What are the different methods and impacts of pruning tomato plants?
Side shoots, or “suckers,” are additional fruiting stems that emerge on tomato plants at the junctions of the main stems and leaf stems. Some folks recommend that gardeners prune tomato plants by removing all tomato suckers; I disagree. Contrary to what many think, suckers don’t sap energy from the main tomato plant, and allowing them to develop will not delay fruiting or ripening of any tomatoes from the main stem. Judicious removal of some suckers, however, will lead to more controlled growth and make supporting the plant easier, especially with an indeterminate variety.
Essentially, suckers are the tomato plant’s way of passing on its genetic heritage by producing as many seeds as possible: More branching leads to more flowers, which lead to more tomatoes, which lead to more seeds, which, to a plant, mean survival.
Removal of suckers could have implications for overall yields. Each sucker allowed to grow will provide additional flower clusters, and hence create additional chances for fruit set. Sometimes during the season, the majority of the flower clusters on a tomato plant’s main stem will open when the temperature or humidity isn’t suitable for pollination, which can result in blossom drop. If you’ve pruned tomato plants by removing all suckers, then the plant will bear only a handful of fruit, with no method available for the plant to produce additional flowers after the hot weather has passed. If suckers would’ve been maintained, the number of flower clusters would’ve increased, and flowers on those additional growing shoots likely would’ve opened later under more suitable conditions, thus increasing the yield of the plant.
Tomato suckers that are allowed to grow will also furnish additional foliage cover. In climates where searing sun regularly beats down on exposed, developing tomatoes, sunscald poses a definite concern. Because direct sun isn’t needed to promote ripening, the shade cover provided by the suckers’ foliage is beneficial.
Ideal management of suckers is somewhat dependent on the type of tomato. Determinate tomato varieties grow to a genetically predetermined height and width, and then produce flowers at the ends of their branches. In a sense, they are “self-pruning,” and any removal of suckers would reduce the potential yield of the plant. An indeterminate tomato plant, however, extends its main growing stem indefinitely and will generate suckers at each point of a leaf stem attachment. Indeterminate tomato plants can quickly grow out of control because the suckers themselves go on to produce suckers, so a plant can become dense and complex by midseason.
Skillful “topping” of fruiting tomato branches and stems at particular heights is a way of controlling growth. Because more flowers form than will pollinate and ripen before the end of the season, topping will also ensure that a plant doesn’t put energy into developing tomatoes that will never get a chance to ripen properly. Removing the top of the plant is also an excellent way to prevent plants from becoming so top-heavy that they topple in storms or develop kinks in their branches.
An easy way for gardeners with long seasons to extend the harvest even further and put removed suckers to good use is to cut and root some of the suckers. Suckers root easily and can be planted in early summer. They will yield tomatoes that are clones of those of the plants they were taken from.
To do this, cut a 6-inch-long sucker from one of your healthy plants and put it in a glass of water. After it has a nice set of new roots, pot it up in fresh potting mix and allow it to adjust in a shaded location for a few weeks before setting it into its final digs. Some gardeners have found that suckers will root directly in the garden if placed in a shaded area. Keeping the rooting suckers out of direct sun is important. Typically, a tomato sucker will root and begin to show renewed growth in a few weeks at most. Often, a sucker planted in damp soil will wilt just a bit until new roots begin to grow.
Adapted from Epic Tomatoes, Storey Publishing, 2014.
(Top) Photo by Stephen L. Garrett: Put tomato shoots to good use by growing them into more plants.
(Bottom) Photo by Stephen L. Garrett: Suckers left alone won’t sap life from tomato plants, so you don't have to remove them all.
I’d like to start making my own simple insecticides. Which types of homemade garden sprays are actually effective?
Before taking the time to make an insecticide, step back and ask yourself the following questions.
Have you correctly identified the problem? Gardeners can easily mistake injury caused by disease or extreme weather for pest damage. The choice of insecticide, if one is needed, depends on confirming the damage was indeed caused by a pest, and then identifying the pestilent perpetrator.
Are you sure the problem is getting worse? Existing damage won’t disappear, but if new leaves are unafflicted, you likely don’t need to spray. Similarly, if the plant is still growing and producing despite cosmetic blemishes, then taking steps to boost plant growth is a better option than attacking pests.
