By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension
---- — In garden polls conducted across the country, and in informal polls we’ve conducted locally, tomatoes are by far the most popular crop for home gardeners. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can grow a tomato in a large pot on your deck or patio, as long as it gets at least six hours of sun each day.
Home grown and ripened tomatoes not only taste great, the plants are fun to grow. They become quite large so you only need a few plants to really feel like a gardener. The first year I had a garden I bought a six-pack of cherry tomatoes and I was soon overwhelmed by a jungle. One cherry tomato plant is plenty for most home gardens, maybe two.
Now I like to plant one of several different varieties of tomatoes so that I get an assortment of sizes, shapes, flavors and ripening times. If you want a large quantity for canning or freezing either include a six-pack of a paste or Roma type tomato in your garden or arrange to buy a bushel or half-bushel from a farm stand.
To avoid a jungle in your garden and to make your plants less prone to fungal diseases, it really helps to actively prune your tomatoes as they grow, all summer long. Take a close look at your plants, especially near the top at the younger leaves. In the axil of every leaf, where the leaf stem or petiole attaches to the main stem, tomatoes produce a sucker. Suckers are young shoots that if left alone each will develop into a full-sized branch of its own.
To focus the plant’s energy on ripening fruit, it really helps to remove most if not all of these suckers. Try to check your plants every week so you can remove the suckers while they’re young and easy to snap off with your fingers.
If you have access to high speed internet, Johnny’s Selected Seeds website (www.johnnyseeds.com) has an excellent two-minute video clip that clearly demonstrates what I’m describing here. Click on the videos link at the top right of their home page and scroll down to pruning tomatoes. No endorsement of this company is expressed or implied by this suggestion.
In addition to removing as many suckers as you can, it will also help your plants if you remove all the leaves up to the first flower/fruit cluster. Those leaves are shaded by the leaves above anyway so by removing them you allow better air circulation to keep the remaining leaves dry.
The two most common diseases we see every year, early blight and septoria leaf spot, both begin on the lower leaves then move up the plant. So by removing those leaves you’re making it a bit harder for those diseases to get started.
Last of all, tomatoes do best with some kind of support; you have many options here. Every garden you visit will probably have a slightly different method from the other. Many gardeners train their plants to a single stake per plant. Some years I’ve trained mine to a trellis of heavy fence wired stretched between two poles. I tie the shoots to this trellis which results in a rather nice-looking wall of tomatoes.
The small wire cages so widely sold for tomatoes are under-sized for most crops and tend to topple over by August.
If you’ve already started with them, just add a tall stake alongside the cage to provide some support and you can tie the longer stems to this stake as well. I like any kind of system that lets you prune out the excess growth and provides good air circulation to the leaves.