Tomato Sprawling Experiment

vgkg(Z-7)May 23, 2002

For many years I've only "staked" all my tomato plants (except for cherry varieties that I cage). This year I'm sprawling 3 tomato plants in a special plot (SuperSteak, Mortgage Lifter, & Sudduth Brandywine). Normally I don't sprawl due to increased disease, pests, fruit rot losses, smaller but more fruits, harder to harvest/find fruits, space considerations, earlier plant demise, and just plain ugly jumbled plants.

My new approach/experiment involves the following method which may or may not help with a few of these problems:

I'm giving these 3 plants a 10'x10' area with a distance ~5' between them planted in a triangle. Buried irrigation oozer hose for water source. A large piece of cardboard is being used to block weeds within the triangle and it's covered with 4" straw for the sprawling plants to rest upon. I also buried some extra fish waste below the plants for the heck of it (leftovers from corn exp). Now it's up to mother nature to do the rest. Will update progress as season advances. vgkg

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Thanks for the response about the bean beetles, this experiment sounds like it might work. By the way, I have planted the exact same strains mentioned here but I'm staking mine. Where did you get your plants?

    Bookmark   May 31, 2002 at 3:50AM
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Hi Fosterran, you're welcome. I also have staked the identical varieties for a season end comparison.
Source of each variety:
SuperSteak & Mortgage Lifter: Bought Burpbee seed packs at local garden store (so I'm uncertain as to the ML strain, SS is hybrid)
Sudduth BW: got seed from Amy (here) via exchange.
All seeds started indoors on March 20th.

At this point all 3 plants are doing well and blooming. They may be laying over in the next week or two. As prescribed by others who practice sprawling method I'm leaving them to their own devices and no suckering or pampering allowed. But if there is an insect infestation I will do what I can to help control that (don't want them spreading around)
Updates to follow.

Happy harvest to ya, vgkg

    Bookmark   May 31, 2002 at 8:36AM
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Your method sounds great to me. The cardboard and straw should keep the critters from eating the fruit on the ground. Don't you just hate it when you pick a beautiful ripe tomato, turn it over and there is a huge bite out of it?

    Bookmark   June 4, 2002 at 11:05AM
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Hi Shirley, thanks for the vote of confidence! Actually the cardboard was just an afterthought. It just so happened that I had a new refrigerator delivered the day before I planted these maters. Had the straw all ready so figured no need to toss the box the fridge came in. It made a nice large one piece section to cover the ground, poked some pitchfork holes into it (for drainage) then covered with the straw. I'm beginning to think that these plants are being more pampered than my staked plants, ha.

Anyways, latest up-date: All 3 plants are doing fine and looking healthy. They are now leaning a bit and have some tiny fruits, all are loaded with blooms and getting bushy. Probably be officially "sprawled" by next week. The fish waste doesn't seem to have any bad effect (it was quite a bit under each plant). Mostly back bone and heads so hopefully not too rich in nitrogen, good amount of Phosphorus from the bone I'm thinking.
More updates to follow, vgkg

    Bookmark   June 4, 2002 at 10:43PM
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Glad to be back on the forums for another year! Two years ago, I sprawled tomatoes and got a HEAVY yield. Probably due to to the rooting effect of the tomato vines. The down side ,however, was that lots of the fruits were hollowed out. The only thing I could figure (and I spent time searching, posting, watching, etc.) was that mice were eating into the tomatoes for the seeds. That year was plenty moist here, so lots of water for the critters to drink. My initial thought was that they were after moisture, but there was plenty on the ground. The holes were about the size of a quarter, all the flesh was intact (except for the hole), but the innards were GONE! I'd try a few mouse traps amongst the plants. Don't forget where they are...OUCH!

    Bookmark   June 5, 2002 at 10:37AM
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I just realized that by putting down the cardboard, you aren't allowing the vines to put down new roots where they touch the ground. That's what makes them yield so good! Good luck!

