Pruning tomatoes grown vertically in a Mittleider garden
Pruning tomatoes in a Mittlieder garden is an absolute necessity. Tomatoes are grown vertically with the plants just a mere nine inches apart. If they aren’t pruned they can quickly become a tangled mess. But with proper pruning and keeping them trained up the proper bailing twine you can have a LOT of tomatoes in just a little space.
I’ve made a YouTube video on pruning tomatoes in your Mittleider garden when you’re growing vertically. You will find the video at the bottom of this blog entry.
Where to begin with pruning
First, anything touching the soil or hanging below your automated watering system, if you’ve got it, needs to be removed from the plant. Leaves that touch the soil provide cover for insects and an easy access onto the plant. Leaves that are kept moist by touching the soil are also prone to disease such as blight.
Prune any leaves below the fruit
As the tomato sets fruit you can prune any leaves that are below them. Pruning those leaves which are below the fruit sets on your tomato helps to open up the area at the soil level for applying weekly feed. Pruning the older growth also helps stimulate the plant to grow up and continue to set more fruit.
My favorite pruners for tomatoes
We have tried several different methods and tools for pruning tomatoes. Hands down the best tool I’ve found for pruning properly is the Fiskars Softouch Micro-Tip Pruning Snip. The short blades on this snip make pruning suckers easy and keep you from accidentally removing extra inadvertently. The thin point on the end makes pruning suckers close to the stem very easy.
Watch how to prune tomatoes
For the visual learner I’ve made a video on how to prune tomatoes grown vertically in a Mittleider garden. You get to see some pruning done shortly after transplanting and up through various stages of growth.
We know the owners of this geothermal greenhouse located in NW Missouri and I get to go over and poke my head inside from time. It seemed like a terrific idea and I was excited to even go watch it going up.
Yesterday we went by while we in the area to peek inside the geothermal greenhouse. I was amazed with the progress of the plants inside. These tomatoes, 5 different varieties if I remember correctly, were planted back in the first week of April. They’re easily 3 times the size of my own tomatoes that are growing outdoors.
About this greenhouse
This greenhouse is a Mittleider design as seen in the Mittleider Gardening Course book.
Growing tomatoes vertically in a Mittleider garden
We’ve got half a bed of tomatoes in the garden that needed twine to train them to grow vertically. The tomatoes are planted 9 inches apart and alternate which direction they will be trained to grow. Growing them this way ensures they will get adequate light and space when pruned properly.
We will also be growing other things vertically in this manner such as cucumbers, squash, pole beans and melons.
Growing tomatoes vertically with either t-posts or a-frames
So what do you need to grow those tomatoes vertically? First of all, you are going to need a structure that is capable of supporting the weight of the plants and the fruit that they will eventually bare. It is built from treated lumber comprised to 2x4s and 4x4s.
For the gardener who decides to grow a single row of vertical crops you will need to build a t-frame. The Mittleider Gardening Course book discusses building t-frames on page 132 and has illustrations of them on page 278.
You can see the A-frames we built over our 18 inch grow boxes in this video:
What twine do I need?
The twine you need for growing tomatoes vertically needs to be rated at 170 pounds or better. The common 110 pound is cheaper and often more readily found on shelves, yet it is too small in diameter and will end up killing your tomatoes.
To help identify the correct twine for growing vertically in your garden look at the package. you will see numbers similar to “9600/170” That means that on one roll there is 9,600 feet of that twine which is rated to support 170 pounds. Do NOT settle for the 110 stuff.
Here in our garden we use Tytan International twine. It is orange in color and is generally sold in a two pack. Especially relevant in your choice of twine is something that is UV stabilized. UV Stabilization helps ensure your twine can be used year after year and won’t breakdown under frequent exposure to the sunlight. Rather than replacing twine every year buy something UV stabilized.
This is a picture of what we use in our garden.
Rather than buying this online you can try and source it locally at a farm store. In my area we have Orscheln’s, $31.99 at Tractor Supply and even grain elevators and Coops that sell grain and other ranch supplies to farmers.
Our average last day of frost has passed for the spring and we are full on in garden mode. Today we pruned up a mess of the tomatoes we started from seeds under grow lights and have begun transplanting them into the garden. The next week is going to be busy for us
They get pruned fairly heavily before transplanting, here are some pictures before and after pruning. When transplanting they go as deep as possible, each of those root hairs on the stem will become a new root to feed the plant and fruit.
Why should you prune a tomato before transplanting?
Pruning of tomato seedlings is done for a couple of reasons. Firstly, by pruning off all the lower leaves the gardener can transplant the tomato deeper into the soil. All the root hairs on the stem that are below the soil can then become a root to provide water and nutrients to your plant.
As a result of that tomato seedling having fewer leaves to support it will come out of the shock of transplant sooner. A plant that is in shock is not growing.
A look at tomato seedlings before and after pruning
Here are two series of photos that show a before and after picture of our tomato seedlings.
Here is another plant before and after pruning.
All these were started in sand and sawdust and will be grown in the same custom soil mix. We will be putting more tomatoes in our native soil later.
