Tommy Bound

Tommy the San Marzano tomato is growing by leaps and bounds. All of our tomato plants are thanks to the organic compost I planted them with and regular watering during this annoying drought. I’ve had to pay close attention to keep them from growing into an unrestrained tangle. Last year I tried pruning and staking my tomato plants. It’s not just my inner Bondage Master at work, either. Tomato plants are vines. Except for varieties that have been bred to stop growing at a certain height, they continue to grow through the season and can become a big, sprawling mess. I prefer to keep my plants up off the ground. I do this by pruning them to one or two main vines and tying them to upright stakes.

Pruning tomatoes is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. On a tomato vine the leaves grow out each side as the vine grows longer. Left to its own devices, another branch of the vine called a sucker would sprout from the vine right above each leaf. Here’s a pencil-sized sucker that I’ll remove to keep the vine restrained. The vine is on the right, the leaf is on the left and the sucker is sticking up between them.

To remove suckers I just snap them off with my fingers if they’re small, or snip them with shears if they’ve gotten big and woody. Then the plant looks like this. The spot where the sucker was removed right in the middle.

The second part of this equation is keeping the pruned vines up off the ground. Those wire tomato cages you see everywhere? They’re pretty much worthless for any but the smallest plants. I use wooden or plastic-coated steel stakes eight feet in length buried about eighteen inches in the ground. The vines are tied to the stakes using old t-shirts ripped into strips. The fabric is soft and doesn’t cut into the vines if they blow around in the wind. I first tie the strip tightly around the stake, then bring the vine next to the knot and tie a loose loop around it so it has some room to move and grow.

Why go to all this effort? It’s more than just keeping the garden neater. The spores of diseases that can damage the leaves and fruit of tomatoes are harbored in the ground. Splashing rain—assuming we ever get any again—would move the spores up onto the plants more easily if they’re laying on the ground. Also, by keeping the plants slender and up in the air, they dry off quicker. It’s also been claimed that by limiting their growth this way that they produce less fruit but that it’s larger. That may be true because last year I had some pretty big tomatoes. I don’t particularly want larger fruit, but I do want the other benefits of pruning and staking. Training the plants this way also makes it easier to monitor and pick the fruit. Less stooping is always welcome.

Thanks to this tough love Tommy and his friends are coming along well in spite of the uncooperative weather. Before long these green tomatoes will be ripe and ready for eating and preserving.

How do you grow your tomatoes? Do you prune and stake them? I’m interested to hear about others’ experiences and what they’ve learned.

Tommy Gets Buried


It’s been quite a while since I reported on Tommy’s progress so I thought it was time I tried to catch up. He’s been busy!


On May 14 Tommy was moved to his final home in the garden. Earlier I had installed stakes for all the tomato plants and sowed buckwheat as a spring cover crop. The buckwheat didn’t do so well because the weather turned cool again as soon as I planted. Still, some came up so I now know what it looks like for future reference.  Anyway, here’s how I transplant tomatoes:


Start with a sturdy plant you’ve either started from seed yourself or purchased from a local grower or friend. I’ve read that you’re actually better off with a shorter, sturdier plant than an impressively tall one. My plants got a bit taller than I would have liked because I started some of them too early and I even ended up transplanting them a couple weeks before I expected to because the weather was so nice. Thank you, Global Climate Change!



Next, I dug a hole a few inches from the stake. A deep one. Most plants you buy or grow for your vegetable or perennial garden should be planted in the ground at the same level they were at in the pot. Not so with tomatoes. If you pull off some of the bottom leaves and put the plant in the ground deeper, it will grow roots all along the buried section of stem and make for a stronger plant. Tommy was probably a good eighteen inches tall at this point so I buried about another six inches of stem.  Alternatively you can also dig a horizontal or slanted hole and lay the plant down but I like to have the initial roots deep.



I dug the hole even a little deeper than I wanted it to finally be and put a big handful of compost in the bottom. Then  I watered the hole.  That’s right, I watered the hole. Think about it. Where are Tommy’s roots going to be when he goes in there? And when he’s all good and planted how long do you think I’d have to water to get the soil down around those roots wet?


Next I gently removed Tommy from his pot and placed him in the hole.



I backfilled with the soil I removed to make the hole with out stomping, tamping , or even patting. I want rainfall and irrigation water to infiltrate down and around and into that soil and leaving it a little on the uncompressed side facilitates that, so I let it settle on its own. Halfway through the backfilling I watered again just for the heck of it.



When I’d finished returning all the soil to the hole I tried something new. Last year I had some issues with blossom end rot. It looks like a disease, but is actually caused by a deficiency in calcium uptake. It’s probably more pH related than the actual presence of nutrient in the ground but I threw some crushed oyster shell around Tommy and lightly scratched it into the soil. I don’t really expect it to help all that much, but I’ve got pounds of it on hand from my old Chinese-slipper-orchid-growing days.



Next time things get  a little kinky with young Tommy and his friends.

Tommy Turns 18!

Here’s Tommy on his 18th birthday. It seems like just yesterday that I tucked his little seed into a little wad of ecologically-unsustainable peat but it really has been over two weeks, eighteen whole days. Just look how he’s growing! He’s even cut his first pair of true leaves.


Tommy is an heirloom cultivar—a portmanteau word from cultivated+variety—of tomato called San Marzano and has a long and distinguished history. The original San Marzano tomatoes were grown in Italy in the Eighteenth Century and have been prized since then for their flavor.  Since San Marzanos are heirlooms, it means they are open pollinated. A plant of this variety will pollinate itself and produce offspring that are the same as its parents. Hybrid garden plants can’t do this. Because of this, seed can be saved from year to year. In fact, Tommy was grown from seed I saved last year from a plant I got from a friend. With luck I’ll be able to save seed again this year and keep my own supply of this line going.

Here is where Tommy will eventually make his home. This is a view looking northeast.

It’s kid of hard to see the beds with the leaf mulch still in place, but in this view you can see that garden is now twelve beds,  each of which is approximately 8’x3’ in size.  The second and third bed from the grass path there in the far corner have been reserved for the tomatoes and peppers this year. I prepared them in advance by installing the support stakes and then seeding the ground with a cover crop of buckwheat. My hope is that the buckwheat will have time to grow and be cut back before tomato and pepper planting time. It will help loosen the soil and then provide mulch.

Until then, Tommy’s got a lot of growing up to do. I’ll keep you posted on his progress in the coming weeks.

Meet Tommy

I’d characterize March as the month that has the hardest time making up its mind. The weather changes quickly and even though it looked like this out the back door only a week and a half ago–

–today the temperature was in the lower sixties and crocuses and the early hellebores are blooming.  Curious as to how the vegetable garden was faring I took a walk and found some green poking up through the leaf mulch.


Spinach that survived all winter and is now sending out new growth


The French sorrel is unfurling red-tinged leaves.

The patch of alpine strawberries seems to have made it as well. I’ll need to divide and separate these early this season since I essentially unpotted the seedlings and stuck them in the ground as a clump last fall.


Only a few of the garlic plants have emerged so far. This one is ‘Music.’


The biggest surprise survivor is this battered Green Oakleaf lettuce.


Indoors the garden is off to a good start, too. I’ve been sowing seeds in the basement and the first batch is starting to germinate. Which brings me to Tommy.


At the Con-Conspirator’s suggestion we’ve christened this particular San Marzano tomato seedling Tommy. We’ll be following his progress through the season from the seed starting rack hopefully right to the table. Along the way we’ll share some interesting tidbits about gardening, canning, pickling and cooking. Tommy’s just a little sprout right now, but he’ll be all grown up almost before we notice.