    Bookmark   June 5, 2002 at 10:43AM
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Hi Ket, yes that had occured to me too about the cardboard. But my main goal is to prevent fruit losses via resting on ground, slugs, not being able to spot the ripe ones in time, and maybe even those pesky mouses. Don't know what'll happen, that's why it's experimental. If root loss from stems is balanced out by fruit preservation then maybe it'll all work out. Pests such as fruit flies and white flies are also attracted by rotting fruit so hopefully they'll be minimal too. As well as foliage diseases from the soil exposure. We'll see in the end. Thanks for your thoughts, vgkg

    Bookmark   June 5, 2002 at 1:24PM
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Here's the latest: All 3 tomato plants have laid over and spread out. They each have set about a dozen or more tomatoes but it's getting ever harder to see deep inside the foliage. I'm trying to distrub them as little as possible and let them do what they want.

Of the 3 varieties (Supersteak, Mortgage Lifter, and Suddeth BW) the Mortgage Lifter is coming down with something. The whole plant looks weakened and a bit pale but it is still growing. The other two plants are very robust looking in comparison.

If this ML continues to slide down hill I may yank it and replace it with one of my remaining extras (another BW).
I have to admit that not having to weed that plot is nice and carefree, as well as not having to tie up or stake. The layer of cardboard and straw looks good too.
More to come, will let you know how the ML progresses, or not. vgkg

    Bookmark   June 15, 2002 at 11:35PM
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Well, time to play taps for the fast fading Mortgage Lifter. It was just too sickly looking to take a chance to leave it. It's 2 companions (BW & SS) are doing Great. I replaced the ML with another BW, just mixed in some compost and set her in the same place. This one is 1/3 the size of the others even tho it was seeded the same time. Just pot bound and blossom clipped for the last month. Will see how it does as it was my last and only backup plant left. vgkg

    Bookmark   June 17, 2002 at 10:28PM
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Well all 3 plants are doing ok so far. I can tell already that they will produce more yet smaller tomatoes (as expected). Even the Supersteak which is bred for large fruits is making more but smaller ones so far. Only thing I'm worried about now is the fruits rotting on the bottom of the sprawl. The first tomatoes are resting on the straw which is resting on top of the cardboard but it's very shaded and probably moist deep in there where they are "hiding". Keeping an eye out for whiteflies as they seem to prefer this type of shaded jungled environment. No signs of ripening so far.
The newer plant (BW for the ML replacement) is slowly expanding but one of the branches (vines) had split down the stem as it laid over to spread. Will see if it recovers on it's own. vgkg

    Bookmark   July 2, 2002 at 8:48AM
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Arrrg! An unexpected and unwanted surprise is occuring with my sprawled tomatoes : SUNSCALD!!!
Yes, sunscald or sunburn mainly on the shoulders of several exposed still green tomatoes. This was the last problem I would expect from sprawlng plants as sunscald is usually associated with suckered/staked plants (but it rarely occurs on the ones I stake and semi-sucker).

What has happened is that even tho the plants are not suckered they spread out low to the ground and expose some of the fruits to full sun as they vine out and flop over. I had to rig up a shade for the larger fruits as they are burnt pretty badly. Oh well, this is why I'm experimenting, but I figured on other problems like rot and more pests, not sunscald!? So far everything else looks good with these plants.
The saga continues.......

    Bookmark   July 6, 2002 at 4:30PM
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weebus(Z8 Sunset 5 WA)

Thanks for keeping us posted.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2002 at 1:15PM
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One of my tomato plants sprawled and developed heavy fruits before I got it staked, so I left it sprawled. The ground was mulched with leaves over newspaper. The only tomatoes I have managed to harvest from this plant were just turning pink. Everything else rotted and/or was eaten by assorted bugs. The lower leaves on my caged tomatoes got spots and looked sick, so I cut these off and the rest of the foliage remained green. The sprawling plant was totally affected and was basically dead when I pulled it up.