Our favorite tool for pruning tomato seedlings
We have used our fingers, scissors and even a kitchen knife to prune seedlings. After many different tools being used the tool I found most noteworthy is the Fiskars Micro-tip pruning snip. The blades are short and help to keep you from accidentally removing more of the plant than intended. (Normal scissors worked great, but I always ended up cutting off something I didn’t want removed.) The Fiskars have a handy spring in it that opens the blades after you make a cut and loosen your grip on the handle. We liked this set so well we bought an extra just in case.
Today we noticed a phosphate deficiency in some of our tomato seedlings. This particular deficiency manifests itself in a tomato plant on the underside of the leaf. You will see a purple color on the underside of the leaf while the top is the normal green. Here is an example.
The underside of each tomato leaf in these seedlings were all showing the same symptoms
Corrective action for a phosphate deficiency
Now that you have identified the deficiency it is actually easy to correct. My preferred correction is made with an application of 1/4 ounce per linear foot of 0-45-0. It is more commonly known as triple super phosphate.
How long will it take to correct the phosphate deficiency?
Often your deficiency will begin to get better within a few days as a result of you applying a correction of the phosphorus. Be sure you remember to water the triple super phosphate in with a watering wand. You want to make certain that the phosphate gets down to the roots where the plant can utilize it.
If after a week you don’t see any change give it another correction and consider other problems.
Is triple super phosphate organic?
Absolutely. Rest easy, if you’re striving to stay organic you’re good to go.
Any gardener who has grown tomatoes know how destructive the horn worm can be in your tomatoes. If not caught in time these little green eating monsters can destroy your tomato crop. Fortunately if you find them early they are easy to control.
We weren’t in the garden for about 4 days and I missed the signs of horn worms until they had done some serious damage. We went through our plants and plucked off any horn worm caterpillars we spotted.
When you spot hornworms
As soon as you see them, or their droppings, examine your plants and remove any of the caterpillars you can find. Dispose of them accordingly. They blend in amazingly well and several are going to be missed. Any missed will be controlled with the BT
Bacillus Thuricide to control hornworms
The name may sound intimidating, but BT is actually a bacteria and is absolutely organic. Gardening stores will often carry it or you can get it from Amazon.
We like to mix up a gallon of it at a time in an inexpensive little sprayer like in this picture below. It cost us about $12 and is on its third season.
As a slight aside, I would recommend writing the contents of the sprayer on its side with a good permanent marker. We also have a dedicated set of cheap kitchen measuring devices dedicated to just our garden.
After the BT is mixed according to the instructions bottle simply apply a heavy mist to all the leaves on your tomatoes. The caterpillar will eat the leaf, ingest the BT, and will die within 24 hours. Generally I find them hanging dead the next morning.
In this picture below you see one of the large hornworms I missed when picking them by hand. Often times you will also see them hanging after they have turned a dark brown color. You can leave them or toss them into the yard.
You can be proactive
Instead of waiting until you see these destructive caterpillars to apply BT you can head them off at the pass. Weekly I try and apply BT to all our plants. While utilizing this defensive measure in our tomatoes the hornworms just don’t survive long enough after hatching to do much damage.
Video on using BT
Towards the end of this video you can see what their frass looks like. You will find it at the base of the plants and is an indication that you’ve got tomatoes being destroyed by this insect.
The tomatoes are transplanted into our little Mittleider in garden green house. Recently we started the process of growing vertically to maximize the space and production of tomatoes. In the picture below you will see the heavy square baling twine we use to grow vertically.
All the tomatoes are grown in one row with 9 inches of space between them. The twine is tied off at the bottom on a wire attached to our t-posts. The wire runs the length of the grow box and is 3 1/2″ above the grow box. At the top of the t-posts are two more heavy gauge wires running the length of the grow beds. We then alternate every other tomato plant and use a releasing knot to train the tomatoes to grow away from one another and maximize space. This ensure they get maximum air and sunlight. In this picture below you can see the “V” pattern formed with the twine. You’ll also notice extra twine hanging from the top. This allows me to lower the plant as we pick all the tomatoes from the bottom and the plant has grown all the way to that top wire. And if you do your part they will grow that tall.
In the bottom picture you see where the twine is tied to the bottom heavy gauge wire. If you tie the twine to the tomato plant you risk damaging it in two ways. As the tomato grows the stem is going to get thicker. If your twine is tied to it you risk the chance of strangling the tomato. Additionally, if you’re tied off at the plant you risk damaging or even pulling out the tomato if something or someone pulls on the twine.
When wrapping the twine It’s important to wrap the twine around the plant and not the plant around the twine. By doing the later you risk damaging your tomato plant. Also, as you wrap towards the top take extra care not to damage or break off the growing rip, also known as the terminal bud. Doing so I’ll stop the growth of your plant. I stop sever inches short of the terminal bud to ensure that the twine doesn’t damage it.
You can also grow other crops vertically such as crooked neck squash, eggplants, cucumbers and even melons. We will have posts on growing the vertically in the future.
These tomatoes are being grown vertically as part of the Mittlieder Gardening Method in Kidder, MO. They’re pruned and wound around heavy bailing twine to maximize the sunlight and air to the plants while making it easy to harvest. No wire cages to fight here! The 2×4 is just over 7 feet from the ground. Some of those tomato plants are 10 feet tall.
This week I’ve been attending a Mittleider gardening course and have had the opportunity see the system implemented and learn so much. I will have many more Mittleider posts in the future as I convert my traditional garden to a Mittlieder
Our quest to be self reliant and grow a healthy garden