Has anyone experimented with using living plants to support your tomatoes? This year my tomatoes, quinoa plants and scarlet runner beans fused into a big, strong tangle of plants and seemed to be holding each other up. I'd love to have an easy, no-work way to let nature take care of supporting my tomatoes.
Sorry, I see that this landed in the wrong forum, but I can't figure out how to move it myself.
I generally haven't found anything that works except for tying my tomatoes to stakes with twine, but this year I do have one tall spindly plant that's being held up pretty well by the tub full of water chestnut reeds next to it. However it's causing a lot of breakage to the water chestnut stems, so I'm not sure this is a good solution.
The last two years, I have tried to get tomatoes to use sunflowers for supports, but they just don't seem to like each other.
I pose the following question - Why do tomatoes need to be staked? I wonder if tomato staking has roots in how nature does it, or if it was something contrived to grow tomatoes using conventional gardening practices of monocultures and bare soil.
The last three years I have not used any support for my tomatoes and gotten rather good harvests. Especially from my tomatoes on my pseudo hugelculture/polyculture raised beds. I have lost a few that were in contact with the ground, but I would say less than 10%.
My tomatoes have been a collection of volunteers and heirloom varieties, so maybe they are less fussy about being staked. I also haven't done any irrigation. I am not a tomato connoisseur, but I have shared a bunch of them with other folks who have loved them, and asked for more.
I can't answer why they need to be staked, but I can only share the results of my own experiment.
This year I had 101 tomato plants. I had 9 varieties with quantities ranging from 10-13 of each. The varieties were all heirloom, and all from Baker Creek Seeds (who comes with my highest recommendation, by the way). For about half the plants I built tomato cages from a roll of 4ft tall welded wire. The other half I decided to let grow naturally with no stakes or cages. I planted them in rows with 20" spacing.
The tomatoes in cages grew tall and healthy, and produced between 5 and 12 pounds of fruit on each plant, depending on the variety. I probably could have gotten more, but I didn't prune at all and with all the rain we got this summer I had a lot of rot on the bottoms of the plants. Plus, I've got chickens and pigs that are happy to eat rotten tomatoes.
The tomato plants without cages flowered and fruited fine, but I lost nearly every single tomato to rot. I was lucky if I got just a single tomato from a plant. I had strawmulch to keep the tomatoes from out of the mud, but it was so dang wet all summer and everything rotted. Also, with my nice clean row garden (I know, not very permaculure!) the plants were sprawled all up in the walkways, which was annoying. I vowed to never have a plant that wasn't staked or caged ever again in a traditional garden. If I try it again, it will be in my future food forest.
I read a book called "Eating on the Wild Side" by Jo Robinson, which is partly about the history of food plants. Robinson says that tomatoes were very small fruits until they were domesticated. I would imagine those wild tomatoes did fine without stakes.
I've noticed I can get away with a lot less fussy staking when I grow cherry tomatoes, so maybe the solution for us lazy stakers is just to grow smaller varieties. Robinson says that smaller tomatoes are healthier anyway (more lycopene.)
When I was a child, we used to go to the tomato fields in the next valley over and pick tomatoes for canning. The tomatoes were grown sprawling on the ground.
I have grown tomatoes that way my whole life. They grow just fine without being staked IN MY DRY CLIMATE.
I save my own seeds, and am still growing the descendants of the variety that I was picking as a child. A couple years ago I trialed a bunch of new varieties. I noticed that their fruits sit heavy on the ground and are more likely to rot. My tomatoes have an arching trait to the stems, and thick stems, which keeps the tomatoes out of the dirt so they are less likely to rot. I have been inadvertently selecting for tomatoes that don't rot when grown sprawling, and so have my neighbors since before I was born.
I believe that by the time a tomato gets the slightest blush of color to it, that it has stopped receiving nutrients from the plant. So I pick at first blush, and let fruits ripen on a table. That greatly increases the percentage of #1 fruit that I am able to harvest. If I wait till they are dead ripe in the field then the pests and micro-organisms have a feast. I can't tell a difference in taste.
I don't know if it would actually work, but I have okra and tomatoes planted in the same bed this year and those okra plants look like they would maybe support some tomato vines. They are certainly pretty tough, and standing about 5 feet tall right now, though I think the tomatoes would try to smother them if they were mixed (presently the tomato plants are trellised along the north side of the bed). Maybe find a cherry tomato variety that doesn't grow so large (a 'patio' type), and that would have the best chance of success?
Getting away from annuals may be the best bet. I could really envision a tomato growing up into a a pine tree or over a dogwood or plum thicket...though I have to say, I've never actually seen it.
I'm growing tomatoes in the ground for the first time, having only grown them in pots or grow bags in the past. Compared to the spindly, anaemic things I've had before these look fantastic.
I have them planted on the sunny side of a row of globe artichokes, which are providing some support. If I were fussy I might get some twine and actually tie them up, but they are doing pretty well as they are. No fruit has ripened yet, but there is no sign of rot on the plants despite a damp climate.
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I grow current tomatoes in my asparagus beds and let them scramble up through my asparagus tops so I can get a second crop out of my asparagus beds. The presence of the tomatoes has no adverse effect on the asparagus yields. Also underplant strawberries in the asparagus beds.
A few observations:
1. Pokeweed seems to work fine as a living tomato support.
2. Sunflowers didn't work for me as tomato supports.
3. The tomatoes rambling along the ground ripen faster that those on trellises.
4. My sample was small, and mostly just a grab bag of heirloom tomato plants I started this winter, stuck in the ground, and then ignored until harvest.
5. The tomatoes rambling near the ground were on smallish raised beds with some wood buried in them - roughly 3 years old and lots of polyculture.
Where I live in southern Ohio a big part of the staking of tomatoes is all about air flow.
I have grown tomatoes on utility fencing and t-posts many times.
When I over plant and have too dense of tomato vines I get a lot of rot.
I get similar results when they grow along the ground.
A key seems to be temperature and how long high moisture conditions exist on the skin of the tomato or leaf.
Good air flow seems to reduce the period of high moisture.
It seems that maintaining moisture levels in soil prevents a number of tomato issues.
You want good drainage and do not want major fluctuations in soil moisture because it can lead to tomato cracking.
Above ground you really want conditions that promote dry tomatoes and leaves.
So in my area,staked raised beds or tubs, along with drip irrigation seems to be the ticket.
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