LIKE MANY GARDENERS, I find growing tomatoes an essential rite of summer. I was asked (forced, really) from an early age into helping my dad with his plants. Summer trips to see my grandparents meant admiring grandpa’s towering tomatoes—somehow his plants always topped eight feet, despite being in a small city backyard. And then there’s the legend of an ancestral great-great-grandmother who was the first to grow tomatoes in Norway, on a small island called Stangholmen, where her father was a lighthouse keeper.
With this much tomato sauce in my veins, you’d think I’d be an expert, but I’m still tinkering with my techniques, searching for that holy grail full of tomato juice.
A lesson I learned early is that laziness doesn’t pay. One year, dad decided to rototill the garden, plant the tomatoes and let nature take its course. Between the tomatoes, which were allowed to clamber and crawl everywhere, and 10-year old me, in charge of weeding and maintenance, this vegetable cart was hurling toward disaster. While we picked a few off the tops of the plants, the voles and mice fattened on the fruits of my lackluster labor underneath, and the weeds grew taller than my little blonde head, producing a trauma of rank growth, rot and rodents which haunts me to this day. I probably should seek counseling.
Most seasons dad pounded an eight-foot wooden stake next to each plant and periodically tied up the growth with ripped up bedsheets. It gave the garden a “Grapes of Wrath” sort of look, but was inexpensive and effective in growing great tomatoes. Then we moved to tomato “cages,” cone-shaped contraptions of wire with thin legs which are installed on each plant like an upside-down dunce cap. These work, although a large variety plant may topple its coop by late summer, so I recommend adding a supporting stake. Cages boost yields too; a Texas A & M University study found caged ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes produced 49% more fruit than those left to sprawl, one reason you’ll never hear tomatoes singing Roy Rogers’ tune, “Don’t Fence Me In.”
Once you decide to give your tomatoes a lift, the options for doing so are boundless. Square tomato cages are now available, which fold down for easy storage. Concrete reinforcing wire, five feet tall and heavy duty, can be fashioned into indestructible cages that are durable enough to pass down to tomato-growing grandchildren. Or, forgo cages for the “Florida Weave.” This system entails driving a stake between plants and at the end of each row, and weaving heavy twine in rows parallel to the ground eight inches apart among and up the stakes and plants. While it sounds like a TV solution for hairless Southerners, it might work well for your New York ‘Big Boys.’
My tomato garden is a complete high-tech system this year—raised beds, tomato cages with stakes, black plastic mulch, drip hose irrigation. Here’s to great fruit and a healed psyche.