Do you know which beneficial insects to expect and how to identify them? These advantageous insects are usually present but difficult to see; eggs and larvae are tiny and don’t look anything like adult insects. You want to ensure that, if you do spray, you won’t harm beneficials’ populations. Also, the beneficials may handle the pests for you if given the opportunity and time.
Will other pest control methods work? It depends on the pest, but barriers, traps and other non-pesticidal methods can often perform better than sprays.
If your crops do indeed require an insecticide, the two homemade sprays I recommend are plain water and diluted soap. Strong sprays of water will control aphids, pear and rose sawflies, spider mites, and thrips. For aphids, spray at least twice, waiting two to three days between each spraying. Learn how to create a custom watering wand for this method of organic pest control.
Soap sprays are effective on leaf-eating insects, sucking insects and mites, but only if the spray comes in direct contact with the pests. Use only pure soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, and not laundry or dish “soaps,” which are actually detergents that contain perfumes and other ingredients that can damage plants. Soap solutions can burn or even kill plants if they aren’t sufficiently diluted. Include a maximum of 3 tablespoons of soap per gallon of water. You can also purchase a product that’s specifically formulated to kill bugs without burning plants, such as Safer’s Insecticidal Soap concentrate.
Homemade garden sprays that contain hot peppers or aromatic herbs are gratifying to concoct, but they’ll most likely have little effect on insects — it’s the soap typically added to these mixtures that actually works.
No matter which spray you make or choose, bear in mind that if it’s effective on pests, it will also kill beneficial insects and other non-target organisms.
I’m trying to figure out how to keep my chickens’ water clean. What’s a simple, inexpensive solution?
Consider using watering nipples. These nifty little devices screw into holes drilled into 5-gallon buckets or other plastic containers or pipes.
The nipples release droplets of water when the birds peck at them. The vertical version must be installed into the base of a bucket or pipe, and the bucket must be hung so that the birds can reach the nipples. Horizontal side-mount nipples, on the other hand, can be mounted onto the side of a bucket, and thus reportedly waste less water than the vertical style.
Either of these low-cost gadgets ($8.99 for five horizontal nipples on Amazon) will keep your birds’ water much cleaner than conventional watering systems.
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one of North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.
I’m trying to garden organically, but I’m concerned about pesticide drift. How can I tell whether drift is affecting my property, and what can I do about it?
Pesticides do indeed “drift” and damage plants growing in neighboring areas. If the drifting chemical is an herbicide, then you may notice damage to plants. Loss of
foliage, yellowing vegetation at the wrong time of year, or damage occurring only on certain portions of plant leaves may indicate herbicide drift. Other symptoms of injury may include twisted leaves or downward-cupped leaves. However, drift from other types of pesticides may be difficult to detect. In some states, the department of agriculture will test crops for drift damage. Laboratory analysis can be costly, and it will not reveal who’s responsible for the drift.
Pesticide drift also poses a threat to human health. Symptoms of acute exposure range from headaches to difficulty breathing to skin irritation. Exposure to some pesticides is also associated with long-term negative effects.
If you know you’ve been exposed to pesticide drift and are concerned about your health, you may want to seek medical advice. Document the problem, if possible. Then, file a report with both the National Pesticide Information Center and the lead pesticide or public health agency in your state, and press for an immediate investigation, including sampling for residues.
Pesticide drift is illegal in most states, but proving who broke the law can be difficult. To inquire about what pesticide was sprayed — and by whom — contact your state pesticide regulatory agency. Join or start a community group (formal or informal) to address pesticide drift. (Get started by networking with people in your area on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS state-specific Facebook pages — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Scientists with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) have been working with communities across the country to implement an easy-to-use, scientifically rigorous tool called the “Drift Catcher” for monitoring airborne pesticides. Contact PAN to learn more about this community air-monitoring device. The Drift Catcher is modeled after technology used by the California Air Resources Board to monitor the air for pesticides. Farmers, teachers and homeowners have used the Drift Catcher to document the presence of pesticides near their farms, schools and homes, and have then wielded the data to demand policy changes.
PAN is part of an international network working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives. For more about drift and how to detect it, go to the Pesticide Action Network’s website.
I’ve read that most people don’t get enough vitamin D. How much do we really need, and what are the best sources of vitamin D?
A 2009 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 75 percent of adolescents and adults in the United States have insufficient levels of “the sunshine vitamin” in their blood. Our bodies convert the sun’s ultraviolet rays to vitamin D, but because many of us work mostly indoors — and often apply sunscreen when we do spend prolonged time outside — our exposure to vitamin D-producing rays is low.