I have had better luck with sprawled plants up north, but rotten and chewed fruits were always a problem.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2002 at 11:01AM
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Slugs & Ants notice:
Well, I seem to have saved most of the sunscalded fruits with my shade barrier (ugly but edible). But now have found some slugs on the riper ones resting on the straw and some ants drilling into the soft spots around the sunscald areas. I was hoping that the underlying cardboard would keep the slugs at bay but evidently they can sniff out ripening tomatoes and get around the cardboard. I bet if I lifted up the cardboard I'd see a hoard of slugs making their home under there. Cardboard is excellent for smothering weeds and retaining ground moisture but the flip side is the perfect conditions created for a slug haven.
Any tomato that rests within a couple of inches from the ground is up for grabs for these ground dwelling pests. The sprawled tomato fruits are paler in color than my steaked tomatoes and somewhat blemished too (not just the sunscalded ones). Only advantage I see thus far with sprawling plants is the low maintenance. The season is about half over now and it'll be interesting to see the later comparisons. vgkg

    Bookmark   July 16, 2002 at 8:09AM
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marshallz10(z9-10 CA)

I usually let my tomatoes sprawl too in spite of the problems you described. (Add munching by various rodents to the list of pests.) I harvest with first signs of ripening, called two-color in the trade at which time the fruit will ripen to good flavor. "Vine-ripened" is the three-color stage while four-color is dead ripe (and not shipable.)

    Bookmark   July 17, 2002 at 11:00AM
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HI Marshall, for my staked plants I wait until the 3 or 4 color stage unless rain is knocking on the door. To me, the Tomato plant is the Rose plant of the veggie garden and I tend to them as such. Probably the most attractive vegetable in the garden if staked & pampered (way too much time on my hands I know ;o). vgkg

    Bookmark   July 17, 2002 at 12:46PM
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Just another quickie update to say that I've lost at least a dozen nice tomatoes to either sunscald, slugs, or ants. Fruit flies are gathering too like buzzards. The plants are still alive and ok and are still sprawling outward taking more space than I had thought. They rise and fall sorta like an inch worm crawling along in slow motion. vgkg

    Bookmark   July 25, 2002 at 12:37PM
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Last entry on my Sprawling Tomatoes (unless someone has any questions).
These 3 sprawlers are just about kaput now. What's left of the fruits are rotting while still greenish due to runaway sunscald and/or bottom rot from pests like slugs & ants. Most of my staked plants are suffering too but the ones that are looking good still have loads of healthy fruits and far away from ground contact.

Staking or caging is the way to go with tomatoes and I knew (but forgot) this many years ago. Never again will I attempt sprawling unless I turn out to have a handicap down the road and can't tend to the plants like I do now. Tomato production on sprawling is good but at least half of the fruits don't make it to vine-ripened harvest. Also, in the alloted space where these 3 plants were I could easily place 6 staked plants.

Let's face it, a tomato plant is out to reproduce itself and not out to produce a perfect tomato for us to eat. A little effort is required to get the best out of each plant. If one only wanted to eat a few small-medium sized tomatoes and save seeds then sprawling is the way to go. For a longer harvest and more & larger edible fruits then staking is my #1 choice.
Happy harvest, vgkg

    Bookmark   August 22, 2002 at 12:58PM
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Frodo(z8b Fl)

How are you staking your tomatoes? I have about 100 plants and am trying to come up with an alternative to making 100 wire cages. I'm hoping for a good fall crop! I'm growing "Arkansas Traveler" and "Big Beef".

