Last summer, we were plagued by heavy rains and blight so bad that we lost more than 75% of our tomato crop. And though we always grow a lot of tomatoes, and 25% of a 60 plant crop was still enough to get us through the winter in pizza sauce (a staple at our house), I spent the last year purchasing crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato sauce from the grocery store in quantities that I wasn’t particularly comfortable with.
One of the easiest ways for us to be self-reliant is by putting up our own tomato products. While tomatoes aren’t necessarily as easy to grow in the far north as they are in the south, we’ve discovered a few tricks that have helped us with this year’s crop.
We usually start big. Tomatoes are a huge part of our diet, and we don’t fool around with them. This year, I planted seventy-two tomato seeds under a growing light about eight weeks before planting, and at this time, we currently have 68 plants thriving in our garden. Since we are so far north, and larger tomatoes take more days to develop, we usually grow a mixture of cherry and plum-sized tomatoes (about 70% of our crop) and one larger variety that will thrive some years and really struggle in others. This year’s Constoluto Genovese heirloom variety from Park seed is growing like a weed, despite the fact that the fruit are also ENORMOUS. We’re just hoping that the growing season is long enough that I can bring in the bulk of these beauties.
While cherry and plum tomatoes are not your traditional sauce tomatoes, I’ve found that all tomatoes can go into sauce after a whirl through the food processor (skin and seeds intact) and a few hours on the stove top. This flexibility has given me a lot of room to play with different types of tomatoes in my sauce and has made for a lot more variety and better taste.
If you want to grow this many tomatoes, you need a system. For years, both Jason and I used cages. And cages are great if you want to grow five or six tomatoes. But cages tend toward weakness, plants usually need additional support, and I don’t want to be worried about my crop 24/7. So last year, we started switching over to welded wire fence as a support. I carefully wove the plants through the fencing, and they did okay, but that weaving caused quite a bit of leaf damage and may have later contributed to the blight (since the plants were already a bit stressed.
This year, I’m using a mixture of cable ties and string to gently train the plants onto the fences, then marveling as they weave themselves between the wires. The cable ties (smallest I can find) run about $1.99/100 and we’ve gone through about four packages this summer. My only advice is that if a large wind/thunder storm is predicted in your area, try to get out beforehand and secure your plants if you’ve been letting them go a bit too long (they need to be re-secured about once a week in June and once every 2 -3 weeks in July and August with careful monitoring for heavy fruit that might be weighing down the plant).
The added benefits of this system are that it gives us a solid wall between our squash plants and the rest of the garden and it allows us a nice pathway to bring the hose through when we’re watering our beans and peas in the small secondary garden that we put in last year. And while welded wire did have a substantial upfront cost, it was comparable to buying 72 tomato cages and will likely last for years without all of that tomato cage hassle!
How do you support your tomatoes?