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Intrepid Urban Farmer: A Sucker for Cages

The last time we met here, I talked about setting out plants that I started from seed and the use of newspaper and straw as a weed-preventing mulch. I got that accomplished two days after Mother’s Day. The newspaper-straw combination is looking really good and I think this will be a continuing tactic. No weeds to speak of! And I have, quite possibly, the best informed garden in Covington.
 
I wanted to take a little time to go into planting strategies with bedding plants, whether you have started them yourself, or have purchased them from a favorite nursery.
 
There are many ways to plant tomatoes. I have tried every one, I think, at one time or another. You can plant them sideways (in other words, laying the plant down at an angle in the dirt), and let the plant grow on the ground, tomatoes included. I didn’t like this too much. The plants (indeterminate) grew all over the place and were hard to manage.  The tomatoes also lay on the ground facilitating rot and making them more vulnerable to critters. But, if you don’t want to use cages, or any other type of support, this will work. You just have to be really diligent about watching the ripening process and perhaps pull the tomatoes a little sooner than you might otherwise.
 
Tomato cages are a great tool. I have used the shorter, cone-shaped wire cages (the ones with the concentric rings) and they work. But, they aren’t really big enough for a mature tomato plant. I like to use square, grid-type cages that are five feet tall. I have another round-style pair that are six feet! This pair was a one-off from Gardener’s Supply. They had to be assembled and if was quite a tussle. Much swearing and cursing emanated from the garden that day. But, once that was over, they turned out to be really great for the tomatoes. They are no longer available though, because I believe the reviews on the assembly process ended the run. Needless to say, I don’t disassemble this pair at the end of the season.
 
This difficult pair of cages has given me an idea. I’m going to design my own cages and have them fabricated. Rebar and wire rings welded together; heavy-duty and big….six feet tall! I get all giddy just thinking about it. Being a committed gardener does require that you be a little bit of a geek. Some people obsess over cell phones; I get glassy-eyed over tomato cages.  
 
When planting your tomatoes, dig a hole deep enough to set the plant down into the ground just above the lowest small pair of leaves at the base of the plant. You can even go a little deeper. The plant will send out roots from the surface level of the soil and down. When you dig the hole, break up the soil in the bottom to loosen it for easier rooting. Then, you’ll set the cages, if you use them, position your soaker hoses and apply your mulch of choice. Which is, in my case, the straw and newspaper.
 
If your plants are very small and tender, you may want to protect them for a short while until they have grown a bit. If you can avail yourself to old-fashioned clay drainage tile, this is ideal. You just carefully set the tile down around the plant. Don’t push it down hard, because it will hinder the roots. When the plants get bigger, just remove it before they get TOO big. But, that probably won’t be an option for you. Drainage tile like I am describing is not used any longer and is hard to come by. A perfectly suitable substitution is a tomato juice can with both ends removed. The cans are not as big, but they fit the bill pretty well. If there is a hard, driving rain (or hail, God forbid!) or if Thumper comes to visit, there will be a little resistance in place.  
 
If you have a Bambi or two in your  life, you are on your own. As I have written before, one of the joys of true urban farming is the complete absence of deer, at least in my case.
 
When your tomato plants get a little size on them, feed them one more time (preferably with a lower nitrogen formula) before you notice buds starting to form. Remember, excessive nitrogen causes tomatoes to drop blossoms. No blossoms, no tomatoes! Don’t feed them again until you see that they have “set fruit”. In other words, little tomatoes are starting to form. And even then, be sparing with high nitrogen formulas.
 
As your tomatoes get bigger, it is a good idea to pick a couple of leader vines, maybe even three. Prune out all other stems and allow your leaders to grow. Then remove all suckers from the stems as they appear. Try to do this once a week. Suckers are little non-flowering stems that grow between the main stems and the leaf crotches. Eliminating these allows more energy to be directed to the main stem and, most importantly, the tomatoes.
 
When your vines get to the height of your cages, just lop them off and don’t allow them to cascade down over the sides. The plants, by this time, will be enormous. Diligent pruning habits will help maintain good air circulation and help prevent favorable conditions for blights or funguses.
 
On the topic of blights and funguses: I have enacted a plan to try to control the spread of them. Last year, I planted all sixteen of my plants in two long straight rows. There was plenty of room for them, but they did touch. I guess you can figure out what happened from here. When one got tobacco mosaic, it spread right down the line. I couldn’t stop it (even with serious pruning) and it eventually claimed the whole lot of them. This was late in the season and I still had a huge crop of tomatoes, but still, it is extremely aggravating to watch this happen.  
 
This year, I have split up the tomato plants into four groups of four each. I’m hoping this segregation of plants will help me control any blights or funguses that come around.  
 
In gardening, you never know how things will shape up at the end of the season. Each year, conditions are different with the weather, your plant selection, and all of the rest that Mother Nature slings at us. As some smart person said, “The only constant is change.”  At least I can depend on my tomato cages.
 
 
The River City News is proud to produce this regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]