Thursday, October 1, 2009

Staking Up Your Tomatoes

I'm just loving this weather. I walked outside last night after dark into a mild, cool night. Gone was that warm, fuzzy blanket of heat that lays over South Florida all summer. I've been waiting for this change for a while—and the weather people said it was coming—but it's still nice when it happens. That means it's finally almost time to put tomatoes outside.

So let's talk about staking up your tomatoes. I've mentioned it a few times, but if you have good soil and good sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun), and you're feeding healthy plants, your tomatoes will get LARGE. They'll have to be staked up and trimmed as they grow. I've found from bitter experience that you want to build the infrastructure when you plant—it's hard to play catch up with a ravenous vine.

I've seen dozens of ways to stake up tomatoes. Some people without much room even grow the vine up a single pole, almost like bonsai tomato. Others build cages from wood or PVC tubing. As for me, I use concrete reinforcing wire.

I built my cages about six years ago, and I reuse them every year. Each cage is 5' tall, and I sometimes stack two, one on top of the other, for really large vines. I don't mind using a ladder to reach the top of my vine—it kind of makes me feel like Jack and the Beanstalk. Building cages is easy, as long as you have bolt cutters or some other way to cut the wire, and you can handle a bit of heavy lifting (or have someone else who can do it for you).

To build your own, buy a roll of concrete reinforcing wire from the construction section of your local home improvement center. It's heavy stuff and it comes in big rolls, so buy the smallest roll possible. When you get home, unroll it, snip off sections of 8 squares and roll it into round cages, each about 18" in diameter. When I did mine, I left horizontal pieces of wire sticking out when I snipped it, then wrapped those around the vertical wire to hold it all together.

This isn't exactly a fun job, and it does require moving heavy wire, plus cutting and bending wire. But once you do it, you'll never need to do it again. My cages aren't pretty, but they really work. The holes between the wires are big enough I can get my hand in the middle, and they're strong enough to support even the biggest harvest.

These cages will tip over, however, if they're not anchored into the ground. So during installation, I'll hammer a stake into the ground and tie it to the cage with rope or twine. I've never had one tip over.

Of course this isn't the only way to do it. You can grow tomatoes on pretty much any vertical surface that's strong enough to support their weight. One of the best growers I ever saw grew some of her vines along wires strung across her yard. My only advice as you're considering staking systems is to make sure 1) it's strong and 2) it can be firmly anchored to the ground and 3) you have complete access to the vine. I would also avoid treated lumber and lattice, partly because of the chemicals and partly because it's impossible to reach the plant if it grows through the teensy little latticework.

Up next: Time to plant!

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