The idea of growing garden fresh tomatoes is so appealing in the spring. You turn over your garden and get fresh dirt and bask in the joy of all your little starter tomato plants peeking up at you just promising to produce perfectly ripe fruit by summer. But around the first week of July, your joy turns to frustration and stress as your plants get out of control, your tomatoes start rotting before you even realize they are ripe, heavy plants topple over crimping off their own nutrient supply and vegetable bugs start to attack. Here are some tips to help you regain control of your bounty.
Not So Rotten Tomatoes
I’ve had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year. Not only have I grown more perfect tomatoes than I’ve ever grown, my tomato plants are still under control and it’s almost July. I’ve been able to keep up with eating the perfect tomatoes as I harvest which means I’m eating BATs (bacon, avocado and tomato sandwiches) every day.
Tomato Plant Tips
Tomato plants get out of control quickly. Here’s a few tips to help encourage your tomato plants to behave:
- Plant starter tomato plants as deep as possible, leave just a few leaves visible above ground
- As the plant grows, trim off the stems lowest to the ground to encourage upward growth. Keep stems trimmed off the first foot of your plant stem.
- Remove suckers (see below)
- Watch for signs of stink bugs
- Stake up tomatoes, readjust periodically
- Watch for thick stems that fall over (see below)
Suckers Are Starters!
Suckers are the stems that start growing out of the “Y” between two established stems. They are called suckers because if you don’t remove them, they suck the life out of the main plant. The tomato plant will put it’s energy into that new growth, which will then also sprout it’s own sucker thus further directing plant growth aware from the main stem. You want to carefully snap off these suckers by bending them until they make a clean break.
Good news! These are actually little starter tomato plants. Ideally you will pull off suckers when they are pretty small and just toss them. But eventually one will shoot out to a pretty decent size before you find it. Snap those off and gently shove the broken end of the stem into fresh dirt as deep as you can get it. After about 20 minutes, it will look like a dead plant.
Back To Life
Water the little fella daily for the next few days. Don’t drown him. The picture above was a sucker that was practically a whole new tomato plant when I found him but you can do this transplant method with a single stem sucker.
Voila! In a couple of days, you’ll notice the plant has begun to come back to life. Below the surface of your dirt, that broken sucker stem has regenerated new roots. Now in a few weeks when your mature tomato plant craps out, this little descendent will just be starting to flower.
Stinky Little Buggers
The evil stink bug will usually appear just when your tomato plants are full of ripe, luscious fruit. These little buggers stick their proboscis into your tomatoes and suck out the deliciousness for themselves. If they hit a seed, they inject digestive enzymes that break down the seeds and start destroying your tomato from the inside out. They can destroy an entire plant’s production in no time leaving your tomatoes with white spots on the skin and holes that turn to rot.
Cilantro To The Rescue
I have an organic garden so I don’t use pesticides. The remedy I use for stink bugs is the same thing I use to keep bugs of any plant – cilantro water. After you’ve used up a bunch of cilantro, keep the stems and put them in a mason jar. Fill with water and refrigerate. After the stems have had time to infuse (1 day), transfer the water to a spritzer bottle and go to town on your tomato plants. Spray right onto the tomatoes and leaves. Keep unused water refrigerated in the spritzer bottle for up to a month.
Everyone Needs A Little Support
There are many arguments about the best way to support tomato plants. Go on Pinterest and you’ll find tons of creative ideas. I used to be a tomato-cager but untangling them at the end of the season eventually cured me of my cage habit. Now I use basic wooden or metal garden stakes and good old kitchen twine. Tie up the stem as it grows, and make the ties extra long so you can make a bow…then it is easy to undo and re-tie as needed vs. knotting.
Trim and Trim Often
You can see that a branch has gone rogue but it has some fruit growing on it so you don’t want to cut it. Just do it. It will end up dragging the whole tomato plant down with it. It is necessary collateral damage to having healthy plants.
I try to study my tomato plants weekly and trim like I’m Mr. Miyagi on his bonsai tree. It is actually kind of spiritual to me.
Either way, you’re going to lose some plants now and then. We had a little tropical storm here last night and I woke up to find a big branch had blown over. Sometimes you can just lift it right back up and tie it off, but if the stem has split you just have to cut it and move on.
In this case my broken stem left me with a couple nearly full-size green tomatoes. Some people like to fry those up. I prefer to leave them outside in the heat and hope they turn red.
Enjoying The Fruits Of Your Labor
So many ways to use delicious vine-ripened (or window sill ripened) tomatoes. Check on my post on Fresh Tomatoes for ideas and subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss any new ones!