I was really, really hoping that I had a few more weeks before I had to finish up this post, but unfortunately for many here in Minnesota, the potential to see our first frost in the next day or two is looking more and more likely. Fortunately, frost in the forecast doesn’t necessary mean the garden season is coming to an abrupt end. With a little effort and a few basic supplies, you can cover up your plants to protect your garden from frost and keep it growing for several more weeks.
When to Cover
Predicting frost can be a little tricky at times. As accurate as weather forecasts can be, they are not always perfect. We’ve all experienced days where the actual temperature has fallen a bit short or exceeded the projected high, so it goes without saying that the same can happen when the weather models are forecasting the overnight lows. There are also a lot of local environmental variables that can make the actual temperature in your garden a few degrees warmer or colder than the surrounding area, making it possible to experience frost in your garden even when the forecasted low is higher than 32 degrees and no frost or freeze advisories have been issued.
A difference of just a few degrees can make a pretty big difference when you’re hovering close to freezing, which is why it’s important to know the conditions that increase your chances of frost:
- Clear Skies: Clouds act as a blanket, holding the heat of the day in the atmosphere and keeping temperatures more even overnight. When skies are clear, that heat is more readily lost, and overnight temperatures tend to dip lower.
- Low Humidity: The more moisture there is in the air, the easier it is for the air to maintain daytime temperatures. When the dew point is at 45 or less, frost is more likely.
- Still Air: Cold air is heavier than warm air, so on nights when there is no breeze to keep the air moving, the cold air settles on the ground and increases the chances of frost.
- Location: Along the same lines, if your garden is situated in a low spot or at the bottom of the hill, it is more susceptible to frost than gardens that are situated on higher ground. Similarly, gardens with southern exposure retain more heat during the day than gardens with northern exposure.
There are a number of factors related to your specific micro-climate that can come into play as well, like tree cover, proximity to bodies of water or other heat-retaining features of the landscape, and urban density.
As a general rule, I tend to pay close attention whenever I see the forecast call for a low of 40 or lower. For me, that’s the “too close for comfort” threshold, and the point at which I find myself really evaluating if extra precaution is necessary. At 40 degrees, I may or may not decide to cover the garden, depending on the conditions and details of the forecast, but when the low gets within about 5 degrees of freezing, I usually go ahead and cover the garden no matter what, because I’d rather be safe than sorry.
It is also important to look beyond the immediate forecast for frost and see what the long-term forecast is looking like. If it appears that temperatures are going to rebound, it can be worth your time to cover the most vulnerable plants in your garden, but if the long term forecast shows little chance for a return to good growing conditions, you may want to weigh your options to simply harvest what you can and let the rest go.
What to Cover
Knowing how to quickly triage your garden when frost is forecast can be a huge time and energy saver, particularly if your garden is so large that it is not possible to protect everything from frost.
Plants that always need protection from frost are your tender plants, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, cucumbers, melons, squash, onions, and most herbs. These plants have a lower tolerance for cold temperatures and are likely to sustain frost damage even from a very light frost.
Plants that are more tolerant of frost include: kale, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, parsnips, carrots, spinach, lettuce, chard, beets, turnips, and celery. These cold hardy vegetables will often bounce back from a light frost as if nothing ever happened, and often can survive uncovered until you are facing a hard frost (when the temperature drops below 25 degrees and stays below 25 degrees for several hours).
What should you skip, if you can’t cover everything? Skip the rhubarb, strawberries, and any other perennial fruit or vegetable that has already produced its crop for the year. These plants have already stored up nutrients for next year, and there is really no advantage to keeping them going a few more weeks. Likewise, skip any plants that have significantly slowed in production or quality. The small number of extra beans or one more cucumber that you might be able to harvest in the next few weeks is probably not worth the effort at this point in the season, whereas a tomato plant loaded with lots of green tomatoes might still have a chance at ripening a good number of fruit.
What Kind of Cover to Use
The best covers for your garden are lightweight fabric, like sheets, light blankets, and burlap. Heavier cloth like canvas tarps, drop cloths, or comforter-style blankets can also be used, but it it might be a good idea to use some sort of support to help bear the weight so as not to crush or damage the plants. You can also use newspaper or large pots to cover low to the ground plants.
These materials are ideal because they are breathable, and they easily insulate your garden by trapping a layer of warm air around the plant.
