Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
Sometimes I think my name should be Mr. Tomato Head. I have 20 tomato plants in my garden and no potatoes! If you were at the Kimball Farmer's Market last week, you probably saw my tomato plant that is growing in a five gallon bucket. It is loaded with tomatoes and blossoms, but it isn't a huge plant. I have been pruning it pretty aggressively because I don't want the plant to get too big and have the bucket tip over in the wind.
Young tomato plants use most of their energy growing new stems and leaves. When the plants get to be about 12-18 inches tall they have reached a point where they will start to "mature". Blossoms will appear and the lower stems will start to grow bigger and longer. This is the time for all good gardeners to take action. It is time to prune and stake!
The idea of pruning is simple; if the tomato plant has fewer stems and leaves, it will have more tomatoes. Of course, if a tomato plant has no leaves it will have no tomatoes. We only need to take off a few stems to make a big difference, and the lowest stems are the ones to remove. Look at your tomato plants as they start to blossom. There will be two or three stems below the stem where the blossoms are growing. Just pinch them off and you are done! The main stem will grow stronger and more of the plant's energy will go into making tomatoes.
Because it is a vine, the natural state for a tomato plant is to flop over onto the ground and spread out over a fairly large area. Most folks like to stake their tomatoes. I think that staking the tomatoes produces more tomatoes a little faster. It also keeps the tomatoes up and off the ground which prevents rot. The goal is to support the plant and get it to grow "up" and not "out". You can use a single stake, multiple stakes or a wire mesh tomato cage. A four- or five-foot long stake is about the right length to use. Pound it into the ground about a foot deep next to your plant. You will also need to use something to tie the plant to the stake. Be careful. Strips of cloth are good for supporting the plant without strangling it. Think loose but supportive and everything will be okay. If you use a tomato cage, invest in a sturdy one. Mr. Potato Head has made the mistake of buying cheap tomato cages. They are too small, too flimsy and don't work very well.
At the Farmer's Market several folks asked me about growing tomatoes upside down. I haven't tried it, but some really good gardeners I know have. Their advice is that it works, but not as well as the traditional method. The main problem is that the weight of the tomatoes will pull the plant apart. It would work better with a cherry tomato. If some of you are trying the upside down method, be sure to let me know what you think.
Rain and warmer weather should kick our gardens into high gear. I hope your garden is growing well! Next week: My garden, what is doing well and what isn't.
If you have gardening questions or suggestions for Mr. Potato Head please e-mail him at
Mr. Potato Head is Stearns County Master Gardener and Kimball resident Rick Ellis.