Tomatoes out of control... HELP!

dmartin301(z7 Maryland)July 12, 2005

This is my first year using the SFG method and my first year growing anything. I have five tomatoes plants in the raised bed, spaced 1 foot from each other. I put cages around each one. I tried to prune the suckers, but it got to be very hard keeping up and they got out of hand, growing into another tomato plant, eventually touching the other tomato plants and creating a jungle environment. The plants also grew tall, eventually falling over on each other, since they grew much higher than the four foot cages.

Here are my questions:

1. can I prune these large suckers (over a foot and growing tomatoes) without hurting the main stem?

2. For next year, should I use a cage or a stake?

3. How many squares apart should tomato plants be in the SFG?

Thanks.

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Riff(z7 NorthernVA)

First, are your tomatoes indeterminate ("vining") or determinate ("bush")? Indeterminate tomatoes will grow multiple very long (or high) vines if not pruned. Determinate types (although I've never grown one) grow to a certain point and then not much bigger, I believe.

Mel Bartholemew's SFG book mostly talks about the vining type, and training them up a string or trellis instead of a cage, if I remember correctly. That's what I've done. Keep in mind this is only my third year (and I've had some tomato disease problems):

1. I think you can prune these suckers with minimal effect on the plant. Other opinions?

2. Many options, and each person seems to have a favorite. I would opine that cages work best with determinate (bush) tomatoes, and that a stake, trellis, or string work best for indeterminate (vining) types. That usually entails pruning all or most of the "suckers" off. The SFG book describes planting tomatoes at one per square foot, each with a string up to the top of a six-foot trellis, and gently twisting the growing tip of the tomato aroung the string. Also, pinching off each sucker that forms between the leaf axil and the stem (otherwise this would become a whole new vinew with flowers). I highly recommend the book.

3. One per square foot, if you follow the SFG book, but many people do differently. I've seen some recommend 18" to 24" apart, maybe more for cages of bush types. I think the distance would be close for well-pruned tomatoes in a dry climate, and much farther for unpruned ones in a humid climate. You're near me, and I assume it's quite humid there, which I have heard can promote some tomato diseases. So far I've done mine 1/sq ft and pruned to one or two stems and six feet high. But last year all three plants (I have a small garden) died of some kind of wilt, I believe. This year, so far, so good...

--Riff.

Here is a link that might be useful: Taunton press

    Bookmark   July 12, 2005 at 8:30PM
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tonym(z7 VA)

dmartin,
When I read your post I thought I was reading about my own sitation concerning tomatoes & SFG. I returned to gardening after 20 years of military moves, living in cramped quarters, and never having enough time to tend to them, and this year built three 4x8 SFG beds. I jammed an average of 8 plants into these beds, some only 12" apart. Big mistake. I've pulled suckers and given "haircuts" but I cannot keep up with the growth. Standing back and looking at it, it all appears to be one gigantic tomato shrub. I plan to let most of the plants grow, but for an experiment, I'm going to "skinny down" a few of the other plants by drastic trimming, and plan to keep them trimmed. I want to then see how the yield of those differs from the ones that I'll let grow. As for your other questions, I am pretty much in line with Riff:

1. I will bet you that whatever you pull off of the plant will not harm the main stem. (In fact, I read in another post where you could, with care, replant those cuttings, if your're careful and keep them watered.)

2. I am partial to cages myself, but it's readily apparent that to accomodate tomato plants the size of ours, the proper sized cage could quickly take up space in a SFG. So I've been using stakes, which they've long outgrown.

3. My lesson learned this year is to plant most of my tomatoes next year along a sunny fence in another area of the yard, to use large cages to control them. I would plant tomatoes no closer than 36" in future SFGs, just so other sun-loving vegetable plants in the 12" squares won't be drastically shaded out by the tomato plants.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2005 at 3:37PM
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dmartin301(z7 Maryland)

Riff:

Thanks for the advice. I am growing both determinate and indeterinate, however, my problems are with the determinate variety. My experience has taught me that whatever method I use to keep the tomatoes off the ground, if it is in a SFG, I need to space the tomatoes a minimum of two squares apart and be very diligent about catching each sucker, before they get out of hand.

I read the SFG book, and constructed a trellis that is 5 ' 7" tall, however, those tomatoes grew taller, wider, and out of control, just like the rest. I suppose if I had spaced all of them at least two squares apart, and properly pruned each plant, that it would solve the problem. Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2005 at 10:12AM
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XeriJen(z9 NoCal)

My tomatoes are planted outside of my SFG, next to a trellis beside the patio, and boy am I glad. One literally reaches the roof. I have two of them, and they would have taken over an entire 4x4 bed.

However, I also have two pepper plants next to the tomatoes, and those really should have gone in the SFG. They're compact little 1 SF shapes, and I'm wasting a huge amount of space next to them.

It's really hard to know how big things are going to get. They're all the same size to start out with.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2005 at 11:55AM
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fair0906(z5 Colo)

Determinants should not be pruned, nor suckers pinched. It's difficult to do much, by way of pruning, that will damage indeterminants. As a rule of thumb, go ahead and pinch/cut any suckers under 18". If space is really important, I'd say suckers up to 2' are expendable. I let some of my suckers grow as tall as 4' and have staked them separately. My tomatoes in zone 5 are 6' now and I have a friend tell me his plants reached 12' in zone 8. It's difficult to overdo it on trellis height.
I think a "tomato jungle" is not the worst thing that could happen, provided that shade tolerant plants are planted next to them. I would suggest spinach for early and late portions of growing season and basil for the height of the summer heat.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2005 at 2:45PM
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