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kitchen gardening | staking tomato plants

by dig the dirt editor

Tomatoes suitable for staking are the so-called indeterminate types. These varieties form fruit clusters at intervals along their ever-elongating stems. Determinate varieties, by contrast, fruit at the ends of their branches and thus are not suited to staking. The pruning required by staked tomatoes would reduce a determinate plant to a single short stem with little or no fruit.

Staking tomato plants for your kitchen garden is a good idea: There are several advantages to staking tomato plants. Since the plants grow upward rather than outward, they are forced to produce more pounds of tomatoes from a given area of ground than will unstaked plants; this is especially important in small gardens, because the plants can be set as little as 18 inches apart. The fruits of a staked tomato plant ripen earlier and are larger (though fewer) than fruits of the same variety trained to a sprawling habit. Staked tomatoes also receive better air circulation around their leaves and fruits, which generally lessens disease. In addition, fruits held high above the ground are free from dirt and out of the reach of slugs.

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Watch out for these problems when staking tomato plants:  A staked plant needs a healthy leaf cover or fruits will get sunscald. Fruits on staked plants are also vulnerable to blossom-end rot, so pay special attention to proper nourishment (particularly calcium), and see that the plants get an even supply of moisture.

1. TOMATO PLANT STAKE
Do not be misled by the puniness of a tomato transplant. Each plant needs a sturdy support. Use rough-cut wooden stakes that are six to eight feet long, no narrower than one by two inches, and pointed at the bottom.

To avoid root damage later on, set stakes at the same time you set out transplants. Pound a stake into the ground about three inches from a plant on its north side so that the tiny plant will not be shaded. Sink the stake one to two feet into the ground—you may need to start the hole with a crowbar. This depth provides enough stability to keep gusts of wind from toppling the plant when it is laden with fruit.

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2. TIE TOMATO PLANTS TO THE STAKE
Tying is necessary because a tomato plant has no natural way to hold itself up. Material for ties should be strong enough to last the whole season and bulky enough not to cut into the stems. Coarse twine will do, but I prefer cotton rags torn into inch-wide strips, 18 inches long. These weaken enough by season’s end so that I can simply pull spent plants off their stakes, and any ties left will decompose on the soil or compost pile.

First tie a square knot around the stake tight enough to prevent downward slippage, then use the free ends of the rag strip or twine to tie a square knot loosely around the tomato plant’s stem. As the plant grows, anchor the stem to the stake every 12 to 18 inches.

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3. PRUNING YOUR TOMATO PLANTS
A staked tomato is best confined to a single stem. In each leaf axil—the point where a leafstalk joins the main stem—is a lateral bud that can grow into a shoot just like the main stem. These shoots must be removed, ideally before they are an inch long. Use your fingers to snap off each one, thus avoiding the danger of transmitting disease with the blade of a knife or pruning shears. Remember that tomatoes have compound leaves; do not mistake the junction of a leaflet and a leafstalk for a leaf axil.

As you prune, occasionally step back and refocus on the plant as a whole. Shoots that made two feet of growth, especially those emerging near ground level, are easily overlooked.

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4. PINCHING THE TOP OF TOMATO PLANT
Once a plant reaches the top of its stake, pinch out the growing point of the shoot and continue to remove any new leaves or flowers that form. Pinching directs a plant’s energy into the fruits that have already set, hastening their ripening and increasing their size. If your growing season is long, you may wish to delay pinching so as to allow more fruits to set and ripen.

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Tags

staking tomatoes, Tomatoes, growing tomatoes

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