The definition of summer should include the word tomato. While I have been eating frozen, roasted tomatoes and dehydrated tomatoes over the winter and spring, it has been awhile since I inhaled the wonderful aroma of a tomato plant. This week marked the estimated last frost date and we jumped right into tomato season as we distributed plants. During our Tuesday evening Grow Appalachia meeting we focused the majority of our attention on tomatoes: How to recognize tomato blight, how to prevent tomato blight, and how to treat tomato blight symptoms. This conversation focused on mulching, pruning, trellising and organic fungicides. During the first two years of the Grow Appalachia program I have had the opportunity to visit the homes of countless families, work alongside them and share in some wonderful food. I have also seen many gardens afflicted with fungal diseases. I have met many gardeners who do not even know that they have blight in their gardens, because it seems so normal. Now, I am not going to claim that we can completely prevent this affliction, but I would like to encourage gardeners to think about the inevitability of this problem now, and start taking action.
What is tomato blight? I wrote a blog post about this last summer that you can read for an overview. There are also many other sources for information on the internet, such as Cornell. Think about the methods you plan to use to control it right now. The above resources have links to sites which lay out ideas for preventing the spread of disease, so I am just going to highlight trellising and pruning tomatoes.
Stake and trellis your tomato plants! The fungal diseases we have problems live in the soil and can be spread by contact with the soil surface. By keeping your plants off the ground they are easier to manage and less likely to get soil all over them. Tying up your plants also makes it easier for you to navigate through your garden and keeps fruit off of the ground.
Trellising methods: Many gardeners tie each tomato to a stake with strips of cloth, etc. This is completely fine and keeps your tomatoes growing upright. However, I would like to spread the word about the Florida weave method of trellising tomatoes. This method only requires one tomato stake for every two plants, is quick, easy, and keeps your tomatoes growing beautifully. There is a video from the University of Maine demonstrating this method and an article that explains in words how to use the Florida weave.
*Note on the University of Maine video: This video shows him weaving the string around each plant. This is great, but not required for this type of system. Pulling the string along the outside of each plant until you get to the end of the row and then pulling along the inside of the plants works just fine and is easier. Read this article for further explanation.
Pruning: There are two main reasons to prune tomato plants. One reason is to help prevent fungal spores from splashing onto the bottom leaves of the plant and spreading blight. To prune for disease prevention, clip the bottom leaves of the plant off as they bend downward and get close to the soil surface. If you have ever seen the progression of early blight, you have seen the bottom leaves turn yellow and brown first and the disease spread upward.
The second type of pruning is to remove the suckers off of a plant. A sucker is a side shoot off of the main stem. They develop in the leaf axils of the plant, between the main stem and a leaf. On indeterminate varieties gardeners should remove these suckers so that they do not take away energy from the main stem. The indeterminate plants will continue to grow vertically and produce new fruit clusters on the main stem. Removing these side shoots also keeps your plants from becoming extremely bushy and hard to manage and tie up. This will also increase airflow through the plants, helping to prevent disease. The first three minutes of this video has a wonderful explanation of how to sucker your plants. If you do not have access to internet that allows you to watch videos, you can read this detailed article about pruning.
When removing suckers, you should know whether your plants are indeterminate or determinate. Indeterminate tomato varieties keep growing throughout the growing season and produce fruit until the vines die. These tomatoes need to be staked since they will not stop growing until they die. Indeterminate tomatoes should be pruned to remove the suckers. Determinate tomatoes have a bushy form, stop growing once fruits begin to fill out and produce their fruit within the timeframe of a few weeks. These tomato varieties should not be pruned to remove suckers. Since these varieties have a bushier form and do not grow as tall, some people say that these do not need to be staked, however, I encourage gardeners to keep them up off of the ground to help prevent the spread of fungal diseases and keep fruit from rotting.
Here is a little information about the tomato varieties we offered to participants this year. We received beautiful plants from the Friendly Village Mountain Comprehensive Care Greenhouse in Harlan and fellow Grow Appalachia site, Henderson Settlement.
Arkansas Traveler: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This variety has good disease resistance, beautiful round pink fruits, and great flavor. Does well in adverse conditions without cracking.
Beefsteak: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. Popular old time heirloom with large red, meaty fruits.
Big Boy: Indeterminate. This variety was one of the first hybrids, introduced in 1949. Produces a large, smooth, red, meaty fruit.
Brandywine: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. Brandywine tomatoes produce large, beefsteak, pink fruits. This heirloom is a potato leaf variety grown among the Amish in the 1800s. It was one of the first heirlooms to become popular in recent years. This variety can be frustrating because it is pretty early blight susceptible and prone to cracking, however, many gardeners stick with this variety because of its delicious taste.
Cherokee Purple: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This heirloom variety was grown by the Native American Cherokee tribe in Tennessee. These plants produce beefsteak type purplish brown fruits with dark green shoulders. Since the beginning of the Grow Appalachia program at PMSS, this variety has become a favorite among participating gardeners because of its wonderful flavor. Some people think that these plants should not be pruned to prevent sunburn on the fruits.
German Queen: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. Heirloom tomato producing 1-2lb pinkish red fruits! A potato leaf variety.
Golden Jubilee: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This is an old standard variety with nice, tangy, mild flavor.
Great White: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This beefsteak heirloom tomato is white and has a melon-like flavor!
Matt’s Wild Cherry: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This variety is one of the most early blight resistant, and it’s an heirloom! It genetically linked to wild Mexican tomatoes. These plants also have some frost resistance. Plants produce thousands of sweet, red ½ inch fruits in clusters.
Mr. Stripey: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. Large, beefsteak heirloom tomato. A favorite among PMSS Grow Appalachia participants. A low acid tomato with mottled red and yellow flesh.
Roma: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. A paste tomato with thick flesh. Popular old time tomato.
Rutgers: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This variety was originally bred by the Campbell’s soup company in 1928 as a cross between Marglobe and JTD varieties. This variety is great for canning, cooking, and slicing. Good disease resistance for an open pollinated variety.
Pineapple: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. This heirloom is originally from Kentucky. A low acid tomato with a unique flavor. When you cut this variety in half it looks like the inside of a pineapple with yellow and red marbling.
Violet Jasper: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. Originally from China, these tomatoes have purple fruit with iridescent green stripes. Smooth, small round fruits with dark purplish red flesh. High productivity.
Yellow Pear: Indeterminate. Open pollinated. 1 ½ inch, pear shaped fruits. Very productive.
Interested in heirloom varieties from central Appalachia? Read this post from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center.