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

Jill is a former Master Gardener and Naturalist who enjoys cooking, abstract painting and stewardship.

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.

Growing Tomatoes Can Be Hard

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 did we do differently? 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!

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 also helps the soil conserve moisture.

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 effect 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 eight 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 two to three 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.

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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Should l stake my plants before they bare fruit?

Answer: I would train them now, yes, and prune them so you only have one main stem instead of several.


Jill Spencer (author) from United States on June 25, 2014:

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

Cheryl Gladney on June 25, 2014:

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.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 09, 2011:

Thanks, Saif! You're very kind.

saif113sb on August 09, 2011:

Good work and beautiful hub. thanks

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 07, 2011:

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

tnvrstar from doha, qatar on August 07, 2011:

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.

The Dirt Farmer on July 13, 2011:

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 from California on July 13, 2011:

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

Thanks agin

Foodstuff from Australia on July 05, 2011:

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.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 05, 2011:

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 on July 04, 2011:

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

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 04, 2011:

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 from Chennai, India. on July 03, 2011:

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!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 03, 2011:

Thanks for commenting, Lois!

Lois on July 03, 2011:

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

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 02, 2011:

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!

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on June 30, 2011:

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 from Bangkok on June 30, 2011:

wow love those pictures great hub as well

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on June 30, 2011:

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!

Micah from Central Florida on June 30, 2011:

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 from United States on June 30, 2011:

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 on June 30, 2011:

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!!

Chris on June 30, 2011:

I love growing tomatoes. So delicious!

Leah Lefler from Western New York on June 30, 2011:

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.

Mary Wickison from USA on June 30, 2011:

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 on June 30, 2011:

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.

Evelyn Anne on June 30, 2011:

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 from In the garden on June 30, 2011:

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!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on June 30, 2011:

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 from Sunshine State on June 30, 2011:

Great information! Thank you for sharing.

Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on June 30, 2011:

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 from America on June 30, 2011:

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 from Southern California by way of Texas on June 30, 2011:

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

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on June 30, 2011:

CONGRATULATIONS for having the Hub O' The Day!

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

Esmeowl12 on June 30, 2011:

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 from Austin, TX on June 30, 2011:

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 from Upstate NY somewhere over the rainbow on June 30, 2011:

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 from In the garden on June 30, 2011:

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!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on June 30, 2011:

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 from The Shadow of Death Valley...Snow Covered Mountain Views Abound! on June 30, 2011:

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!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on June 30, 2011:

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

Useful and vote up !!!

RosieG from Nerang Gold Coast Qld on June 30, 2011:

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 Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on June 30, 2011:

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

Timely from United States on June 30, 2011:

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

HubpagePurim from Nairobi, East Africa on June 30, 2011:

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

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on June 22, 2011:

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.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on June 18, 2011:

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

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on June 18, 2011:

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 from Australia on June 18, 2011:

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! on June 17, 2011:

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


Jill Spencer (author) from United States on June 17, 2011:

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!

Ashlea B on June 17, 2011:

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.