Propping up veggie floppers

Contributor July 11, 2012

In the Book of Genesis, the Lord says to the serpent, “On your belly you shall go.” Apparently, the tomato got the same message. Its natural habit in the wild is to creep along the warm ground, mopping up sunshine. Gardeners, of course, have other ideas for it. They surround their tomato plants with wire cages, train them vertically on strings or on fences, lash them to tall stakes or practice stake-and-weave. In that clever technique, stout stakes are placed at either end of a tomato row and between every two plants within the row. Then strong twine is woven behind each stake and in front of the tomatoes, along one side of the row and back the other. (More strands are added above as the plants grow taller.) Determinate tomatoes, which do not produce long, wandering stems the way indeterminate ones do, are often allowed to sprawl on the ground; but some growers like to get them up in the air for tidiness, cleanliness and spatial economy.

Such plant orthopedics are less often applied to the tomato’s close relatives, the pepper and the eggplant, because those crops’ natural inclination is to grow upright on robust stems. But they’re not always robust enough. A pepper plant might start out looking compact and bushy but wind up tall and floppy by summer’s end. Its fruits form on stems that emerge in the crotch of leaf branch and main stem, and as they grow and ripen they add weight to the whole structure, bringing it down like a little fallen tree. Eggplants, which form fruits at the ends of longer stems, can tumble, too, and branches can occasionally break off, especially with the large-fruited types.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

All of the tomato support methods mentioned above are also fine for keeping peppers and eggplants perpendicular to the ground. Professional growers often train them to anywhere between two and four stems, with a support for each. I find that a simple bamboo stake does the job. This is best inserted into the ground close to the plant’s main stem at planting time, so that you don’t harm the root system. You didn’t want to hear that, did you, now that it’s mid-July? Never mind. You can still do it without inflicting much damage. You can even rescue a fallen plant by gently lifting it up and securing it to your stake. The other thing that helps is to keep picking as the fruits ripen, an easy way to take a load off them.

Pruning by removing suckers that form in the crotches will prevent excess branch formation and lighten the load as well, but it’s low on my way-too-long list of summer jobs. The only pruning I’d bother with is the removal of small fruits that clearly are not going to mature as frost time nears. The plants will then put more energy into ripening ones of larger size. But the time for that is a long way off. It’s only July.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”


Staked pepper for Barbara Damrosch's A Cook's Garden column in Local Living (Barbara Damrosch/BARBARA DAMROSCH)
Tip of the week

Tomato leaves that develop brown and yellow patches are probably suffering from early blight. Remove affected leaves and apply a straw mulch to reduce spore splash from rainwater. Bag diseased foliage and take care not to touch healthy leaves. Spraying is not necessary.

— Adrian Higgins

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