increases. As with staking, rag ties can mitigate this problem.

A further refinement of the stake/cage approach, albeit even more work-intensive, is to install a lattice on the north side of the tomato row and espalier the plants (i.e. train them on a framework). This is most often done with perennial fruits or vines, but some gardeners prefer the elegance of geometric tomato growth as well. Because espaliered plants are carefully spread out, the individual branches and leaves don’t compete with one another and make maximum use of the available sunlight (and, therefore, nutrients). This can be an excellent solution for a very small garden, and a lattice offers the added benefit of screening your view of the cobwebs under the porch or the neighbor’s lime-green-and-magenta doghouse.

A radically alternative approach for tomato culture is to simply let the plants flop. Without support, they tend to sprawl; this requires more garden area (which means you’ll want to space the plants farther apart when you put them in the ground), but it’s less work-intensive through the season. On the downside, fruit that’s in contact with the ground may be more prone to rot during wet weather. The solution is to mulch heavily — six or eight inches deep — with hay or straw. This not only keeps the fruit from direct ground contact but also suppresses weeds and keeps the ground moist in droughty weather — a three-fer.

A friend of mine who has plenty of space came up with a bulkier variation on hay mulch — he collects discarded wood pallets, lays them alongside his tomato rows and trains the plants onto them. This somewhat ugly but thoroughly practical approach keeps the fruit out of the mud while promoting air circulation. He finds he can reuse the pallets for several years before they begin to disintegrate.

Tomatoes, however, are subject to a few pests and plagues that may thwart one’s best efforts. The most daunting in my experience is early blight, which can be successfully addressed only before it appears. Once blight strikes, your plants will wither and die within days, suffering near-total loss of any fruit already set. Helpful strategies, particularly if you’ve had problems in the past, include planting more than one blight-resistant variety, not planting nightshade vegetables in the same rows year after year, and sticking plants in widely disparate areas of the garden instead of clumping them all together. Dampness makes blight happy and tomatoes sad, so if you need to water, do it in the early morning rather than the evening.

Cutworms are frequently a problem for new plants, but cardboard or plastic rings can deter these miniature ax murderers. A handy way to make durable rings is to cut them from plastic yogurt or cream-cheese containers. Slip a ring down over a tomato seedling and press half its width into the soil. Cutworms travel at the soil surface and aren’t terribly clever puppies, so they’re easily diverted by the barrier.

Tomato or tobacco hornworms, the other principal creepy-crawly enemy of these plants, generally begin their assault around the time the first fruits start turning pink. These buggers are so well camouflaged that they’re rarely seen in infancy. Suddenly one morning, a big swath of a plant has been defoliated right back to the stem, or a green fruit has sustained a dog bite of a gash — but the culprit remains invisible. My approach is to look for fresh mounds of caterpillar droppings — green globs known as “frass” — and then run my eye vertically upward to locate the source. The 3- or 4-inch-long, beautifully marked worm suddenly appears where, moments before, one could spy ONLY healthy foliage.

While handpicking is the best organic control method in small gardens, some folks like the activist approach of dusting the plants with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) powder, which creates a case of terminal indigestion for the pests. Meanwhile, in the “nature, red in tooth and claw” department, braconid wasps lay their eggs on the backs of hornworms, and the wasp larvae burrow into the caterpillars, consuming them from the inside out. So when I spy a hornworm sporting a row of wasp eggs on its back, I leave it on the plant, figuring that it’s worth sacrificing a bit of tomato foliage in exchange for a healthy population of braconids.

The scent of marigolds is said to confuse the five-spotted hawk moth — the adult form of the nefarious tomato hornworm — so the flowers allegedly confer some immunity when planted in a tomato row.

Maybe my five-spotted hawk moths (a variety of sphinx moth) are smarter than average, but I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that this works. On the other hand, marigolds are beautiful, prolific and make great cut flowers, so it’s hard to argue that such efforts are wholly wasted.

Up, down or sideways, tomatoes alone make my gardening efforts worthwhile. And while waiting for them to start ripening 60 days hence, I can dream.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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One thought on “Tomatoes: up, down or sideways?

  1. Mary Wiedenhaupt

    I live in WNC and am having a problem with white spots under the skin of my tomatoes. What is causing this?

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