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Tomato plants starting up a trellis. Photo: <a href="">Charles Dawley</a>, Creative Common, some rights reserved
Tomato plants starting up a trellis. Photo: Charles Dawley, Creative Common, some rights reserved

Some tomato tips before the season kicks into high gear

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Even if you don't have a garden, you can grow tomatoes in a sunny spot on your front steps or patio. They're one of the most popular vegetables. But they take some tending over the growing season. Horticulturist Amy Ivy has some early season tips for keeping tomatoes healthy this summer.

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Reported by

Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

Todd Moe: So, I love tomatoes. They're in my garden, but I always make the same mistake every year. I put them too close and by later this summer, it's kind of a jungle out there in my tomato patch.

Amy Ivy: You are not alone, I can assure you. Every year I vow to do better.

TM: So you wanted to share some, kind of some early tips on how to avoid that jumble of tomatoes by August or so. So what are some basic things that folks can do or should at least kind of keep in mind when growing tomatoes?

AI: Now really is a great time because it's kind of your last chance to take some control before things get really out of hand. So this is good.

There are a couple of things: The first is some kind of support. Most tomatoes need some kind of support, there are some true bush — they're called patio tomatoes that really don't get very big at all and they do fine on their own — but basically any kind of tomato would benefit, and some need it more than others.

Most of the heirlooms that people like to grow, Brandywine and Striped German and Cherokee Purple, and all those neat-sounding ones. They definitely need support because they're indeterminist; they keep growing up, up, up, up. And so you need to give them that support.

It can be tomato cages, they call those tomato cages, they're kind of tapered down to the narrow bottom, they're good for just about anything but tomatoes. Tomatoes get so heavy, you know, the fruit is heavy and those things are tapered down narrow, so they're structurally unstable because the base is narrower than the top.

TM: The tomatoes are top-heavy.

AI: Exactly, they become totally top-heavy, so if you do use them, if they're already in the ground, then I suggest you put a stake next to them because they do provide some horizontal support, but then support them, but a stake next to them so they don't flop the cage itself.

But if you haven't put anything up yet, I just use some snow fence, it's green and it's plastic mesh, and I stretch that down my tomato row and then tie my tomato plants to that. You can use stakes, you can use big cages, you can make them yourself out of concrete reinforcing wire, but some kind of support, that's really the number one thing.

TM: And what about pruning tomatoes as they grow? And when do you sort of stop pinching off those leaves and so on?

AI: A healthy tomato, a vigorous tomato will produce more leaves than it needs and if you let all those leaves grow, especially with the indeterminace, you just get so much leaves that they pull away from the productivity.

It's not the end of the world, but the plants will do better with some pruning. So, in general, for those ones that do get tall, if you can figure out where the suckers are, in every leaf, in the angle where the leaf attaches to the stem, there's a sucker — it's a little shoot that comes out.

And if you can make a habit, and I know it's hard, and I myself let my suckers get too big, but if you can get out there every week and just pinch off those suckers as they form, it's a lot less stressful to the plant, and that way you can focus the plant's energy to the main stems that you've saved. You can choose two or three main stems, and then take off all the side shoots so that it's more open, you get better air circulation going through, and that will help reduce some disease pressure, and then it just makes the plants more productive, too.

TM: I remember a friend visiting my garden, she's an avid gardener, and she went through my tomatoes and was pinching off a lot of those and I thought, "Stop! Stop! You're taking off too many of the leaves!" And, by golly, she was right.

AI: It's very stressful to the gardener! And the other thing I do that gets people excited is take all the leaves off up to the first flower cluster.

TM: Wow.

AI: You don't do this all at once. If you went in, like yesterday I actually did a lot of pruning and that's why it's on my mind I guess, on my tomatoes they had just put on a big surge of growth with this recent warm weather and the sun and all that.

