Archive for Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Vegetable gardeners know what’s at stake

April 18, 2001


How individual vegetable gardeners lay out their growing space usually is a mix of tradition, idiosyncrasy and practicality. I liken it to organizing kitchen cupboards. The parts of my method that weren't borrowed from my mother evolved from personal preference and convenience.

The same pseudo-rules apply to how we go about planting vegetables. The only reason one method is bad is if the vegetables fail to thrive. Otherwise, whatever makes you happy is the right way to do it.

I have been particularly struck over the years when gardeners swear that their own approach is the best way. Yet having been invited into a number of gardens, I can tell you that everyone does it a little differently.

Take tomatoes, for instance. To the nongardener, how a tomato vine is planted in one garden may not look a whole lot different from the method used in the garden next door. We gardeners know better.

Not only do individual tomato growers lay out their plots differently, but their choices of support vary as well. Many traditional row gardeners grow their tomato plants in a straight line next to 5- or 6-foot mesh fencing lashed to those green metal fence posts you can buy at the lumber yard or the farm supply store. As the plants grow, they can climb the fence, secured by twine or long twist ties supplied, and periodically moved, by the gardener.

I've also seen tomato plants climbing fences improvised using twine webbed between upright supports, although I've questioned the stability of such an arrangement particularly given the violent winds that often accompany spring and summer storms in this part of the country.

Some gardeners stake individual tomato plants, either in rows or in squares. They also have to tie the plants to the stakes and move the ties as the plants grow.

Many gardeners, myself included, use cages for support. There's no twine or twist ties to mess with and all you have to do is move the branches up the cage.

The rule on cages is the sturdier, the better. For that reason, I have made my own from the 5-foot-wide reinforcing mesh used in concrete construction. The 5-inch square holes are large enough to pick tomatoes through and the wire is sturdy enough to support the weight of a tomato plant growing out of the top of the cage.

It takes 5 running feet of mesh to make one cage. Mine are lashed together with the wire ends that remain when you cut off a piece of mesh. I then use wire to lash the cages to stakes three to a plant driven into the ground. If staked properly, these cages will stand up to a rampaging Kansas thunderstorm.

I became committed to this type of cage after seeing how a thriving tomato plant can buckle the ready-made cages that are sold in garden stores and catalogs. The most pitiful are those wobbly funnel-shaped things that only stand about 3 feet high.

A close second for lack of practical utility are the square collapsible cages, which also are too short and usually made of wire too flimsy to support a healthy vine.

Whether your plants are caged, staked or fenced, they should be spaced 3 feet apart to allow for good air circulation, which evaporates moisture and discourages disease and fungus. For the same reason, leaves should not touch the ground.

When they set their tomato plants into the ground, some gardeners simply dig a hole and plop them in. This probably works just fine. However, here are a couple of tricks that can optimize your chances for growing vines sturdy enough and so laden with fruit that they will flatten a store-bought tomato cage.

For each plant, dig a hole at least 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep. If you're going to use single stakes for support, have those in place before you put the seedlings in the ground. You won't do your plants any favors if you run stakes through their roots later.

Fill the hole with water and let it sink all the way into the ground below. Meanwhile, break up the dirt removed from the hole and mix in a little compost or tomato starter. When the water disappears, fill the hole halfway with dirt.

Pinch one, possibly two sets of leaves near the bottom of the seedling and lay the plant in the hole on its side. Gently bend the stem upward so that the remaining leaves are just above ground level. Replace the remaining dirt and pack it lightly.

Tomato plants grow roots out of the stem. By placing more stem below ground, you increase the likelihood that the plant will develop a strong root structure early in its growing life.

Carve a small trench a few inches deep into the dirt just inside the circumference of the hole. Water the plant thoroughly once again. Wait a few days until the ground is partly dried to stake your fence or cages, but be sure to position the stakes away from the plants.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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