Mulching, Staking, and Pinching Your Way to Better Tomato Plants

Updated on August 31, 2018
The Dirt Farmer profile image

Jill volunteers at community gardens & learns about gardening through the MD Master Gardening Program & MD Master Naturalist Program.

Large varieties of tomato plants can produce 8 pounds of fruit or more at one time.
Large varieties of tomato plants can produce 8 pounds of fruit or more at one time. | Source

Our family's success with tomatoes has been spotty over the last four years. The first year, six plants produced so much fruit we spent days canning spaghetti sauce and freezing whole tomatoes. The second year, wilt killed every plant except a potted grape tomato. The third year, deer ate every one of our tomato plants to the ground not long after we'd set them out.

This year, we have just three plants, and they're heavy with fruit. What happened? We sprayed (and resprayed) deer repellant and chose new locations to avoid lingering nematodes. We also top-dressed with compost, staked them, and pruned them. If we'd grown more plants, we would have applied plastic mulch too.

This article will show you how to mulch, stake, and pinch your tomato plants to help them thrive,

Nothing tastes better than homegrown tomatoes!
Nothing tastes better than homegrown tomatoes! | Source

Mulch 'Em

Plastic mulch suppresses weeds so that your tomato plants don't have to share one bit of the precious nutrients they crave. And the pests that weeds attract are also less likely to find your toms if you use mulch. Mulch helps the soil conserve moisture too.

Although the jury is still out, many experts assert that red and silver plastic may also improve tomato plant production. (And according to some studies, sweet pepper production.)

An article by the Iowa State University Extension Office maintains that plastic mulch's affect on spring soil temperatures is probably why it causes rapid growth in tomato plants. Others, however, believe that color is key, and that red and silver improve the movement of carbohydrates in plants, causing tomatoes to fruit and mature earlier.

In an article from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Hank Becker discusses ARS research showing that red mulch reflects growth-enhancing light waves onto tomato plants, causing them to produce up to 20 percent more than they would otherwise.

Unfortunately, plastic mulch of any color has at least one downside: it makes watering by hand difficult, and tomato plants need about an inch of water per week. For this reason, if you do use plastic mulch, consider also using a drip irrigation system. In the video below, Master Gardener Kent Phillips explains how he sets up his system at home.

Stake 'Em

If you're growing dwarf tomatoes, there's no need to stake them. But if your tomatoes are the larger variety, they can produce as much as 8 pounds of fruit per plant at one time. With that amount of weight on their branches, they'll need help to keep from breaking. Staking and tying will also keep the fruit off the ground, where it's more likely to fall prey to pests, disease, and/or rot.

Wooden or metal stakes work just fine. Simply place the stake in the ground 2 to 3 inches from the main stalk. Then attach the stalk to the stake with twine, Velcro ties, or old pantyhose.

I've used the same Velcro ties (pictured below) for about three years. I wash them at the end of the season and store them with the stakes. Although both the stakes and ties are worn (they were originally red and green, respectively), they work just fine.

We use Velcro, but twine and pantyhose work just as well.
We use Velcro, but twine and pantyhose work just as well. | Source

Prune 'Em

You can also boost tomato production through pruning. That means snapping off any small sideshoots that develop at leaf joints. Removing these suckers will allow the plant to concentrate its energy on producing fruit rather than growing lots of little branches.

No pruning tools are needed. Just use your fingers! The branches snap off easily.

It takes some time, but snapping off little side shoots can help plants produce larger fruits.
It takes some time, but snapping off little side shoots can help plants produce larger fruits. | Source
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Questions & Answers

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      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        4 years ago from United States

        Thanks! Hope you guys have a fabulous harvest this year. All the best, Jill

      • gladneycountrymom profile image

        Cheryl Gladney 

        4 years ago

        My husband does that in our garden, he is really please with how our tomato plants grow and utilize less energy and produce better fruit. Really enjoyed your blog.

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks, Saif! You're very kind.

      • saif113sb profile image

        saif113sb 

        7 years ago

        Good work and beautiful hub. thanks

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for commenting, tnvrstar. Better luck next year! This hot dry weather is really tough on vegetable gardeners.

      • tnvrstar profile image

        tnvrstar 

        7 years ago from doha, qatar

        Wonderful Hub. Tomato is one of the most popular and my favorite vegetable. I love it because it can be eaten raw with salad and it is also very useful in cooking vegetables.I have planted tomato plants but did not get the expected result. I hope your tips will help me to produce the best possible tomatoes.

      • profile image

        The Dirt Farmer 

        7 years ago

        Thanks for commenting, cupajo. And I'd love to have you follow me. Unfortunately, although I grow vegetables too, I usually find myself writing about flowers. But ... may I'll do something on fall vegetables for you. Take care! Jill

      • cupajo profile image

        cupajo 

        7 years ago from California

        Yes Like every one enjoyed your article, I will be following you. I'm not much into flowers more veggies.