The use of plastic sheets or plastic tarps should be avoided unless you are able to utilize supports to tent the plastic over the plants without the plastic coming into contact with the foliage. Plastic acts as a conduit for cold temperatures, and if the plastic is in direct contact with the plant, you are likely to see damage to the leaves because there is no layer of air between the plant and the plastic to insulate from those cold temperatures. The moisture that can become trapped underneath the plastic can be problematic for this reason as well.
Plastic can, however, be used as a secondary layer, placed over a first layer of cloth covers if wet weather is anticipated along with the frost.
How to Cover:
If possible, water your garden really well the morning before frost is predicted. Wet soil will hold more heat than dry soil, and you want to capture as much daytime heat as you can when frost is in the forecast (mulching your garden can have the same effect).
Wait to cover your garden until the sun starts to get low in the sky and is no longer having a heating effect on the garden. Ideally, you want to cover the garden before the sun sets, so you have enough light to ensure that everything is properly covered, but I have certainly spent more than a few nights in the garden with a flashlight, frantically covering everything in the dark, so ultimately you do what you need to do when the tomato crop is at stake!
Start by draping the fabric over the plants, making sure that there is enough material to reach all the way to the ground. This is important because the soil is where most of your heat is stored, and you want that heat to help warm the pocket of air you are creating around the plants with your covers. Overlap your covers as necessary to make sure that there are no gaps where heat can escape and cold air can settle in.
Once everything is covered, start to tuck the covers in around the edges. Fold the material around the plants, and tuck it in at ground level to ensure that all of the foliage is under cover. You don’t want to pull the material in too close to the base of the plant, but rather let it naturally fall straight down to maximize the benefit of the heat that the soil has retained throughout the day. As necessary, use rocks, bricks, or other heavy weights to hold the bottom of your material in place and to prevent the covers from blowing open or off in the wind. Clothes pins can also come in handy to keep two pieces of material together or to secure a piece of material to the top of a tomato cage or fence.
It is safe to uncover your plants as soon as the temperature warms back up above freezing. This usually happens within an hour or two of sunrise, but it can take longer, depending on how low the temperature dropped overnight. Obviously the air flow and sunlight are good for the plant, but more importantly, you want the plant and the ground underneath it to start warming up as quickly as possible.
However, if you are like me and usually leave for work in the morning before the sun rises, it is better to just leave the covers in place than to risk taking them off too soon. When conditions are favorable for frost, the temperature usually continues to drop until just after sunrise. Leaving your plants covered all day isn’t ideal, but it’s not really going to seriously harm your plants either if it’s just for a day or two. As long as you are using light fabric covers, enough air and light can pass through that the plant will survive; you just won’t see the ground or the plant warm up as quickly. If you are using plastic covers, it is more critical to remove the covers, or at the very least vent the covers to allow for air flow.
Finally, allow the covers to dry out before returning them to storage, but don’t put them too far out of reach just yet. This time of year the forecast can change quickly, and you never know when you might need to protect the garden from frost!
As you may recall, back in June I created a squash garden out of an underutilized space behind the storage shed in our backyard. It was an idea that had been brewing in my mind since late last fall, and after making the decision to forego a community garden plot this summer, the idea quickly began to take shape.
In many ways, the garden has turned out exactly as I had hoped. The above photo that I posted to Instagram a couple of weeks ago is exactly what I imagined on those now-distant winter nights in front of a stack of seed catalogs. I love the lush look and feel of the vines as they meander about the garden, and the stray vine here and there that makes a run up the fence or the side of the storage shed. In most places, you can’t even see the mulch-covered ground. I have to carefully check under the leaves before I take each step to make sure I’m not walking on the vines or a little pumpkin.
There have been no shortage of squash blossoms this summer. Within a few weeks of getting the squash garden in, the male blossoms started to appear, attracting all manner of pollinators to the garden. I’ve seen a good number of honey and bumble bees, which is always good, but perhaps more interesting is the diversity of native bees in our backyard that I have not noticed until this year, which is also good news!
But here is where the story of the perfect squash garden takes a couple of twists.
