→The tomato vine, in all its forms, is a floppy creature that needs the gardener’s help. ¶ The plant’s sprawling nature is no weakness: It forces the person behind it to find wonderfully low-tech methods of supporting it. The resulting props reflect the utilitarian beauty of the summer vegetable garden, the creative ingenuity of every gardener and, best of all, the idea that there is no one way to raise a perfect tomato. (Or much else in the garden.) ¶But if you are into watching gardening “types,” there is nothing quite as revealing or entertaining as matching the tomato prop to its inventor. There are two basic approaches to the enterprise: You can stake your vine or stick it in a cage. The cage is about two steps above just letting the thing sprawl. That too is an option. But if you choose the cage, make it tall enough and secure it with a stake. ¶Here is the central question: Where do you fit in our gallery?
The Innocent uses a short, three-foot funnel-shaped cage and believes, gullibly, that the prongs will secure the cage, that the welds will hold and that the tomato vine will know when to stop. No. In other words, pull it and start again. “I tell people to use those for peppers,” said Jon Traunfeld, a horticulturist who trains Maryland’s Master Gardeners.
The Gardener uses a single wooden stake (one-by-one-inch oak is excellent) that is eight feet tall. With practice, a mallet and a little stepladder, the Gardener pounds the stake vertically (more difficult than you think) two feet into the organically amended, double-dug and generally absurdly prepared garden bed. Then the mania really sets in: The vine is pruned frequently, so that it has just two rising stems from the original leader and first sucker, and then all other suckers that emerge from the leaf joints are pinched out when young. This keeps the vine narrow and upright. The tomato harvest is less than with a caged version, but the fruit quality is high, and the Gardener can place the vines closer together, about 24 inches. The Gardener lies awake at night, wondering if he or she caught every emerging sucker. The Gardener ties the vine every eight inches as it grows with cotton strips from old shirts, precisely cut on long winter nights. The Gardener doesn’t get out much.
The Perfectionist makes the Gardener look like a slacker. The Perfectionist uses a cage and two stakes. The cage is made from concrete reinforcing wire fashioned into a cylinder five to six feet high. The grid is large enough, typically six inches, to reach in and pick a ripe tomato. The stakes are buried as deep as two feet and attach to each side of the cage to anchor it. The Perfectionist spaces the tomato plants a generous four feet apart to allow for uncrowded growth. With just three plants occupying a 12-foot bed, the Perfectionist needs a lot of real estate in the sun.
The Farmer has even more real estate in the sun. The Farmer grows many tomato plants in a row, spaced at least two feet apart, and then uses a support system called basket-weaving. He or she pounds in a stake between the second and third plant, the fourth and fifth plant, the sixth and seventh plant, and so on. The Farmer takes a ball of twine and weaves the string between the stakes. This is repeated higher up as the vines grow. Another agricultural method is to put up a trellis with a single but sturdy cross member and run strings down to each plant. As it grows, each tomato vine’s leader is twisted around the string. The string method requires a lot of sucker removal. In August and September, neighbors of the Farmer cross the street, avoid eye contact, pretend to talk on their cellphones — anything to prevent the Farmer from approaching them with yet another bushel of tomatoes to share.
The Architect builds a trellised screen and grows the most vigorous tomato vines into a living wall. The smaller the fruit, the more rambunctious the vine. The Architect is constantly pruning, tying and generally grooming the vines to create the two-dimensional vertical vegetative plane. Recommended varieties for this method include Black Cherry, Sun Gold, Super Sweet 100 and Yellow Pear.
The trendy locavore with limited space turns to containers for her plants. Tip: Select a determinate variety, which will grow to three feet, stop and then fruit in one glorious go. Celebrity is a good pick. Health Kick is another, because it is particularly high in lycopene. Another tip for the Urban Farmer: Use a large container, such as a half whiskey barrel. The more soil, the less watering and feeding will be required, and the lower the stress on the plant.
The Hippie lets it all hang out, man. Well, the vine does. If you have the space and don’t mind the look, this isn’t so bad. The leafiness of a sprawling, unsupported vine will actually shade the fruit against sun scald as well as keep the plant well-fed and fruitful. Put down a thick layer of straw mulch, advises Traunfeld, the Maryland horticulturist, to prevent the tomatoes from rotting on wet soil. The branches will be, well, far out.
The Faddist is drawn to the latest gimmick in tomato growing, where the vine grows out of the bottom of a high hanging container. Commercial kits are available and appear to have so little soil volume that the Faddist would have to water and feed continually. The roots would surely bake in the summer sun. Some do-it-yourselfers have turned to using five-gallon buckets, says Traunfeld. “We had a master gardener who built a stand that would hold six five-gallon buckets. It looks kind of funky.” Unlike the Gardener, the Faddist would like to get out more but can’t. The more he tends to the upside-down tomato, the more his social life suffers. But he keeps going, telling himself that the inverted plant would make a great conversation piece, if only he could find someone to talk to.