        Thanks agin

      • Foodstuff profile image

        Foodstuff 

        7 years ago from Australia

        Tuesdays Child, my problem is not deer (in suburban Melbourne, Australia) but I have a running battle with possums! At the moment, I am using chilli-garlic + this special bark all boiled up and strained. It stinks.I might try adding some kind of spirit like the deer repellent recipe. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Sounds good, Dwizard! Although placing sheets of mulch around the base could still make the fruit ripen more quickly. Think I'll try the silver next year. Thanks for commenting! Take care, DF

      • Dwizard profile image

        Dwizard 

        7 years ago

        Thanks for the tips, I definitely will add some plastic mulch next year. It's a little late now for this year.

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for the encouragement, PF! There's something fun about nurturing plants, don't you think? It's a creative act. Take care, DF

      • ParadiseForever profile image

        ParadiseForever 

        7 years ago from Chennai, India.

        Loads of information on mulching, staking & Pruning, TDF. Thanks for your sharing and congrats for being selected 'Hub of the Day'. Two of my heirloom tomatoes in pots just started flowering and I can see two small baby tomatoes when I checked this morning. Keep writing!

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for commenting, Lois!

      • profile image

        Lois 

        7 years ago

        This was a very helpful article. Very interesting about pruning!

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Hey you guys! Thanks for the comments. We're traveling now, and after reading Micahl's comment, I'm wishing I'd put perforated milk jugs filled with water down for the tomatoes. Hope it rains! Take care, everybody!

      • jpcmc profile image

        JP Carlos 

        7 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

        I've been trying to plant tomatoes but I've been unsuccessful. I know they're easy to plant but taking care of them is quite different. Your tips will surely help.

      • johncimble profile image

        johncimble 

        7 years ago from Bangkok

        wow love those pictures great hub as well

      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 

        7 years ago from Oakley, CA

        Great info! Bookmarking for reference. I planted 2 varieties of tomatoes last year, and had so many half went to rot...(Just hubby & I, and he doesn't like tomatoes!)..I couldn't use them, as I was not familiar with the varieties, and one was the size of large grapes, the other not quite as large as ping-pong balls! Not useful for what I wanted: sandwich-sized slices!

        Sooo..this year, I bought just one plant, the big-sized ones. Already, one of the stalks has escaped the cage, and will have to be staked or tied to the cage! It's gotten to big to bend back to the inside.

        Voted up!

      • MicahI profile image

        Micah 

        7 years ago from Central Florida

        I'm currently in my second attempt to grow tomatoes in a pot. The Floridian heat is so high that I probably water my plant an inch of water every day just to keep it from wilting. I haven't yet pruned my plant, but I think I will soon! Thanks for the advice!

      • aprilking profile image

        aprilking 

        7 years ago from United States

        Awesome Hub thanks for the tips. I have never had a green thumb. However I will give this a try. I will be sure to let you know how it goes!

      • DREAM ON profile image

        DREAM ON 

        7 years ago

        There is nothing like juicy garden tomatoes.I especially love those cherry tomatoes.I can eat them all day long.Thanks for a great hub and congratulations on Hub of the day!!

      • profile image

        Chris 

        7 years ago

        I love growing tomatoes. So delicious!

      • leahlefler profile image

        Leah Lefler 

        7 years ago from Western New York

        Thanks for the great tips! We are growing tomatoes for the first time this year, and I haven't staked them yet. I plan on canning the extra fruit (assuming we have extra fruit), and I can't wait until they start bearing! We've had a wet early summer, so hopefully they will survive all the rain.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        7 years ago from Brazil

        I never thought of putting plastic down. Last year we had wonderful tomatoes, this year they are having problems. We are having unseasonably wet weather here in Brazil and the tomatoes are suffering. I will try some of your ideas. Thanks for the advice and congratulations on your "Hub of the Day"

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        7 years ago from the short journey

        Thanks much--so glad to see hubs with tips like this featured! Its generated some great comments and continues to grow in usefulness. Voted up.

      • profile image

        Evelyn Anne 

        7 years ago

        Thank you for your helpful tips--I haven't had great luck with my tomato crop the last couple of years. I hope to work with your suggestions and improve my production of large tomatoes.

      • Tuesdays child profile image

        Tuesdays child 

        7 years ago from In the garden

        Ha, you're very welcome for the recipe. I hope it works for you - it certainly did for us and yes, it's very strong smelling. We tried it for mosquito repellent too and had moderate success with it. Good luck! Oh, and never get rid of your posts - you never know who might need the advice even a couple of months or years down the road. I think that's what's neat about this forum - it's great for people to help others!! Blessings to you, and Happy Independence Day!

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for the repellent recipe, Tuesdays child. (Ok, that didn't sound quite right, but you know what I mean.) It must be some strong smelling stuff! And Brigitte, I don't see why you couldn't put red or silver plastic around the top of your potted plants. It would certainly help conserve the moisture, and maintaining that in a pot can sometimes be tough, particularly when it's so hot. Glad I'm not alone, Stephanie! Let's hope this is a good year for everybody's garden. Thanks to everyone for their congrats. Funny thing is, I almost deleted this hub a few days ago because I'd gotten so little traffic on it!

      • cheneats profile image

        cheneats 

        7 years ago from Sunshine State

        Great information! Thank you for sharing.

