Ushering in February with amazing and consistent weather this year. We've noticed that most gardens are bursting with lush, quick growth. Now is the time to focus on managing your plants by harvesting often, pruning, trellising and keeping up with continued fertility and succession planting.
Most people in South Florida plant tomatoes in the Fall, right around October or November as soon as the humidity drops a little bit. By February those tomato plants should be like, huge. Tomatoes are probably one of the hardest crops to manage because they are so "weedy". They grow fast and get very bushy when they have adequate sun exposure and other needs like regular watering and fertile soil. In our gardening workshops we always make sure to go in depth about tomato pruning because once they get out of control it can be very intimidating to make sense of the jungly mess they tend to create. Tomatoes make new branches at every node, which means they exponentially get more and more dense if they aren't pruned.
Trellising is important for keeping your plants happy and disease free, and for making harvesting easier. The tomato cages you can buy at home improvement stores are the WORST option for trellising your indeterminate heirloom variety. They are designed for keeping determinate tomatoes upright and organized; determinate tomatoes are bushes rather than vines. Heirloom tomatoes and many other popular varieties are indeterminate, which refers to the vining type.
The most common way we see tomatoes trellised at other farms isn’t entirely useful for home gardening or at our farm because they involve hanging strings from the rafters of a greenhouse. Most tomatoes are grown in greenhouses in the north because they need the extra warmth, but it's still an interesting technique to know about; its principles can be useful. The string is cut to a length longer than the floor to ceiling height, the extra is coiled at the top. The tomato is tied to the string and vigorously pruned to become either one or two leader growing tips, which are either pinned, tied or wound around the string. Pruning is key for this technique, and for all trellising. NO farms just let their tomatoes run wild! The rule of thumb is that all greenery below the first flowers are pruned off, to prevent soil born diseases, and all new suckers are clipped so that the plant can focus its energy on the leaders you have allowed to grow. Professional greenhouse growers like this technique because it allows your tomatoes to grow UP very high, making the most use of valuable space in a greenhouse.
The “FLORIDA WEAVE” is a very popular method for small farms and giant farms alike. Home gardeners can use it too since it doesn’t involve any complicated construction. Materials are simply a spool of thick twine (we prefer sisal twine because it's biodegradable and can go into the compost along with your plants at the end of the season), and posts called “T-posts” that can be bought at a hardware store. T-posts are manufactured for temporary fencing and can be driven easily into the ground with a “post driver” (a tool made specifically for driving these posts into the ground). These posts are made of steel so once the initial investment is made each year they can be removed and reused. As the tomatoes grow, lengths of twine are woven around them, in a simple 8 pattern, being secured by the posts, which are driven into the ground every 3 plants (see image below). Aggressive pruning is still recommended to avoid plants becoming monsters. The more bushy your tomato forest is, the easier it will be for bugs and diseases to flourish.
Another popular home garden method is one where an upside down V shape is made on either side of the tomatoes and a pole is laid in the crux of the V horizontally. That horizontal pole becomes the support for strings for trellising your plants. The structural upside down V must be very securely put into the ground and all joints must be reinforced; you would be surprised at how heavy tomato plants can be when mature and full of fruit.
It's totally fun to get creative and trellis tomatoes on arbors, arches or another other structure you might already have or would like to set up in your garden. Maybe consider a "tomato tunnel" which is basically an arch of any size, but preferably an arch large enough to walk under with tomatoes planted on either side or even just one side. Tomatoes won't climb on their own, you will need to tie them periodically to the structure, but that's easy enough! Make sure to prune as you go, although tomato tunnels are a bit more forgiving when it comes to pruning because there is so much space for them to fill and you'll want the tunnel to get a bit "bushy". Tunnels can also be planted with any vining plants, like cucumbers or pole beans (although keep in mind these are short term crops so you'll have a super cool tunnel for a few weeks and then you'll need to clear them off and plant something new) and gourds are fun because the heavy fruit hang down into the tunnel.
Indeterminate tomatoes need to be properly pruned in order to produce maximum fruit and stay healthy through the season. Your pruning technique will depend on your trellising, however you can follow these basic pruning rules.
Each tomato plant should have two main growing shoots that will become the main stems or “leaders” for all growth. “Side shoots” or “suckers” will grow from in-between the leaf and the stem, and need to be snipped or pinched off the plant when it is small and young. During the tomatoes main growth stage we prune our tomatoes once a week to make sure we remove all suckers before they grow too large. Suckers will also grow from the base of the plant and should be removed. Here are some diagrams for reference.
Tomatoes aren't the only ones getting big and kind of out of control this time of year. Herbs and leafy greens also grow fast and tend to start overlapping and smothering each other, sometimes causing issues. When plants are crowded they can create damp shady habitats where insects, funguses and bacteria thrive. Pests also have an easier time going from one plant to the other when the leaves are touching and overlapping a lot. Don't get me wrong, overgrown gardens are beautiful and lush growth is a sign that things are going well, but now is the time to be vigilant and get in there to manage your plants.
We try to encourage people to harvest heavy when their greens and herbs are so big that they are overlapping. Something to keep in mind is that most greens are what is referred to as "cut-and-come-again". This means that you'll harvest about half of the leaves (usually harvest the outer leaves because new growth comes from the center of the plant) and a week or two later your plants will be bushy again. The average kale plant can be harvested almost weekly once it's established. Same goes for lettuces, arugula, chard and collard greens. Even if you're not going to eat all of your greens, it's a good idea to routinely thin them out by cutting the lower outer leaves. Think of it as giving the plants some breathing room! You can either compost them, give them away, make a pesto and freeze them or donate them to someone with chickens or bunnies.
Herbs should most definitely be cut often, especially tender greens like dill, parsley, basil and cilantro. Go crazy and add lots and lots of herbs to your salads for an herbaceous flavor bomb of a salad. You can even make a salad of just chopped herbs! The more you harvest them the more they'll grow back with fresh new tender growth, which is the yummiest stage of most herbs and greens. You don't want to wait until your kale or your parsley is huge, tough and bitter. Harvesting often ensures you're always eating fresh growth, which is tender, sweeter and easier to chew.
Quick note about fertility. Many gardeners make the mistake of thinking that adding compost or organic granular fertilizer once during fall planting is enough for an abundant garden all year but that is very false! We add fertility to the gardens we maintain and our nursery plants once every 2 weeks using a water soluble fertilizer like fish & kelp emulsion or a powdered equivalent. Our favorite products are the following: Sustaine Flourish and Neptune's Harvest Fish and Seaweed Emulsion, both available on our website, but also searchable in google and available in many places.
Both can be mixed in a watering can or in a “hose end sprayer” and you just water your garden like you usually would, but the water is spiked with nutrients. Water soluble fertility is unique in that the plants can absorb the nutrients via their leaves and root systems, instead of just their roots.