Pruning tomatoes

We finally pruned and trellised a bed of very overgrown bed of tomatoes in the greenhouse today.  Tomato pruning is one of my favorite farming projects: it takes some thinking and decision-making, you get to handle plants intimately, and the intoxicating resin leaves my hands black and my nose bizarrely satisfied.  

 Tomato hands

Tomato hands

Along with removing the black clips and bamboo stakes that were trying unsuccessfully to keep these monster plants upright, the first step is simple: trim off bottom leaves and suckers that are growing close to the ground.  This helps prevent diseases from free-riding up the plant from the soil and makes is easier to weed and trellis.  Before and after:

The goal is then to snap (or prune, if they're too thick like these were) off any side suckers up the plant, leaving only two leaders.  The main leader is easy to find and follow, and there's usually a clear winner for a secondary leader that's more robust that all the others.  If it's not clear, we just choose one that's about one foot from the base of the plant.

 That tell-tale Y shape of a two-leader tomato system

That tell-tale Y shape of a two-leader tomato system

It's much easier to prune smaller plants, before they've flopped over and grown thick side shoots.  Here's a before-and-after example from the neighboring row of grafted tomatoes that went in a couple weeks after the monster bed:

The grafts are barely noticeable now, hiding fully healed near the surface of the soil.  These plants will likely outpace the bigger ones as the weeks go on, and will surely be more productive into the fall once most tomatoes start to decline.

 Fully healed graft site

Fully healed graft site

After pruning each tomato down to two leaders and removing their supports, they flop helplessly onto the plastic mulch.  It can be tricky to handle them without snapping the stems at this stage, but with some sensitivity and patience, they'll move wherever we need them to go.

Michael, Phil, and I then spent the afternoon trellising them up to the purlin along the greenhouse roof.  We measure two strings of baling twine per plant, tie them loosely around the base, and then pull them up on a ladder to loop them around the purlin so that the plants are pulled upright and there's good tension on the string. 

Once plants are tied and the "braid" is weaved down the row, we use the same black clips to guide each leader up its own string.  It's a beautiful process, and ends up looking like installation art.  For me, it was even more fun to focus in a single project for a couple hours without distractions, chat with Michael one-on-one, and revisit the tomatoes I've been tending since March.  There's just something special about these plants.

 Tomato flower

Tomato flower

 Phil clipping up tomato plants into the trellis braid

Phil clipping up tomato plants into the trellis braid