Emily Ford, head gardener at the Glensheen Mansion’s Historic Fort in Duluth has for the first time turned to vertical cultivation of tomatoes and she is very enthusiastic about it.
“One of the goals I’ve got here is to pack loads of food in a small space,” said Ford, adding that she had been inspired by some of the techniques in the Bay Produce greenhouses of Superior, Wisconsin.
I asked some farmers, and a few others if vertical cultivation could be done outside and they assured me it could be done and so I just tried it out this year.
While most gardeners install frames and make tomatoes grow on attached strings, Ford has decided to make the stakes more versatile when attempting a new technique.
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“I did not want an entire system to be installed and then realize that I didn’t really like it,” she said.
She was delighted to see her tomatoes reach a height of 6 feet. She bundled “MacGyver-style” stake extensions together to provide the required support. Ford has said that she uses zip ties to bind extra wood pieces. The same plastic ties are also applied to train and maintain the ascending vines.
It is important to begin with the right type of vines, to cultivate them vertically. Check for vines that are listed as indeterminate.
This is a good starting position, but Ford says that , you will need to learn how to prune the tomatoes properly when they grow, to control them. This means that the suckers are separated from the vines.
If unchecked, the suckers grow into new vines with new leaves and fruits. This can destabilize a tomato field, break it down and cause it to produce less as the resources of the plant are increasingly distributed.
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You can recognize suckers when you learn how. The main vine rising upwards, alternates between leaf branches and flowers / fruit branches. But also a further growth shoot from the crotch of the leaf stem is sent out by the plant. Watch and pinch off those. Should you miss a few, although they are many inches long, you can always return to remove them, without risk to the tomato ‘s health.
Ford said that teaching tomatoes grow vertically seem to bring another benefit in addition to making a cleaner, smarter, more efficient plant.
When tomatoes allowed to grow on their own, she said she always suffered from her overgrown and enmeshed tomatoes, “because they need too much air flow.”
“That did open up the flow of air just a little,” she said. Ford said that though the lower leaves of the climbing plants had surface blight and disease, they have been able to eliminate those branches. The remaining vines have remained healthy and active.
Ford has based the whole method of growing tomatoes in this way. And it could be the greatest advantage, she says.
“I believe this weekly pruning causes me to pay even greater attention to what happens to my tomatoes every week, because I have to prune,” she said. “A botanist buddy once told me that observation is a botanist’s most sought-after quality. It brings you from the worst gardener in the world to become the best.”
Ford said that this year the crowd loved the Indigo Cherry Drop tomato in the Glensheen Gardens. It grows in small active clusters with a diameter of one inch —on top it’s black and on the bottom red-green.
“Apart from its visual appearance the Indigo has a lot of flavor, a little bit more acidity and a less sweetness that can turn into a good counterpoint for the feta or goat cheese salad,” she said.
Almost 36 tomato vines are growing this summer in Glensheen, but Ford says that no fruit is ever wasted because she can share it with hungry colleagues.
She underlined the value of patience for gardeners because there’s quite a bit of learning curve with vertical gardens.
“There are other things that I advise people when trying something different. Keep your notes, guys. Because you will probably forget next year, because the winter is so long. We need to keep trying to make sure the system is perfect.”
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