And if you take off every leaf and every sucker that you need to all at once, it is a bit of a shock to the plant. But you do want to gradually take off those lower leaves, because they don't really contribute anything and by taking them away you'll get better air circulation down below, and again, over and over, the leaf diseases are probably one of the biggest challenges to growing tomatoes. So getting that air to flow through will help discourage those diseases.

TM: So I had a couple of leftover cherry tomato plants that I put in some pots and I'm wondering, obviously those are going to need support at some point, so it's kind of important to know where I'm going to put those pots for the summer, that sort of thing.

AI: Yeah, exactly, and if you don't have a garden at all, you know, any space in the ground, you can grow tomatoes in pots, good size pots, though, like a five gallon bucket, if you can think of a joint-compound bucket, if you have one those kicking around. That is a nice size for one plant to grow in. And so often I'll see two or even three tomato plants in on of that size pot.

So that's the first thing. But cherry tomatoes do really well in those pots and they do definitely need support. You could start with a cage, if you want, but I would then put bamboo stakes in around, maybe four of them on the edge of the pot sticking up, and then you can continue from the cage, because you can sink that cage down into your pot, and then support that with those bamboo poles and then wrap more twine around so you're extending the height of the support.

And then, the cherry tomatoes, everything I said about pruning, good luck with cherry tomatoes because all of them, they just grow like crazy, that's just their nature and they seem to do fine no matter what. You're going to get a million cherry tomatoes no matter what you do.

So I wouldn’t worry too much about pruning except if it seemed dense to you, if you looked at it and it just looked crowded and full, I would not hesitate to prune out those leafy— the other thing about the suckers is that usually they're very leafy. So prune out the leafy ones so that you have a better balance between the leaves and the fruit. But support is definitely going to be important for them.

TM: Yeah, well I always underestimate, you know, I think you said sometimes you'll see bucket with two of three tomato plants in them and I think it's just they're small at first and they look so innocent and you don't realize that those tomato plants, wow, by August, it's a jungle, you know.

AI: It is really a jungle. And I have the exact same challenge myself. They look so little, it's hard to imagine how big they'll get. But they are heavy feeders, too. One other thing: you can use something as simple as a bucket, any container, make sure it's got good drainage at the bottom, nice big holes, not just little tiny holes, nice big holes at the bottom, and then you will need to supplement with some fertilizer because the container just can't possibly hold enough food for such a big plant. So you will need to use some liquid fertilizer pretty regularly to keep it really growing well and producing.

But it's a great way to have a simple garden anywhere. And you need full sun for it. You did mention something about the light. You need full sun; you can't just put this in a shady porch and expect to get tomatoes.

TM: Good point, good point. Yeah, quick question: I have some squash seedlings in the ground and I'm noticing some flowers and I'm thinking you want to sort of pinch off those flower buds on the tomatoes and what not, but what about squash? And is it okay to leave those? The plants are still small, but they're flowering.

AI: Okay, just one thing, real quick; Don't pinch the flowers on the tomatoes. It's the leafy shoots you're pinching. Leave the flowers on the tomatoes. So that's the first thing. But you're right, when a plant is small, like if it's in six-pack, you know, a cell pack, it should not be flowering. If it is flowering when it's so confined, then do pick the flowers off because it shouldn't be trying to produce flowers then.

If your squash is in the ground, right, so then the first flowers that form on all the squashes— zucchinis, pumpkins, all the winter squashes and summer squashes— those are all male flowers at first. And so they're just going to shed pollen and fall off anyway, so they're not such a drain on the plant. It's the female flowers that are going to be ripening the fruit that really drains the plant. And so if you had a very young seedling that was already producing female flowers, or in the case of like peppers, in cell packs and things like that, that's when those flowers are really going to drain the plant.

So, but in the case of your squash, I'm quite sure those are male flowers, those are the first to form. Just take a look at the flower, and if it's a female, at the base of the flower you'll see a little miniature fruit. If it's a cucumber, you'll see a little tiny cucumber, and, it's kind of neat, if it's a zucchini, you'll see a little tiny zucchini there, and that's how you know if it's a female flower.

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