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

Three quick tips to supersize your tomato yields

Two-story tomatoesI can still remember where I was when I first saw it --- a picture of a man harvesting tomatoes from the top of an extension ladder. Louis Ver had grown a 23-foot-tall plant a few decades earlier in a town only 45 minutes drive from where I lived in Pennsylvania. Best of all, he had done it organically and picked over 200 tomatoes from the plant over the course of the season! I couldn't wait to try it for myself.

I loved the colors and flavors of heirloom tomatoes, but was sometimes disappointed by the yield. I was pretty sure that this was the answer to my problems. In the years since, I have continued to read and experiment in an attempt to achieve maximum yields on my tomato plants. I would like to share a few quick tips that will help you to grow more tomatoes as well, even if you don't want to leave the safety of the ground.

Ripening tomatoesTip #1: Provide constant moisture. If a plant has all of the sunlight and fertilizer in the world, and a wealth of perfect soil beneath it, its growth will still be frustrated if it doesn't have the moisture it needs. Ruth Stout once had me convinced that rich soil and a good mulch would retain all of the moisture that my plants needed. But even when I gave my tomatoes an occasional gallon of "irrigation tea," per Louis Ver's recommendations, I ended up realizing that I was dwarfing the plants due to insufficient moisture.

Here is the easiest and most efficient way that I have found to water a very big plant. Drill a hole in the side of a 5 gallon bucket, right where the bottom and side of the container meet. Set it 1 to 2 feet from the base of the tomato plant, with the hole aimed toward the plant, and fill it once weekly, letting the water drain out slowly over 5 to 10 minutes. If you don't have a supply of rain or pond water, let tap water age in a bucket for a day or more before dumping it in the bucket with a hole to give any chlorine time to evaporate and the water time to warm to outdoor temperatures. This slow trickle will create a reservoir of water in the soil directly beneath your plant that it can draw from over the course of the week.

Tall tomato plantTip #2: Provide constant fertility. I've learned that spreading compost around your plant once at the beginning of growing season is a bit like giving a child a seven-course meal as soon as they are born and never feeding them again. Of course, organic fertilizers are known for being slow-release, but this doesn't mean that they don't lose potency as the elements leach away their nutrients. It was my pole beans that first convinced me that the "once and done" plan was foolish. Every year bean production would peter out at some point, after which I would place a few shovels of compost in a bucket of water, mix it up, and dump along the row. Within two weeks the plants were pumping out beans at a machine gun pace again! At some point I thought, "Why don't I just do this every two weeks all season long?"

I was on the right track. I soon read about experts who do something very similar, as Eliot Coleman spreads a "side-dressing" of compost around each tomato plant monthly and Steve Solomon "fertigates" his larger plants with a 5-gallon bucket of compost tea every other week. I often use a method that is a hybrid of the two, slowly dumping a few gallons of my compost "stew" (compost left in, as with the pole beans) around the base of the plant twice a month in addition to my watering schedule. It really doesn't take much compost to maintain fertility in this manner as long as you planted in good soil or spread
Tomato bushan inch of compost in a two foot wide circle around your transplant; a trowel scoop per gallon of water seems to be adequate.

Tip #3: Give your plant room to grow. Years ago, I planted my tomatoes pretty closely, lopped off all suckers in an attempt to channel the nutrients into that one precious vine, and trained them up twine to a trellis. I later realized that I was severely limiting productivity. This method is fine if you have to grow 20 varieties in a twenty foot garden bed, have lots of time for pruning, and a trellis to train all of your single vines up to, but you won't get much from each plant. I could have grown more tomatoes with four plants per bed and my current techniques.

Here are two methods that work best in most situations:

  • Giant tomato bush. First, plant your tomato in full sun at least five feet from any other large plant. Next, go to a hardware store and buy two sheets of re-mesh (used to reinforce concrete). Back at home, fasten the ends of one sheet with wire, and you will have a cage 3 1/2' high to set around your tomato plant. Do the same with the second, and then put it on top of the first, wiring it securely in place. Tie the cage to one or two stakes that are pounded in securely to prevent the contraption from tipping when the plant gets big. You now have a 7' tall cage, which will hold your giant tomato "bush" securely for the season, as the vines will have to reach at least 14' in length in order to grow over the top of your cage and back down to the ground. Best of all, most of you will be able to reach all of the tomatoes without even standing on your toes! (The one in the picture is just about to flop and head downward after growing out the top of a 10 1/2' cage.)
  • String-trained tomatoSky-high climbing vines. For this method, you'll need to plant your tomato in full sun beneath a second-story balcony, window, or chimney. Next, buy a rope at least 25' long made of rough, natural material (I've used sisal.) Third, tie the rope to something (the balcony railing, chimney, etc.) up on the second story, and the other end gently to the base of the tomato plant (wait until it's not too small and tender). Then, as the plant grows, twist its trunk gently around the rope. You'll need to get up on the ladder weekly to trim suckers with this method, but can allow about 4 vines to climb the rope without everything coming undone, and without limiting your plant's height or productivity. I harvested 500 cherry tomatoes from a single vine when I first tried this, and each additional vine can produce just as many!

Well, there you are. If you water your plant correctly, stagger its feedings over the course of the growing season, and give it plenty of room to grow, you should be harvesting a bumper crop of tomatoes this season even if you only have time or space for one plant. Happy growing!
Nate Harvey is a former weight-training writer who has shifted his focus toward helping people grow big, organic tomato crops rather than big, drug-free muscles. He is currently developing a video course about adapting the techniques of world-class tomato champs to the backyard garden. If you found this article interesting, and would like to see and/or read about all of his tomato-boosting techniques for FREE this season, join up here.

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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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Thank you for sharing I am taking these tips into my tomato gardening :-)
Comment by Darlene Cruz Sat Mar 19 15:50:40 2016

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