Podcast

Tomato Growing Techniques

Triangle Gardener podcast logoGrowing the tomato of your dreams can be a source of frustration. In this episode we get tips from pros about ways you can modify your growing environment for a successful tomato season.

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Thanks to our sponsor Super-Sod for making this episode possible.

 


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SPITZER

Tomatoes are wonderful.  There’s so many different aspects to them.  They’re these massive plants that produce these wonderful, heavy fruit.

JENKINS

That’s the tomato I remember from my childhood. A few plants would morph into green bushes pumping out more tomatoes than we could use.  Bags of ripe tomatoes would go with my dad to work and I was sent to neighbors sack in hand and they would send me home with excess of their own.  A bounty of vegetables flowed up and down our street through the summer.

But here I struggle to produce that perfect tomato that seems to exist only in my dreams. Right plant, right place —that’s the gardener’s mantra. But when it comes to growing tomatoes, our area isn’t the right place. Heavy clay soil, pests, pathogens, heat, and humidity kill the enthusiasm of many would-be tomato growers.

This year I vowed to do things differently.  You see my garden is small, I have neither the room nor the time to plant lots of varieties in search of the right tomato. So I’m experimenting with growing techniques. I’ve been talking to people who make their living growing plants and realized that if I can change my assumptions about how to grow tomatoes this might just be the right place after all.

SPITZER

My name is Matt Spitzer and we are here at the tomato greenhouse at Endless Sun Farms.

JENKINS

Tell me how you grow tomatoes here.

SPITZER

We grow them hydroponically.  What that means is it’s without soil.  So we grow in a peat cube which is sitting in perlite.  Which is that little white stuff you’ll see in your soil mixes.  It just allows water to flow through very quickly.  Water doesn’t sit so we try to avoid water sitting in the bottom of these pots, if you will.  We provide water to the plants 12 times a day.  Exactly what they need and how much they need.  That way we are really able to dial in how fast we want the tomatoes to grow and dial in their needs based on how hot it is outside, how much light they’re getting, and it’s without soil.  So these vines get, they can get 25 – 50 feet.  Depending on how old they are and how healthy we can keep them.

JENKINS

How do you support a 25-50’ long vine?

SPITZER

We have these heavy duty, heavy gauge cables that are attached to the top of the greenhouse.  Those cables support the vines using these roller hook assemblies and that’s just a rope wound around a wheel. The vines grow up these lines and as soon as they reach the top of the cable we will lower them down and lean them over.  You end up with these long, if you can imagine the vines coming out  of the pot and then it immediately turns to the left and it runs vertical until the last six feet and that portion runs horizontal. We maintain about 6 feet of the tip of the vine and the rest we pick off all the leaves and it’s just straight vine.

JENKINS

How come you take off the leaves?

SPITZER

When you have so many leaves on a huge vine like that it really sucks up all the nutrients and those leaves end up just turning yellow. Once they turn yellow you just need to cut them off.  It increases the risk of diseases and pests.

JENKINS

Those leaves aren’t being used for photosynthesizing? Or is it just on the end of the vine?

SPITZER

Exactly. It’s just that tip, just the last 6 feet.  That’s about 10-12 leaves we maintain on the vine.  That varies  throughout the year but all the plant needs is gotten through those 10-12 leaves.

JENKINS

Is that where the production occurs —is the fruit setting on the end of the vine?

SPITZER

Yes.  So the fruit, as we harvest that kind of follows the leaves we cut off. As those leaves are getting yellow we’re kind of harvesting that fruit as well. We may have 5 or 6 clusters of tomatoes that are yet to be ripe. Those tomatoes are right at the bottom of that 6 feet.  When we harvest it lines up nicely. So when we lower, those tomatoes are ripe by then.  We only have tomatoes on that vertical portion of the vine.

JENKINS

This sounds complicated.  Why don’t you grow them in the field like everyone else?