      • StephanieBCrosby profile image

        Stephanie Bradberry 

        7 years ago from New Jersey

        Thanks for the great tips. I found myself nodding my head during your introduction. While I only have a few tomato plants each season, I experienced the summer where everything wilted, one summer were a lot of tomatoes were wasted because so many were being produced and the year the deer sheered off all the plants.

      • moonlake profile image

        moonlake 

        7 years ago from America

        When won't be picking tomato until the end of July. They don't grow that fast here. Lots of good information. Enjoyed your hub. Congratulations on hub of the day.

      • Winsome profile image

        Winsome 

        7 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

        Very helpful and fun to read article DF. Do you know if Heirloom tomatoes grow best this way? =:)

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

        CONGRATULATIONS for having the Hub O' The Day!

        Sent to My Momma, who obsesses over her tomato plants in our garden.

      • profile image

        Esmeowl12 

        7 years ago

        This year I'm trying the upside-down tomato project. I made my own buckets. There are quite a few berries on my cherry tomato plants and one large tomato on my "Better Boys." We'll see how it goes.

      • Brigitte Thompson profile image

        Brigitte Thompson 

        7 years ago from Austin, TX

        Great hub! I love fresh tomato's and grow mine in a pot on the patio. Can you do red mulch in potted plants?

      • spirit929 profile image

        spirit929 

        7 years ago from Upstate NY somewhere over the rainbow

        My Tomato plants are my Babies, I check them everyday and make sure they are all OK. Thanks for all the info, I didn't know about the color mulch. Thanks!

      • Tuesdays child profile image

        Tuesdays child 

        7 years ago from In the garden

        Nice hub and thanks for sharing. We've found a good repellent for deer is a mix of ground bergamot and cloves steeped for 24-48 hours in clear alcohol, like vodka, (we use just enough to moisten the plant mix) then strained, filtered through cheesecloth, diluted in 1/2 with tap water and sprayed on plants. We sprayed 1 time this spring when the deer first came into the garden and haven't seen them since!

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Good luck with your tomatoes, everyone! I picked our first Bigger Boy this morning, and I'm sure it'll taste better than the toms from the grocery store. Gotta try the silver mulch sometime, s-mama. Glad to hear it's effective outside the "lab" setting.

      • sagebrush_mama profile image

        sagebrush_mama 

        7 years ago from The Shadow of Death Valley...Snow Covered Mountain Views Abound!

        My Mom is using the silver reflective mulch this year, and her tomato plants are beautiful! Her melons are doing phenomenally, as well, and this in the Nevada desert!

        Great hub, and good information on growing tomatoes!

      • kashmir56 profile image

        Thomas Silvia 

        7 years ago from Massachusetts

        All awesome information,tips and advice to help anyone to have a very awesome and productive tomato garden .

        Useful and vote up !!!

      • RosieG profile image

        RosieG 

        7 years ago from Nerang Gold Coast Qld

        Prune them, what a great idea, I have lots of tomato plants that have grown from seeds, but I was starting to think that I wasn't going to get much fruit. I thought it was because they came up by themselves, but I haven't pruned or mulched. I will be out there tomorrow. Thank you

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        7 years ago from Pennsylvania

        I've seen praise for red plastic in other sources as well. Thanks for a fine article!

      • Timely profile image

        Timely 

        7 years ago from United States

        GREAT HUB! will pinch & prune when today. Nothing better than a home grown tomato.

      • HubpagePurim profile image

        HubpagePurim 

        7 years ago from Nairobi, East Africa

        Great guide! Might as well try out your tips on my mid sized African garden:-)

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        7 years ago from San Francisco

        EXCELLENT tips! I knew there was something more to just tossing them into the ground... but I didn't know what that was! Thanks for the fabulous guide.

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Hi Foodstuff. Homegrown really does taste better, doesn't it. Hope you get bushels full!

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Oh Q, that's right--your goat! What would work, a muzzle? You may be out of luck! As for the heat ... you can always create a little shade for your toms with lattice work or something similar. This year I planted two of our tomato plants by rose bushes so I'd be sure topdress them heavily with compost and water them a lot, just like I do the roses to keep them blooming. Good luck!

      • Foodstuff profile image

        Foodstuff 

        7 years ago from Australia

        Very useful tips. I love home grown tomatoes. I had a bad season (in Australia) this recent summer - it was cold, too much rain etc. Hope to have better luck this year!

      • quester.ltd profile image

        quester.ltd 

        7 years ago

        I have been holding off on growing tomatoes for several reasons: 1. I don't really know how; 2. the goat will eat them and 3: did not know what to do with the summer heat.

        I think yo have handled 1 - on 2 will they grow in Pots (to keep them away from the goat)? on 3 - any suggestions?

        great hub - thanks for the info

        voted up and useful

        q

      • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for commenting Ashlea B. And good luck with your tomatoes! I enjoyed your veg lasagna recipe so much, I've decided to follow you. Welcome to HubPages!

      • profile image

        Ashlea B 

        7 years ago

        Thanks for the tips. We planted our first tomato plants this year so we need all the help we can get. Tomatoes are my favorite homegrown plant.

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