The first challenge I encountered was dealing with the healthy slug population in this corner of the yard. I knew they were an issue in the strawberry patch during berry season, but I had assumed (incorrectly) that the wood chip mulch would be rough enough that they wouldn’t travel too much throughout the squash garden. I noticed a little damage on some of the gourd plants one morning, but didn’t think it looked too bad, so I decided to keep an eye on it. A few more nights passed and the damage was increasing, and they even started to go after some of the little pumpkins that were forming, so I did what any good gardener does in this situation: I grabbed a beer!
The beer and a few shallow plastic containers from the recycling bin took care of the issue pretty easily. I dug down into the wood chips so the lip of the container was at ground level and the slugs could easily belly up to the bar. Then I filled them with some cheap beer. After the first night the traps were absolutely full of slugs. It was disgusting, but don’t worry, I didn’t photograph that. I dumped them out, reset the containers, and refilled the traps with more beer and repeated this process for a good week until the traps were eventually only getting one or two slugs a night.
There are still a few slugs to be found out there, but they are no longer doing quite as much damage as they were earlier in the season. I’ve been reading that it is probably a good idea to treat this entire area with some slug bait (Sluggo is the most commonly recommended brand for organic gardens) later this fall, once all of the vines have been pulled. This should reduce the number of slugs next spring and make management even easier next year.
With the slugs under control, I was ready to start watching some pumpkins grow! With lots of female blossoms popping up, and a lot of pollinator activity, I was seeing new pumpkins set every day.
They would grow to about the size of a grapefruit, so big, so beautiful and full of promise, and then…
Total squash garden carnage. Every single one, every single time.
I have a hunch the squirrels are to blame, but I guess I can’t rule out the possibility that is some other equally annoying critter tearing into my squash. Either way, I’m kind of at a loss as to how to protect my squash. I’ve tried putting small sections of chicken wire around the little squash, but no matter how I position it, the squash still vanish. I have no idea how to keep whatever it is out of such a large area, so if you have any experience with this kind of garden defense, please let me know!
The only exception is the gourds. They either are not nearly as appealing to the critters as the squash and pumpkins, or they just haven’t found them yet, because I have a good number of these cute little crook neck gourds on one end of the squash garden. I saved the seed from several interesting looking grocery store gourds Mike picked up last fall to decorate our front steps, so it has been fun to see which ones I ended up with.
As for the squash and pumpkins, they aren’t giving up yet. The vines are still healthy and vigorous, and they continue to set pumpkins, even though we are quickly running out of days to reach maturity. Right now there about three squash looking really promising, and so far, no squirrel or slug damage. Depending on how the fall goes, I think it’s possible that I could still see some mature squash, but it’s hard to say.
All in all, a bit of a mixed bag for the first year of the squash garden, but at least there have been some good lessons learned that will help with future squash-growing endeavors. Perhaps next year will be there year I dazzle you with my abundant squash harvest!
I know I say it every year, but this year it seems more tangible than ever: the summer is just flying by! I feel like I have so much to catch up on, and so little time to do it before things really start to turn towards fall. It’s been a crazy summer for us, but I fear that if I don’t start to put some of these moments out there now, I never will, so without further ado, here are some short tales about what’s going on in my garden lately:
The biggest story of the summer has been the slow pace of the tomatoes. I wrote more extensively about this in my last post, but last week I’m pretty sure I actually gasped out loud when I saw the first Opalka starting to turn. The next day there was another tomato turning on the Striped Roman plant, and the next day, an Amish Paste. By Friday morning, the hot and steamy stormy weather we’ve had all week had given way to a fall chill, but I harvested two ripe tomatoes to make up for the fact that I had to grab a sweater for my morning garden walk.
A quick programming note: for those of you keeping track, I’m aiming to have Salsa Week (which is normally the first week of September) start in another week.
Despite the lack of heat this summer, the peppers have actually done quite well. I’m still waiting for all my drying peppers (Cayenne and Clykon) and really hot peppers (Habanero and Fatalii) to start turning color, but I have a good supply of Jalapenos, Anaheims, and even a few red Black Hungarians this time around. Even my poor Joe’s Round (pictured) have made a remarkable turn around after some pretty severe bunny damage earlier this spring. I just hope there’s enough heat left in the growing season to finish them off! If not, I think this might be a good year to experiment with overwintering a potted pepper plant in the basement.