SPITZER

We really focus on growing them in the off season and tomatoes don’t like it when it goes below 60 degrees.  In the off season we’ve got to keep the greenhouse warm. That’s the major consideration.  It is a benefit that in the summer time having a structure over tomatoes prevents water from splashing on the fruit and the plants which prevents, helps prevent, disease from spreading.  But our ability to control the environment is directly related to the quality and consistency of our fruit set.  And that really shows when your tomatoes are sitting on a grocery shelf and they really need to look pristine.

JENKINS

How many tomatoes can you get off a plant using this approach?

SPITZER

It varies a little bit based on how much light you can get and how warm it is. The warmer it is, the more light you have you’ll get a little bit more per vine.  We go off a metric that’s about pounds per vine per week.  An average is about 1 pound per vine per week.

JENKINS

Matt’s plants are gorgeous.  You can find pictures on our website, TriangleGardener.com.

Did you catch him saying they produce a pound of tomatoes per vine each week?  While I can’t grow hydroponically indoors there are some lessons from Matt’s approach I’m translating to my garden.

First, I moved my plants to a protected area of my garden where I can better control the temperature. It’s working so far. They’re already blooming and starting to set fruit.  But this meant I had to move my plants into containers this year.  Years ago I tried tomatoes in containers and it was a mess. They fell over, they dried out quickly, it was hard to support the vines. I said, never again.  So I went looking for a better container.  That’s when I called Dan.

JACOBS

My name is Dan Jacobs and I’m a Divisional Merchandise Manager with Gardener’s Supply Company. We are located in Burlington, VT.

JENKINS

Dan works with gardeners across the county and when he told me about developing a tomato container that is having great success with gardeners from Arizona to Minnesota to here in the south. I started listening to his story about their new Revolution Garden container.

JACOBS

It’s really unique.  The clabbered design allows for that under edge to actually be carved out so that air can get through.  That plastic vessel is lined with a grow bag so it allows for air pruning.  Air pruning essentially draws the roots outward rather than straight down and often times they get root bound and start circling around the bottom of the container.  So it creates a much more vigorous and healthy root system for the plant and ultimately leads to a healthier plant.

JENKINS

I’ve grown things in grow bags and they dry out fast.  But you’ve maybe tackled that problem in a different way, tell me about that.

JACOBS

One of the other areas of big innovation in this planter is the self watering system. There’s a big reservoir in the bottom of the container.  It’s a self watering system.  You fill that with water, and of course depending on how big your plant is and how hot it is out there it’s going to draw that water up at a different rate.  But it really can help you cut down on watering but also provides steady access to water for the plant. In addition to that reservoir for sort of traditional self watering we’ve added a wicking system into it. There’s a little piece of somewhat similar to grow-bag material, that’s integrated into the the reservoir and wicks the water up to the roots to the bottom of the planter itself.  So there’s two self watering systems in there along with air pruning, just creates, along with the capacity of the soil, it creates a great root system for tomatoes and other plants.

JENKINS

I just had to give this thing a try.

I’m following Matt’s practice of laying the vines sideways and removing leaves off the older part of the vine.  I’m grateful for the trellis that’s integrated into the Revolution Garden container. It’s incredibly sturdy and can be extended up to five feet tall.  So I’m winding my vines around the outer edge of the container.  That will make harvesting easier.

The water reservoir holds five gallons so I can leave it alone for a few days. I’ve put my tomatoes in a protected location so I can better control the temperature but they also more sheltered from rain.  The water reservoir provides consistent moisture so the plants don’t dry out and their aren’t being soaked during a downpour.  This should discourage their fruits from cracking.

Protected location and more controlled temperatures, container growing, consistent moisture, trellising horizontally instead of vertical cages —I’ve certainly modified this environment.  Hopefully now I’ll have the right plant and the right place and be able to grow that tomato of my dreams.

I’m Lise Jenkins and this is the Triangle Gardener show. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina.  You can find this and other episodes of our podcast on iTunes or our website TriangleGardener.com   Thanks for listening.