‘Soft-staking’ tomatoes

If I simply grew five tomato plants I could afford to mollycoddle them like everyone else, shaping and trimming and tying each plant up a stake and making the garden beautiful.

P1060627Indeed, I’ve tried all the standard methods of staking tomatoes, but things fall apart when you are growing north of 50 plants and strapped for time. So I’ve been experimenting with faster methods of raising uglier tomatoes, safe in the knowledge that I win kudos for volume of fruit produced rather than the exquisite geometrical symmetry of my tomatoes beds.

P1060604Along this journey I’ve learnt that the tomato plants don’t actually appreciate all that servicing either. Heavy gardeners compact soil, break off shoots inadvertently and spread disease from one plant to the next through tools or touch.

So these days I try to go into the tomato beds only once – to ‘soft-stake’ them. After that, the cook – at half my weight – moves more gently among them to harvest the final produce for sauces and salads.

P1060598How does this work?

Firstly, I grow the tomatoes on thick straw mulch so that they are lying about in cleanliness and comfort rather than on the soil surface. If this barley straw ‘shoots’ from barley seed buried inside it so much the better – the stiff straws and tough leaves serve to hold up the branches of the young tomatoes as they get established.

Many of these tomatoes are grown along mesh fences; these too serve to support growing tomatoes which, at the 300 mm spacing of the drip irrigation system below the mulch, tend to intermesh and prop up each other. This works on rich soil – the hallmark of a well-managed kitchen garden, where planting density has to be maximised.

P1060606For those rows of tomatoes out in the middle of the bed, individual staking would create an impenetrable forest of vertical hardwood stakes. So I wait until the plants are deep-rooted and sturdy so that they themselves form the anchor-point for the ‘soft stakes’ that are tied loosely at their base and spiral around central stems up to a horizontal pole overhead. These Jolly tree ties are soft biodegradable expanding cloth strips that come in a 40m roll.

P1060615It looks messy, but the bushes stay lower and spread wider and stay healthier longer. And I save lots of time mucking about pruning them.


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