Training Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Okay, so I lied. While the watchwords of this particular phase of the garden are weed, water and wait, that’s not all that goes on. There are regular, if not daily inspections for pests and varmints. (We call it gopher patrol.) There is the usual round of reseeding for those rotating plants that we do all summer, like lettuce and beans, along with occasional reseeding where the cutworms get to the sprouts. And, there is the constant need to train the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are vines. Sure there are determinate varieties, more likely to stand upright, but the underlying, genetic predisposition of a tomato plant is much like that of a teenager—an inclination towards messy, outward sprawl. The cages provide structure, but like rules, you’ve got to be nipping at their heels (roots?) to make the program work. Given the option, your tomatoes will ignore your well-meaning cages, take the path of least resistance, and sunbathe willy-nilly all over the garden.

There are reasons why upright is better. (We didn’t get to be Homo-erectus for nothing!) I’m not just an uptight adult raised by an army-brat parent with a fixation on order.  While I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily work for a farmer (many of you already know the ugly truth about the commercially produced variety), tomatoes that are caged are less subject to moisture and ground-carried diseases, they provide more shading for the developing fruits, you don’t step on them as you try to water and harvest, and they’re easier to tend. I’m not old, but I am old enough and smart enough to avoid needless stooping.

So, everyday I try to tour the tomatoes to train them into upright, garden citizens. It’s just nudging, if you do it right. (Stand up straight! Have you done your homework?) You have to be regular about it, or they’ll get away from you. Up is not their natural inclination (especially those cherry tomatoes that always stick out at odd angles.) This week I missed two days and came back to tomatoes bent on escape. When that happens, you need to wrestle them back into place, sometimes resulting in the heartbreak of snapped branches.

Despite late planting, many of our tomatoes (especially the vinier ones) are reaching the tops of their cages. The others aren’t far behind. It’s impressive to see over thirty, four-foot tomato plants standing in formation. When I tuck those wayward branches back into position, I can see bunches of green globes hiding in the foliage, protected there from sunburn. Sometimes, if it gets too dense within the cage-column, I do a little pruning for better air circulation and harvesting access. I’m mindful of the danger of spreading disease with all this handling. If any tomato looks less than healthy, I tend to it last, or wash my hands and tools thoroughly before touching another tomato plant. So far, with the exception of one plant, the tomatoes this year are all remarkably vigorous. Without the cages, we’d be in tomato anarchy by now.

That one problem plant doesn’t have any particular symptom of disease. It’s just failed to thrive. It’s scrawny, without explanation. I’m at the point when I’m probably going to pull it out, sterilize everything in sight and replant with a new tomato plant. (I still have some orphans who’d be thrilled with the opportunity to be in first-string placement.) I hate to give up on it but the memory of last year’s blight is still fresh in my mind—then, in one foggy week the blight that came with the romas spread to more than half of the other tomatoes, turning them black and leafless, almost overnight. This year I’m being more cautious. (I’ve even planted the romas in an entirely separate garden, just in case.) Romas in exile—nice digs, but segregated confinement, nonetheless. (“It’s for their own good!”) It’s probably over-reacting but it’s working out. Those risky Romas are in the backyard where I can keep an eye on them.

All the tomatoes have fruit now, along with an outer crown of yellow blossoms. We’re looking at a steady harvest that will start by mid-August and, hopefully, run well through October. I may even have to stake those tomato cages. Even though I bought the beefiest ones on the market, this year’s tomatoes are coming in pretty big and heavy.

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