September means sunflowers, and thankfully these beauties are on time this year. I planted a row of them along our storage shed this year, and it has been fun to watch the assortment of colors and textures appear. I’ve been very encouraged by the number of pollinators I’ve observed around the garden this summer. We’ve had a good number of honey bees, native bees, and wasps visiting the blooms in the garden. I’m also really excited about the number of monarch butterflies that have visited the garden this year!
The winged creature I am less excited to see in greater numbers this year is the cabbage moths. I’m sure they have quite enjoyed the large, dense planting of broccoli, kale, and cabbage. All in all, things are looking pretty good though – particularly the oxheart-shaped Cour di Bue cabbage above. I really love the shape! Now I just need to figure out how you know when to harvest a head of cabbage…
I’d like to think that the influx of pollinators is at least in part due to my initial efforts at creating a pollinator garden. It’s still a work in progress, but the vision is slowly starting to take shape! I plan to do an update post on this project in the near future (as well as an update on the squash garden, too!). The zinnias have been one of my favorite components; I already have my eye on a few of my favorites for seed saving, including this one and the buttery yellow one I featured in another post not that long ago.
Despite the slow-to-ripen tomatoes and peppers, harvesting has actually been fairly steady this summer. Lots of cucumbers, greens, scallions, raspberries, basil, and other herbs. The ground cherries and tomatillos are just starting to ripen. I had completely forgotten just how fragrant ground cherries are! I’m trying to save up a good number for a couple of recipes I want to try, but it’s hard not to taste test a few in the garden! I also harvested the first round of dry beans this week. The Lina Cisco’s Bird Egg beans yielded nicely (though the rainy weather did cause a few beans to start sprouting in the pods – oops!) and I can’t wait to cook with these beauties this winter.
Finally, I want to give a formal welcome to all of the new readers! Last Friday, Tumblr made Sweet Domesticity a featured blog, which resulted in over 10,000 new followers in less than a week! I know it’s been a quieter than normal summer around the blog, and I am humbled by the rate at which the followers on the blog and the various social media sites continues to grow. I’m thankful that you take the time to read and comment, and I hope to get back to a more normal posting schedule as soon as possible.
This would probably also be a good time to point out that there are some new social media icons on the right to check out. I am now on Instagram and I’ve also added a link to the Sweet Domesticity Tumblr feed.
So enough about me, how is your garden growing this season?
Well, here we are: the last week of August and still not a single ripe tomato. Not even a sorta, kinda pink one.
Last week I started to wonder if I had inadvertently planted a whole garden of late varieties, but after a quick check of the days to maturity for each variety and a little math, I was reassured that I should have at least a few ripe tomatoes by now.
I suspect the weather has a lot to do with with my abundance of green tomatoes. The tomato plants have been setting fruit well and blight issues have been nearly non-existent, but we just haven’t had much in the way of heat this summer to push the tomatoes (and peppers) to ripen. We’ve had a few days here and there, but overall this summer has been pretty dang comfortable as far as temperature and dew point go. Great for keeping the windows open and the AC off, not so much for turning green tomatoes red, orange, yellow, and purple.
And now with September just around the corner, it’s hard not to entertain thoughts about the possibility of a light frost before I even have a chance to harvest enough tomatoes for a batch of salsa. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a warmer and later than average fall–or at least enough tomatoes and peppers to have a proper Salsa Week this year!
And so the wait continues! This year, more than ever, that first ripe tomato of the season will be sooo worth it.
In the meantime, I’m grateful that I selected quite a few bi-color tomatoes this year to keep things interesting until the green tomatoes start to turn! From top to bottom in the post: Green Zebra, Striped Roman, and Old German.
When gardeners see their favorite lettuce start to bolt, it usually means it’s time to pull it and start over with another planting, but if your favorite lettuce happens to be an open pollinated variety, it can also mean it’s time to replenish your lettuce seed supply!
I’ve made a huge effort these past few years to save more seed from my garden from year to year. I’ve written quite a lot about the various reasons why, like how I am able to free up some of my seed budget so I can try a few new heirloom tomatoes every year, and how I hope to get better results from my favorite varieties from year to year with locally-adapted seed stock, but I think it bears repeating that seed saving is worth your time, particularly if it is a variety that has a permanent place in your garden from year to year. Over the past few years, I have gradually expanding my efforts, adding two or three new seed saving projects to my repertoire each year. After falling in love with Red Romaine lettuce last fall, it was kind of a no-brainer to make saving lettuce seed one of this year’s projects.
