I asked my friend Joshua, master composter, writer, stained glass artist, father, gardener extraordinaire, architect and builder of beautiful garden structures just how he gets his tomatoes to resemble HERKIN’ TREES.
You see, earlier in the season when we both had starts of similar size and his were actually even yellower than mine, we discussed having a tomato off. He said he was only planting 6 bushes, I was planting 9. I had a smaller space than he did. I bet him I would get more fruit off mine. The jury is still out on the quantity of fruit although we are comparing notes this summer but I have to admit to you that his tomatoes look like HERKIN’ TREES compared to mine. He has a jungle o’ tomato vines and I, I have 9 tomato bushes.
Sure, we’ve been eating from the 4th of July bush for nearly 6 weeks now and Joshua is just now getting his first ripe tomatoes but he just may surpass me by next month in tomato output. So I asked him to tell me just how he had grown his tomato forest and here, in his own words, is his answer.
How to Grow Tomatoes That Look Like HERKIN’ TREES!
In most matters related to the garden, I still consider myself a novice; but when it comes to tomatoes, I am the master. This method might not work everywhere. But in the Pacific Northwest, it results in massive plants that churn out buckets of tomatoes from late August through mid October.
Here’s how to grow tomatoes that, in Annette’s words, look like Herkin’ trees!
First, pick up starts at Seattle Tilth’s spring edible plant sale in late April or early May. This is too early to plant tomatoes unprotected. But late enough that they’ll thrive inside a WALL O WATER. The wall-of-water is manufactured by several companies under different names – I buy mine at Fred Meyer the summer before for around 3 or 4 dollars each (there must be a cheaper place to get this).
Tilth also has an EARLY spring plant sale for cool season crops, so don’t show up at that one accidentally.
The key to my success is this: the wall-of-water allows me to get an extra month of luxuriant growth out of my tomatoes. Unprotected, the plants would be stunted by the cold nights. Unlike a simple greenhouse, the wall-of-water contains thermal mass. The water inside absorbs heat from the sun during the day and radiates it back to the tomatoes at night.
After amending my garden soil with compost and organic fertilizer, I plant my starts as deep as I can, breaking off all but the top 4 to 6 leaves. The remaining leaves will be an inch or two above the soil. The rest of the plant will become a giant root.
Then I place three short bamboo stakes in a sort of tee pee, to protect the plants from any collapsing walls-of-water.
I wrap the wall-of-water around a 5 gallon bucket and fill it about half way. Then I carefully feed it over the bamboo stakes, watching out for sharp points that will pierce the wall-of-water.
During May and June, I make sure the tomatoes get water about once a week. The rain usually takes care of this.
Around the fourth of July, when nights are consistently well above 50 degrees, the tomatoes will be sprawling out of the top of the wall-of-water. With the help of a friend, it’s time to carefully lift the wall-of-water off the tomatoes. You’ll notice the tomatoes have put out aerial roots, since the environment inside is so warm and moist.
The tomatoes, now unprotected, collapse into a tangled heap on the ground. I select between 5 and 9 major branches and tie these up, as high as they can be stretched, to 8 foot bamboo poles, arranged in a circle around the each tomato. After successfully staking my major branches, I prune most of the remaining branches away. For six plants, this process takes a few hours. At this point, the plants should be around 5 feet tall.
This is the last time I step on the soil around the tomatoes. Soil compaction hampers root growth. I make an exception for my kids, who at 2 and 5 years old are lighter than I.
In July, I water my plants deeply once a week. You must be careful not to pamper them, or they won’t grow deep roots. By using tough-love on your tomatoes, they’ll be ready for the drought when you stop watering them in early to mid august. That’s right, not a drop. A stressed tomato is a ripe tomato. In my yard, the mulched paths ensure the ground around the tomato beds will retain some moisture. But the tomatoes must find this moisture themselves – I won’t give it to them. I might act differently if the soil were compacted or low in compost.
By mid August, the tomato plants will be Herkin’ Trees,loaded with green tomatoes. Now it’s time to hope for dry weather. A rainy week can delay ripening by half a month. You might consider protecting the soil with plastic to prevent water infiltration.
There are some drawbacks to this method. Although fruit set is amazing, other gardeners succeed in getting ripe tomatoes earlier, though not so abundantly as I. You might consider planting another tomato elsewhere in your yard, perhaps a cherry tomato, and following a different method to get cherry tomatoes for your late July salads.
Another drawback is that the high stress can cause blossom end rot on the most tender Roma tomatoes – the disease is a symptom of inconsistent watering. I’ve learned to favor Romas less susceptible to that disease, such as the Polish Linguisa.
Were my tomatoes smaller, I’d probably put clear plastic over them in October to extend their season further in the other direction. But they’re just too huge. Instead, I do a little early October pruning to increase air circulation and avoid tomato blight. Around mid October, the cold is just too much for them, and I take them out. By this time, it’s too late to get good coverage from a cover crop, so I pile the empty bed with fall leaves. In the spring, I’ll dig in the rotting leaves and use this bed for peas, rotating the tomatoes to another bed.
Most tomatoes respond well to this regimen. I always plant a sungold for the kids, a brandywine for myself, a hardy Roma for saucing, and a couple other breeds I’m experimenting with. I love old breeds, like Cherokees. Besides Brandywine, my favorite is Purple Calabash, though with this lobed tomato you have to pick ripe ones quickly or their deep folds trap moisture and rot. This year I also planted a stupice, though I’ve been underwhelmed by that breed in the past.
In late August, we’re usually giving away, canning and consuming tomatoes at every meal. I slice them half-an-inch thick and eat them on sandwiches. We make pasta sauce from scratch. We cut them up, toss them with mozzerella or feta, salt, basil and olive oil. In the end, we’re left with tons of green tomatoes which we might try pickling this year (I’ve never successfully ripened green tomatoes over the winter).