The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Pruning tomatoes for blight prevention

Tying up a tomato plantLast year, the blight took me by surprise and sent me reeling.  Since then, I've done a lot of plotting and researching, and I feel like I have the possibility of harvesting a crop after the fungus hits.

I've talked about our extreme tomato pruning before, but I want to add a few notes since I can already tell that I'll be pruning slightly differently next year.  Most importantly, I plan to snip off the bottom leaves repeatedly rather than spending my weekly pruning sessions solely cutting back suckers and tying up the main stems.  I've noticed that even leaves attached a foot above the ground bend downward with age until they are dipping into the splash zone.  Unsurprisingly, the first symptoms of the blight show up as yellowing and browning of these leaves --- a sign that fungal spores are being exposed to the air.  In the future, I'll clip off low leaves as soon as they droop.
Cracked tomato stem

And if --- just hypothetically --- I happen to run out of rebar and don't tie up a few exuberant tomatoes one week, I'll be positive to get back to them pronto rather than letting the vines bend and crack under the heavy weight of ripening tomatoes.  Luckily, rebar is a long term investment, so we shouldn't have that problem next year.

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This post is part of our Organic Tomato Blight Control lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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So is rebar and twine/rope your preference over tomato cages? These guys are using concrete reinforcing mesh. I'm trying bamboo poles this year, but I haven't gone far enough into the season to know if they will work out well or not.
Comment by David Mon Aug 2 12:49:19 2010

Tomato cages work with determinate tomatoes, but we like indeterminate tomatoes (which is what most heirlooms are) --- they just get too heavy for tomato cages. I'd suspect they'd get too heavy for bamboo too, but I could be wrong.

This year, tying them onto metal fenceposts is working quite well for us. It's more work to prune, and probably cuts yield a bit, but does seem to be slowing the spread of blight. You might want to check out, which gaves some great information on pros and cons of various methods.

Comment by anna Mon Aug 2 13:48:10 2010
I thought that reusing stakes caused blight.
Comment by Errol Mon Aug 2 15:44:28 2010
Everything I've read says that blight needs living tissue to survive. So, it can overwinter in forgotten potatoes in the soil, or in the weedy nightshades we have so many of around here. But it can't survive in the soil or on stakes by itself.
Comment by anna Mon Aug 2 16:06:05 2010

Since blight (at least phytophthora infestans) is vulnerable to copper, maybe putting some copper mesh upright around the bottom of the plant or suspended it horizonally an inch or so over the ground around the plant would be of use? The latter configuration would keep the lower leaves off the ground too.

And as opposed to spraying with copper compounds, it won't get into the soil.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Aug 2 17:11:54 2010
That's a fascinating idea. People do indeed use copper to treat the blight (and it getting into the soil is the reason I won't do it.) I'm pretty sure the copper needs to come in contact with the fungus to kill it, but who knows? If I run across some cheap mesh, we may give this a try next year.
Comment by anna Mon Aug 2 17:52:33 2010
My concrete reinforcing mesh is completely bent over with the weight of my cherry tomatoes. Maybe next year is the year to commit to stakes for the tomato vines.
Comment by Anonymous Mon Aug 2 22:03:28 2010
If you're willing to spend extra cash, I've heard that some people use "Texas tomato cages." They're supposed to be extremely sturdy, but are also extremely expensive. (And they don't really look stronger than homemade cages out of remesh to me.
Comment by anna Tue Aug 3 08:10:31 2010
I see you are using stakes with rebars attached. Are the stakes U shaped or T posts? What diameter is the Rebar? Do you think just rebar would work or do you think it would flex? Our tomatoes are about 8 feet tall now and are bending over and breaking the stems.
Comment by Brian Wed Jul 6 18:15:30 2011
I use the cheap(ish), U posts for the tomatoes, and the rebar slides right down the middle of the U. I think the rebar is 3/8" --- whatever the most common kind is. I wouldn't recommend using just rebar without the posts if your tomatoes are anything like ours ---- they get heavy, especially with all those fruits!! You must have your tomatoes trained to something now, though, if they're 8 feet tall?
Comment by anna Wed Jul 6 18:37:02 2011

We are using Bamboo and some 1x2s currently, but they don't last more than a season or two and are only about 6 feet tall so the top couple feet are falling over when the tomatoes develop. We're looking for something that will last longer.

We do have some left over chainlink fence top rail that might be option for us.

Comment by Brian Wed Jul 6 22:45:41 2011

In the long run, I highly recommend changing over to metal posts. I suspect our investment will still be making our tomato life easier in a decade or two.

For this year, I'll bet you can slide rebar in beside your current arrangement, maybe tie it once or twice to the bamboo and 1x2s, and get away with another year or two. Although not strong enough to support a tomato plant on its own, rebar seems to do great as a height extender for the top part of the plant.

Comment by anna Thu Jul 7 15:58:27 2011

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