Lettuce seed is easy to save, but it does take a little time, space, and patience. A little planning ahead can be helpful if you are limited on space. The time from when the plant bolts until you can start to harvest seed is about one month, and then the seed harvest itself can last another month. During that time you will need to be able to accommodate a lettuce plant that will grow to be several feet tall and about a foot wide. You can harvest quite a bit of seed from one plant, so most home gardeners will be able to get by with leaving a plant or two in a convenient location and pulling the rest.
Always select plants that are slow to bolt and exhibit the best qualities, so those traits will be passed on to the next generation. You also need to make sure that the lettuce is an open-pollinated variety. Seed saved from hybrid varieties tends to revert back to one of the two original varieties that were crossed to create the hybrid, and may not look, taste, or perform as well as the variety you had hoped to grow again.
As the seed stalk emerges, there will initially be a heavier concentration of buds towards the top of the stalk, but you will also start to see additional, smaller clusters of buds start to emerge further down the stalk as well, and eventually each of these clusters will open up and spread out in the circular pattern you see above.
Once the plant starts to bloom, only a few flowers will open each day for a very short time. The flowering window is short–In fact, I missed the fact my plant was blooming for almost an entire week because the flowers didn’t start to open until mid to late morning and had already closed by the time I returned home from work in the afternoon!–but it gets the job done.
Lettuce flowers are self-pollinating, so you almost never need to be concerned about cross-pollination. That said, it can happen, so if you have more than one variety of lettuce going to seed at one time, and you want to ensure that you have pure seed stock, you may wish to separate them with a barrier or a little distance for good measure.
Flowering will continue with a handful of blossoms each day, and will continue for about a month.
You will also probably notice that the lettuce leaves will have changed rather dramatically during this process. They will be very thick and tough, and will excrete a very bitter milky sap if you tear into one. They are no longer palatable, with the age of the plant and exposure to hot temperatures having turned the sap extremely bitter as the plant transitions into seed production. The bud and seed heads may also have some of this same sticky substance (you can see a few droplets of it on the bud next the flower above).
After each flower has bloomed, it will close up once again (the purple teardrop-shaped pods you see in the photos) to develop the seed heads. It takes a couple of weeks for the seed to mature after blossoming, but then, just like the flowers, you’ll start to see the pods open up and reveal the feathery seed umbrellas.
The seed pods will continue to open in the same manner in which the plants flowered, with a handful of new seed heads opening up each day over the course of about a month. There will be some overlap with the flowering time, and there will be buds, flowers, seed pods, and seed heads on the plant all at the same time.
At this point there are a number of options for harvesting the seed:
Some gardeners choose to shake the entire seed stalk into a paper bag or a bucket every few days to collect the seed. It helps to allow the seed heads to sit for a few days after opening so they become brittle enough that the seed easily sheds without too much force. It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it works pretty well.
Others wait until at least half of the seed stalk has gone to seed and then cut the entire stalk and hang it to dry before harvesting the seed (unopened seed pods will continue to mature as the plant dries, but immature buds will not bloom). I tried this with a couple of small clusters, and the key to an easy harvest is to really let the stalk dry out for a few weeks (again, let the seed heads get brittle for easy seed collecting).
But I have found that the easiest way to harvest the seed is to simply harvest the entire seed head as they ripen. I simply pluck each one off (here’s where that sticky sap will get a little annoying, but it washes off easily) and collect them in a jar where I let them continue to dry. I feel like this method gives the greatest control over the degree to which the plants self-sow in the garden (not necessarily a bad thing, but it can but a kink in next year’s garden plans) and it’s also a good way to quickly harvest whatever seed is ready if rain is in the forecast.
The final step is to clean the seed by separating the seed form the other plant material. It separates fairly easily simply by rubbing the seed heads between your fingers to open up each pod and knock the seed out. Taking the task outdoors on a day with a light breeze can also help the process along (lettuce seed is light, so avoid really windy days), as will the use of seed screens if you want to be really meticulous about separating the seed from the fluff.
Lettuce seed is dormant for the first couple of months, so immediate seeding is not recommended. Instead, store your saved lettuce seed in the same manner that you would save your extra seed packets from year to year. If stored properly, lettuce seed will remain viable for at least 5 years.
