Guest Post – How to Grow Tomatoes that Look Like HERKIN’ TREES!

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).

11 Responses to Guest Post – How to Grow Tomatoes that Look Like HERKIN’ TREES!

  1. Those are some impressive tomato plants! The tough love treatment is interesting, not sure I could do it, I’m a softy. I have never been able to trim off stems with blossoms on them and I always give them a good watering at least once a week. Sounds (and looks) like it works though.


  2. WOW! Those are some HUGE tomatoes! I have never seen such giants. Great tip concerning their planting. Wonderful and informative article, ty!

  3. Wow, thanks for the article. I am glad that I know to STOP WATERING MY TOMATOES. I have been watering them about once a week, and they are under black plastic so they should be great. I cannot say my tomatoes are doing GREAT this year, and it looks as though I have a lot to learn and practice at. Thanks for the tips.


  4. Great guest post, thank you! I love the gardening community- so open and sharing :)

  5. Pingback: August Can Jam ~ Tomatoes Three Ways « Notes From a Country Girl Living in the City

  6. I’ve flirted with a Wall o’ Water; I may have to marry one. Wow. And no watering? That would have worked here this summer…no rain. Mine are definitely little bushes, but they are pumping off the ripe tomatoes. I’m happy as long as I’m eating well and putting some by for the winter!

    Thanks for this amazing post!

  7. The jury is still out on if Joshua actually gets more fruit than I do. We have several similar types of tomatoes and my vines are much shorter than his. I topped mine off in early August so they would focus on fruit set and pruned mine to 3 main stems but did this late. I think if I had pruned them in early July when I meant to I would still have more fruit than him. I don’t know, we are going to settle this bet one way or another.

  8. Annette, thanks for sharing this great tip. Here I thought I was the tomato pro! I may be trying some of this tough love next year :D

  9. Oh….wow. I have a lot to do for next year!! This year I have a few starts my mother (out of pity) gave me when I moved to Seattle in June. They are about four feet tall, and each bush has about 10 green tomatoes. You would THINK with all the warm weather this week, they would have ripened!! But no….you’d be wrong.

    I think I have a lot of composting and mulching to do as well. ;-) This year was just a “stick it in the ground and see what flowers” kind of year.

  10. Annette I definitely prefer having my tomatoes ripen over a longer period of time. I think that his method might be good to do with half of the tomatoes so you can have a few weeks just plugging away making salsa, sauce, ketchup, and dried tomatoes. But have another group for eating thru the summer. I hate regular tomatoes in the store and will not buy them they are gassed to make them turn red, only local grown ones in the summer that were really allowed to ripen on the vine. If you are focusing on compost for your tomatoes that will certainly make them better no matter how you grow them.

  11. I’m with you Kat. I can vouch that the amount of sun and warmth has more to do with your tomatoes than anything. I have one experimental bush right now in crummy dirt but just above the sidewalk, flanked by stone steps and a branch spilled on to rocks. Rather than prune it I let it go. Those ones are ripening faster than the other large ones although the bushes don’t have as many fruits. I have fertilized them just the same as the others but they aren’t getting compost and enzymes from my cheesemaking ventures like the other ones are.

    I think there are a lot of tips but I’m not so sure any of them can be duplicated under everyone’s very differing conditions. In other words, what works for Joshua or for me might not work at all for you. But it’s worth trying on 1 bush and carefully watching. That is what I’m doing each year – setting aside 1 test bush. Eventually I’ll have it figured out!

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