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grow healthy tomatoes: staking and pruning

Tomato trial fields at High Mowing Organic Seeds, with staked and pruned plantsI HAVE ALWAYS CAGED my tomatoes, but many experts agree that staking–and regularly pruning and tying the staked plants as they grow–is the most space-efficient and also most hygienic tactic of all, helping manage the potential for disease while yielding plenty of fruit. With tomato-transplant time just ahead here, I’ve been studying up with experts like Tom Stearns (that’s his High Mowing Organic Seeds tomato trial field, above) on how to stake and prune tomatoes, and other tips for producing a healthy, bountiful crop. 

Staked plants will ripen faster crops of generally larger fruit. Stakes must be at least 1 inch thick and 6 feet high, inserted a foot into the ground.  Adding supporting twine between stakes (as in the photo above) helps add stability; some gardeners lash horizontal cross-pieces of bamboo between stakes instead. Either way, as the plant grows you continue to tie it to the support with twine or twist-ties. Remember: Staked plants require a commitment to ongoing pruning, keeping the plant to one or two main stems of vine-like, not bush, habit. All small suckers that develop in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem must be removed.

good ‘tomato hygiene’

WHAT’S MOST APPEALING to me is that staking can help with disease prevention. Certain fungal pathogens, such as septoria and early blight, reside in the soils of the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest in particular, Stearns explained to me earlier this year (listen to our archived podcast on the subject–it’s the second half of this show). That means that no matter how much you move your tomatoes around year to year–how much you rotate your crop–you can’t completely avoid these troubles.

“Rotating where you grow your tomatoes is not really going to help—so you must manage the disease,” says Stearns, whose High Mowing website has this great tomato-variety comparison chart among other helpful features. What he calls “good tomato hygiene” starts with wide spacing, pruning and staking–all aimed at good air circulation. Tom’s tips:

  • Growing tomatoes on black plastic landscape fabric increases soil heat, provides weed control and help with soil-splash control–keeping some of those soil-borne spores from getting up onto the plant by creating a barrier.
  • Strip the lower leaves from the plants to eliminate the “ladder” for spores splashing up from the soil as well.
  • Trellis and stake tomatoes, and prune them to get rid of suckers. (From “Fine Gardening” magazine, details on tomato pruning.)
  • Focus on air circulation this way, too: Place tomatoes on the edge of a bed, not the middle, and never do a teepee or other too-close tangle of tomatoes.
  • With staked tomatoes, 18 inches between plants within a row is a good distance. Leave at least 4 feet between rows; more is better.
  • Overfertilized, too-fast-growing plants are a target for trouble, and more inviting to disease; don’t overfeed.

Juliet small paste tomatoes

more help with tomatoes

(Photo of High Mowing Organic Seeds tomato trial field courtesy of High Mowing.)

  1. Zak says:

    Everything about this article is totally accurate. I love the pic with the lady working on her babies BUT, she is missing a couple important extras. It looks like there is plenty of room to plug in some marigolds and basil. I did that last year and had a bumper crop due to the large amounts of bees and the basil really enhanced the flavor of the maters.

  2. Sidney says:

    Last year, I caged and didn’t prune. Needless to say, I didn’t get a decent crop. This year, I’m using stakes and pruning. Hoping our 110+ temps doesn’t kill my garden again.

  3. Cindy says:

    In my garden of raised beds, if we give up on rotating, and stop planting beds of 5-6 tomatoes, what about a single tomato plant per bed, staked, interplanted with short plants, so they have maximum space? I could get about two dozen plants in that way.

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