    Bookmark   September 9, 2002 at 10:17AM
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Hi Frodo, I plant only 30+ plants each year so you have your work cut out for you. My staking method may seem a bit unorthadox to some folks but I use 10 ft long, 1/2 inch thick iron rebar (type used in construction). These cost about $4 each but will last forever, easy to store, easy to clean, and won't bend/snap in storms. I hammer them 2' into the ground leaving 8' stake to tie up the plants. Using a good heavy duty visegrip attached to the rebar I use a heavy duty hammer to strike the visegrip forcing the rebar into the earth. Some of my garden plots are so deeply amended with organic matter I can now hand shove them into the ground most of the way. I once tried the cheaper 3/8" thick rebar but these will bend over if a storm hits with tomatoes near the top. Staking requires time tieing up too so caging may be better suited for 100 plants. Hope this helps, vgkg

    Bookmark   September 9, 2002 at 12:38PM
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Nelz(z5b/6 NW PA)

My mother-in-law sprawls hers. Not necessarily as an experiment, but because she doesn't the means or time to stake 80-90 plants. I told her go to 30 and buy the wire mesha nd I'd make the cages, but no go.

Every year for the past 5, I get a call 1st week of September (just hung up from her). Can I come help pick and then we can put them up together and split the take home. I have my own garden, and usually take what I have available at the time and put them all together. For this production line, if it's ripe it's canned.

Anyway, I usually end up throwing out 1 tomatoe for every 2 I keep, and of the keepers, there is a fair amount of trimming. I'm not a fan of the sprawl technique, but I know others who swear by it.


    Bookmark   September 9, 2002 at 3:17PM
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Sprawl works well out here, since we don't get any summer rain, but I don't care for the smaller fruits.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2002 at 1:12PM
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    Bookmark   January 29, 2003 at 7:36PM
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hollie_z9(z9Santa Cruz CA)

Every year my old caretaker would tie the young tomatoes up with smooth ropes that were nailed to the fence about 11 feet off the ground.

Every year, probably July, the tomato vines slid down the rope, nobody ever pruned or tied them, and we had "heaping" rather than "sprawling". Lots of bottom tomatoes were lost to big green worms and other hole leaving insects but we have always had too many good tomatoes for our little family with only about 7 plants.

Now that the caretaker has gone I'm reading this forum and I believe if you stake or do the rope trick, you have to tie and prune? Could someone please answer...

I was going to do cages but it is hard to find any that are very strong and only 4' tall. Question: If you put them in cages do you have to tie or prune or stake?

I definitely am going for the minimum effort here, and your sprawling tale was really attractive to me until you said you were going back to staking.

I'm near Sacramento, California, no summer rain, hot and long season (except this year's Spring). Can't I sprawl? Of course I've never noticed smaller fruits but I don't think I would mind if they taste the same.

Thanks for your sprawl story, I learned a lot.


    Bookmark   May 30, 2003 at 10:44PM
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BetsieLT(NW MI)

I have a couple of plants every year that end up as sprawling when I run out of proper cages. I usually cage just because of limited space. On those that aren't caged, I have spread the cuttings from the juniper prunings under them. They are prickly enough that some critters back off and the scent I have been told also acts as a repellent for insects. I will have to wait and see on that.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2003 at 9:35PM
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garden_witch(z6a MI)

My boss had about 20+ tomato plants out on his little farm and just let them sprawl. Mostly due to the fact that he was working two jobs, as well as taking care of the critters and other plants on the farm. Also, his wife has CP, so he does all of the yard work and the heavier housework. Basicly, he had no time to pamper tomatoes! His crop seemed to do alright, in fact, he had more than his wife could can! I made a few trips out there with my son and we picked quite a few tomaters, from green to ripe. We got at least two bushels over the course of a week, everything from roma to cherry, and a few huge beefsteaks!

    Bookmark   July 8, 2003 at 7:42PM
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Hollie, been away for a while. As mentioned, you can still get plenty of maters from sprawing. I'm just a wee picky about the tidyness factor and prefer a more attractive looking garden so I'll be staking since I have the time to keep up with the tieing up process. Also, staking keeps the plants healthy and producing longer for me. vgkg

    Bookmark   July 10, 2003 at 7:44AM
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