Mulching, Staking & Pinching Your Way to Better Tomato Plants
Our family's success with tomatoes has been spotty over the last four years.
The first year, six plants produced so much fruit we spent days canning spaghetti sauce and freezing whole tomatoes. The second year, wilt killed every plant except a potted grape tomato. The third year, deer ate every one of our tomato plants to the ground not long after we'd set them out.
This year, we have just three plants, and they're heavy with fruit. What happened? We sprayed (and resprayed) deer repellant and chose new locations to avoid lingering nematodes. We also top-dressed with compost, staked them and pruned them. If we'd grown more plants, we would have applied plastic mulch too.
Better off red?
Roll it out, cut it and plant your tomatoes. (Oh, and if you're installing a drip irrigation system, put that down first!)
Plastic mulch suppresses weeds so that your tomato plants don't have to share one bit of the precious nutrients they crave. And the pests that weeds attract are also less likely to find your toms if you use mulch. Mulch helps the soil conserve moisture too.
Although the jury is still out, many experts assert that red and silver plastic may also improve tomato plant production. (And according to some studies, sweet pepper production.)
This article by the Iowa State University Extension Office maintains that plastic mulch's affect on spring soil temperatures is probably why it causes rapid growth in tomato plants. Others, however, believe that color is key, and that red and silver improve the movement of carbohydrates in plants, causing tomatoes to fruit and mature earlier.
In an article from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Hank Becker discusses ARS research showing that red mulch reflects growth-enhancing light waves onto tomato plants, causing them to produce up to 20 percent more than they would otherwise.
Unfortunately, plastic mulch of any color has at least one downside: it makes watering by hand difficult, and tomato plants need about an inch of water per week. For this reason, if you do use plastic mulch, consider also using a drip irrigation system. In the video below, Master Gardener Kent Phillips explains how he sets up his system at home.
Plastic Mulch & Drip Irrigation: A Winning Combination
Fit to be tied.
If you're growing dwarf tomatoes, there's no need to stake them. But if your tomatoes are the larger variety, they can produce as much as 8 lbs. of fruit per plant at one time. With that amount of weight on their branches, they'll need help to keep from breaking. Staking and tying will also keep the fruit off the ground, where it's more likely to fall prey to pests, disease and/or rot.
Wooden or metal stakes work just fine. Simply place the stake in the ground two to three inches from the main stalk. Then attach the stalk to the stake with twine, Velcro ties or old pantyhose.
I've used the same Velcro ties (pictured right) for about 3 years. I wash them at the end of the season and store them with the stakes. Although both the stakes and ties are worn (they were originally red and green, respectively), they work just fine.
When you get a runner, don't throw your pantyhose out. Tie up your tomatoes!
It's a snap.
You can also boost tomato production through pruning. That means snapping off any small sideshoots that develop at leaf joints.
Removing these suckers will allow the plant to concentrate its energy on producing fruit rather than growing lots of little branches.
No pruning tools are needed. Just use your fingers! The branches snap off easily.