Growing Tomatoes

Tomatoes are for sale in grocery stores and at farmer’s markets. Yet growing tomatoes is very popular. It is with me.

There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes. They range from white to green to pink to yellow to orange to striped to red. They come in small, medium, large and extra large sizes.

I allocate a large area of my garden to growing tomatoes every year, far more than I need or use. The space is never big enough.

Getting Tomatoes Off the Ground

Tomato plants are somewhere between a vine and a bush. Left to their own devices the vines sprawl across the ground. The tomatoes on the ground rot. They are hard to reach without stepping on the plants.

There are lots of ways to get the plants off the ground. I use two.

growing tomatoes on cattle panels
Tomato plants sprawl for several feet. They do not twine or have tendrils. Baling twine works to keep the vines in place. I start at one end and go around one plant, hook on the cattle panel, go over the next plant and so on to the end. The lines need to be eighteen inches apart and are placed as the vines get long enough.

One end of my garden is too hot for most plants during a hot Ozark summer. I bent two cattle panels over it to form what I call a shade house. I plant tomatoes along the cattle panels and encourage the vines to sprawl up and over the shade house.

This has three advantages. First, it gets the vines off the ground. Second, the tomatoes are easy to spot and pick from both sides of the panels. Third, the shade allows me to grow greens that otherwise would bolt.

My other method is a kind of cage. My tomato beds have a piece of cattle panel down the center and posts on both sides. I use baling twine to build cages. The spaces are about eighteen inches square and five feet tall.

When my number of tomato plants exceeds my planned capacity, which it does every year, I use wire circles. These were originally used around fruit trees and are out of cement support wire. Field fence does not work. Welded wire works, but harvesting through the small holes is frustrating.

growing tomatoes using twine cages
Anyone feeding hay to livestock ends up with baling twine. It is very useful stuff. It makes good tomato cages as it is slightly flexible and tough enough to keep tomato vines in place. I use six inch spacing, but this is variable. The twine lasts the season and is easy to remove.

Preventing Sunscald

Healthy leafy tomato plants tuck most of their tomatoes under leaves. This protects them from the sun and sunscald.

Since I raise dairy goats, good manure is not a problem. The beds have compost added every year. Compost is much better than commercial fertilizer pellets at producing big, leafy tomato plants.

The downside of growing tomatoes this way is how big the vines get. Some of mine are pushing eight feet this year and still growing.

growing tomatoes in wire circles
Cement reinforcing wire has large holes and lasts for years. It makes great emergency tomato cages. The one problem is when the vines grow over the top and threaten to topple the wire. A metal post usually stops that.

Preventing Cracking

Regular watering is the way to prevent cracking. I am lucky as I have a live creek to pump water from every other day. Otherwise I have to carry water in a watering can or pray for rain.

There are some varieties very prone to cracking. After one try, these are not on my list any more.

Speckled Roman tomatoes
These Speckled Roman paste tomatoes hang through the cattle panel of my shade house which will make picking them easy once they are ripe.

The Biggest Problem

Growing tomatoes is challenging work and very satisfying. Picking those first ripe tomatoes is special. The flavor puts purchased tomatoes to shame.

Then the crop pours in. My biggest problem is what to do with the boxes of tomatoes. There are only two old people here and we can’t eat them all.

My chickens are glad to dine on any damaged or spoiled tomatoes.

Growing tomatoes is competitive in the Ozarks with the results shown at the county fairs as in “Mistaken Promises” in the Hazel Whitmore series.