The view from the garden this morning is pretty dang perfect. Yesterday afternoon, the skies opened up and we had a wonderful soaking rain that lasted for several hours. It has been about 5 weeks since we’ve had rainfall that has amounted to anything, so I didn’t even mind that we happened to be in the middle of an outdoor concert when it happened. Today the rain-soaked garden is vibrant with over-saturated colors and alive with new energy (isn’t it amazing how one good rainfall can do more for the garden than weeks of watering?), and I have renewed hope for the gobs of green tomatoes and tiny peppers that have been in no hurry to go anywhere this summer.
Similarly, I am coming back to the blog with renewed energy after an unplanned break. Life has been busy with other obligations and priorities, and all of a sudden one week turned into two, turned into three (yikes!). I promise I will catch up on all the comments awaiting a response and all of the happenings in the garden. I have some good stuff in the works, which I will humbly offer as a small token of my huge appreciation for you bearing with me during my abrupt absence these past few weeks.
‘Tis the season…
…to pickle just about anything you can fit in a mason jar!
Got a peck of peppers? A pint of beans? A couple of cukes? Pickle ‘em up!
The beautiful thing about pickles is that they give you a lot of flexibility. You can utilize a huge variety of produce and seasonings, work in batches of any size, and choose to refrigerate, can, or ferment. Pickling is pretty much a gardener’s best friend when it comes to creatively utilizing and preserving the harvest.
Now, I will be the the first person to go and on about the wonders of pickled rhubarb or pickled radishes, but deep down, my heart really belongs to the classic dill cucumber pickle. You really can’t beat those perfect little garlicky bites–they’re packed with incredible homegrown and homemade flavor–so when the cucumbers started to come in last week, there was little doubt that a good pickle or two was in the works.
This quick dill pickle recipe is perfect for when the cucumbers are just getting started and you only have enough to fill a pint jar or two, but it could easily be adapted for larger quantities as well.
The flavor profile is pretty straight-up classic, but the mild heat from the red pepper flakes and the extra depth of flavor from using apple cider vinegar instead of plain white vinegar kicks it up a bit (a few years ago my mom wisely told me that distilled white vinegar is for cleaning and apple cider vinegar is for cooking; I’ve stayed pretty true to that advice ever since and have yet to be disappointed by the results). As it is written, this recipe is mildly spicy, but you certainly could take it further in that direction with more red pepper flakes or even mincing a whole serrano or jalapeno pepper if that’s what you have on hand.
Obviously quick pickles are not shelf stable for long-term storage, but when they taste this good, they won’t be around for longer than a week anyway!
Quick Dill Pickles
3-4 medium-sized pickling cucumbers, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh dill
2-3 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 cup apple cider vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoon mustard seed
Thinly slice cumbers and pack them into a clean pint jar. Add fresh dill and red pepper flakes and set aside while you prepare the brine.
Add the remaining ingredients to a small sauce pan and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat and pour brine into the jar until the cucumbers are covered (if it appears that you will have a little extra liquid, be sure to spoon in as much of the garlic and mustard seed as you can to maximize the flavor).
Cover the jar and set it aside to cool to room temperature, then transfer the jar into the refrigerator. Pickles are ready and tasty in as little as 1 hour, but if you wait closer to 12-24 hours, they will be even better!
Meet the Mexican Sour Gherkin, the tiniest little cucumber that you ever will see. This little female bud is only about a quarter inch long, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in vigorous growth. These petite vines have been growing and climbing like crazy! The male blossoms have been actively blooming for a few days now, and the plants are starting to set a heavy crop of female blossoms as well. It shouldn’t be too long before we get our first taste of this unique heirloom variety!
If you’re looking for a good garden debate, look no further than the question of pruning tomato plants. You’ll find no shortage of compelling arguments and strong opinions in both camps. Some gardeners swear by it, others never do it, and both get tomatoes in the end, so how do you decide if you should prune your tomato plants or not?
The good news is that pruning is neither necessary nor harmful (assuming it is done correctly, of course), so you can do it–or not–and still have a successful garden. More important than if you are on Team Prune or Team Sucker, is figuring out what works best for you and your garden.
