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Tomatoes two ways

May 17, 2012

I was delighted last summer to learn (experienced gardeners, go ahead and laugh) that there are two types of beans: pole beans (that need a trellis or something to climb) and bush beans (that don’t grow so tall that they need support).  Since I’ve been somewhat challenged by making an attractive trellis, the bush beans were great – they were ready so fast and tasted so good!  This year, on the heels of a successful pea trellis installation last summer, I’m ready to try pole beans, scarlet runner beans to be exact.  I’ve read about making a bean teepee that the kids can hide under, and can’t wait to give it a try.

Today, I learned that tomatoes can also be of the “bush” (determinate) or “pole” (indeterminate) variety.  Determinate tomatoes make one set of flowers that will hopefully get pollinated, and all the fruit will come ripe around the same time.  Indeterminate varieties flower and set fruit for a longer season; an indeterminate plant may have fruit and flowers at the same time.

Now comes to the fun part.  One of my favourite things about gardening is deadheading.  My mom showed me how to pinch off expired flowers so the plant will spend its energy making new blossoms.  It’s as satisfying as peeling a sunburn, which no one gets to do anymore now that we are so UV-conscious.  Tomatoes are the perfect plant for someone like me who likes to pick.  Tomatoes will “volunteer” happily from compost and grow without much attention, but they are also perfect for fiddling with to get the greatest yield.

Before learning that there were two types of tomatoes, I thought there were two types of tomato growers: those who pinch and those who don’t.  Tomato plants will send out new suckers from the joints of leaf and stem.  If you pinch these off, the plant spends more energy developing the flowers and fruit it already has.  Turns out pinching should be done freely on indeterminate varieties, and restrained on determinate ones.  If you have a bush tomato, you want it to set lots of fruit early and spend energy developing that fruit.  Indeterminate tomato plants that need staking can go crazy making flowers, then burn out when it’s time to grow and ripen their fruit.  Pinching suckers can help the plant concentrate on a smaller yield.  So pinch the indeterminate variety, and let the determinate variety bush out. 

To confuse things a bit, both types of tomatoes need support.  Determinate (bush) varieties do fine with a tomato cage.  Indeterminate varieties need at least a 5-foot stake buried with them when transplanting, or a piece of rope to climb in a greenhouse, or a basket to hang out of so they don’t have to defy gravity.  This explains why the last few years my tomato bushes have overgrown the tomato cage and collapsed, top-heavy, to the ground.  This year I picked a cold-hardy, determinate variety (*the tag will tell you if it’s determinate) and put them out in the garden today since they were starting to flower.  Dang, I just realized I didn’t harden them off, which may cause them some stress.  I did remember to strip all the leaves off the stem except the uppermost set, and planted them as deeply as I could.  If you have really leggy indeterminate tomato plants, you can lay them down on their sides in a trench and cover the stem with soil, exposing just the top truss of leaves.  I love that these tricks are the culmination of fiddlers like me trying different methods to get the most out of their plants.

In other garden news, I’m still trying to fill in the gaps in my pea plantings where the seeds didn’t germinate or something is chewing on the fresh sprouts.  I put a handful of compost in a jar with some water to make a small mixture of compost tea.  Into the tea went a dozen pea seeds, to soak and get inoculated with healthy nitrogen-fixing bacteria to speed up germination and encourage their healthy growth.  I’m going to try planting them out with toilet-paper tube collars to prevent whatever is eating them from gaining access.  My beer parlour jars haven’t caught a single slug, so I’m beginning to wonder if it’s another hungry culprit snacking.

Finally, more and more seed sowing,  and moving broccoli  and sunflowers from the unheated greenhouse to the raised beds, and trying to leave a  few spaces for seeds the kids have started at school that will be looking for a nice home in the next couple of weeks.  That and trying to help our flock of four hens welcome the two new babies we brought home yesterday are keeping this mama nesting and happy. Here’s a book recommendation, to fuel those daydreams about sun-ripened, pungent fruit:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2012 10:19 pm

    What an awesome blog you have here!!! Thank you for visiting my post about World Environment Day and The Carrot Seed. :) I read your post on tomatoes…and learned a couple of things I didn’t know (about the pinching and not pinching, for instance). And the book you recommend looks so inviting…love Rosemary Wells. :) I will be back again, for sure!

    • Alex King permalink*
      June 2, 2012 9:02 am

      Thank you so much! Likewise, I loved your book recommendations and blog content. Thanks for writing!

  2. Sunny Runnells permalink
    May 20, 2012 4:08 am

    A few more local tomato tips from Sunny. Dig a deep hole for your plant. Line the bottom of it with soaked torn newspaper. This helps hold water in our sandy soil. Also when the new little plant starts to grow let one of those side branches grow. This will give you two main stems which the plant can handle. The support for this needs two tall 2X2’s with a number of 2×2 cross pieces. I always striped off bottom leaves and laid the plant on its’ side when I planted it to give it a better root system.

    • Mairi King permalink*
      May 20, 2012 9:27 am

      Great advice, Sunny! Good idea to put some cross pieces on the stake to attach stems to. I get those little velcro ties from the gardening store to attach stems to the support.


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