When gardeners talk about pruning tomatoes, they’re generally talking about removing all but perhaps a small number of the “suckers” that grow where the leaves branch off of the main stem (we’ll get to low-hanging leaves and leaves that show signs of disease in a minute). These little shoots will grow leaves, suckers, and tomatoes of their own if they are allowed to continue growing. This growth pattern is what gives tomatoes their tendency to grow both up and out and eventually into a full-fledged tomato jungle.
The pruning process is pretty straight forward: if the suckers are still small and flexible, they usually just snap off cleanly with a firm grip at the base; if they are not easily snapped off, sometimes a sharp knife or pair of garden shears is necessary to get the job done. Just be sure you are not pruning out the main growth point at the top of the plant!
One of the most common things you’ll hear on the topic is that pruning will result in better tomato production, but there are studies (like this one) that suggests that all things being equal, it may not really make a difference in overall production. Pruning tomatoes can produce larger, earlier fruits, because energy that would otherwise be spent growing foliage is redirected into growing and ripening the tomatoes. However, tomato plants that have not been pruned can produce a larger number of tomatoes because there are more stems producing fruit and more leaves producing energy. In the end, a smaller number of larger tomatoes adds up to be about the same as a larger number of smaller tomatoes.
Of course in the garden, all things are rarely equal, and there are differences in growing conditions, available space, and the prevalence of pests and disease, and the issue suddenly becomes much more nuanced and pruning or not pruning can have a much bigger impact. There are short season gardeners that rely on pruning to ensure their tomatoes ripen by the end of the season and gardeners in locations that rely on un-pruned tomato foliage to protect their harvest from sun scald. Carefully pruned tomatoes make it easier to find and destroy tomato hornworms quickly. Determinate varieties only grow to a certain size and set a certain amount of fruit, so pruning is counter productive. Gardeners with big sturdy cages and lots of space might not have to worry about pruning, but small space gardeners who use stakes or twine trellises to fit it all in do.
As a gardener you really have to get to know your garden and figure out what works best for you and your goals. Are you concerned with managing Early Blight? Do you want to do things as simply and naturally as possible? Do you just really like the way a perfectly trellised row of tomatoes looks?
- To increase air flow + reduce risks for fungus/disease
- To make more efficient use of space
- To make certain types of staking and trellising easier
- It can improve production (larger, earlier tomatoes)
- To expedite ripening by forcing plant to direct energy to fruit instead of new growth
- To cull flowers + fruit that will not mature by the end of the season
- To more easily find + remove destructive pests
- To make harvesting easier
- If you are growing determinate varieties
- To allow the plant to grow naturally
- To allow more leaves to photosynthesize, producing more energy for the plant
- To avoid introducing disease through pruning wounds
- If you are using cages to support your tomato plants
- To provide protection from sun scald
- It can improve production (more tomatoes per plant)
- To keep as much healthy foliage as possible in the event diseased foliage needs to be removed
Of course the important exceptions that even avid no-pruners should make are removing the bottom leaves from the plant that come in close contact with the ground (to prevent soil-borne disease from splashing up onto the leaves) and any leaves that show signs of disease (to prevent or at least slow the further spread of disease), as this is just good practice.
My personal preference is to just let my tomatoes grow without pruning the suckers. I find it to be less fussy and In my current set up, I’ve encountered fewer problems with keeping my plants upright with the use of heavy duty cages than trying to tie everything up to a single stake. I also think it’s best to let the plant produce as much energy as possible, as the whole point of growing tomatoes is to get tomatoes, so in my mind, the more the better (and my own anecdotal experience is that size has a lot more to do with variety selection than anything else). Why mess with what Mama Nature has perfected? The other big reason I do not prune, is that Early Blight is hard to avoid in our humid summers, even with the best preventative efforts. There will come a point in the next couple of months where I’ll have to start pruning out blighted foliage, so I want to keep as much healthy foliage to maintain production and protect the tomatoes as possible.
If I had more time, or a different set up, pruning might make more sense for me, but this approach works really well for me right now. It’s manageable and it leaves time for me to enjoy my time in the garden, which is what we are all going for, right?
I’d love to hear from you: What works best for you and your garden?
A good mix of rain and sun the past few weeks has the garden growing lush by leaps and bounds, which is helping it catch up from a little later than usual start. I’m still waiting to see my first tomato blossom, but a tomatillo flower isn’t a bad consolation prize!
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