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine increased its official recommended daily dietary allowance for vitamin D from 200 international units (IU) to 600 IU. Some experts, however, think our daily intake should be much higher. The Vitamin D Council recommends 5,000 IU per day for adults — more than eight times higher than the official recommended daily allowance.
So why do we need this nutrient? Vitamin D is commonly associated with bone health because it helps the gut absorb calcium, which is the building block for strong bones. Vitamin D also activates genes that regulate the immune system, and a growing body of research suggests this important nutrient plays a role in the prevention of colon, prostate and breast cancers; high blood pressure; and diabetes. Seasonal Affective Disorder — which often strikes during winter, the darkest time of the year — has also been linked to low levels of vitamin D.
Most people are able to meet at least some of their vitamin D needs through exposure to sunlight. The amount of time needed in the sun varies greatly from person to person, and the variables include skin type, the amount of skin exposed, your age, the time of day and the season. Aim to find a balance between soaking up vitamin D-rich rays and protecting your skin from sun damage.
Stacked up against the sun’s rays, most foods aren’t rich sources of vitamin D — but mushrooms are an exception. When exposed to sunlight for a day or two (but no longer), their vitamin D levels soar from about 100 IU per 100 grams up to an incredible 46,000 IU per 100 grams! So, before you cook your mushrooms, give them their day in the sun. You can also take a cue from the mushroom experts at Fungi Perfecti and make a mushroom-based “sunshine” pill at home.
If you can’t spend time outside and don’t eat mushrooms, consider a vitamin D supplement. Two types of vitamin D supplements are available over the counter: D3 and D2. The D3 supplements are superior, because our bodies naturally produce D3 and are more receptive to absorbing and retaining it.
Hannah Kincaid is an Assistant Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. She is an enthusiastic student of herbal medicine, organic gardening and yoga. You can find Hannah on Google+.
I’ve heard that compost accelerators speed up composting and result in better compost. Are these claims true?
Most independent studies have concluded that those products aren’t worth the expense. The three types of commercially marketed compost “accelerators” and “activators” are based on microorganisms, nitrogen, or herbs prescribed for biodynamic composting, and you can easily add any of those substances to your compost without spending money on a store-bought product. Dead plants, weeds, kitchen scraps and the other biodegradable wastes that go into home compost introduce all the microorganisms needed for composting to proceed. If you like the idea of adding extra microbes to keep things moving swiftly, simply add a few shovelfuls of mature compost each time you start a new heap or batch.
When a gardener adds nitrogen to a lazy compost pile, the microbes take off, and their resulting population boom produces heat, which can help an almost-finished batch to finish faster. Free or cheap nitrogen sources, such as grass clippings, poultry manure or alfalfa meal, will push a slow heap into high gear as effectively as products sold as compost activators would—and will be much less expensive, to boot.
As for herbal additions, some gardeners grow comfrey or stinging nettle to feed to their compost as “activators.”
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.
Why should I rotate my garden crops? If I do, what’s the best way to record what I’ve planted year after year?
Rotating your annual crops—even in a small-scale home garden—can help thwart potential gardening woes. If you plant the same crop in the same spot every year, overwintered pests, disease spores and nematodes can build up in that bed’s soil. A lack of rotation also means that the main nutrients a crop pulls from the soil will become depleted in that spot over time.
The first step to establishing successful rotation practices is to get to know the crop families. Plants should be rotated based on family, because crops in the same family generally have similar nutrient requirements, and they also attract many of the same pests and diseases. (You can print out a chart of common garden crops, grouped by family.)
A good rule of thumb is to avoid planting crops that are in the same family in the same spot in your garden more often than once every three to four years. If this is tricky because of limited space or the diversity of the crops you grow, don’t stress; it’s merely a good ideal to shoot for. Even a two-year rotation is better than nothing.
To start keeping simple crop-rotation records, draw out your garden beds on graph paper or in a gardening notebook or journal, and fill in what you’re planting where that season. You can use colored pencils to shade in planting areas based on which crop family is planted where — such as shading all tomato-family crops in red and all cabbage-family crops in green. Then, before you put any seeds or transplants in the ground the following season, sketch out a new planting arrangement for the year. Reference the previous year’s arrangement, and don’t put any related crops in the same location.
Another record-keeping option is to plan your garden with MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Vegetable Garden Planner, which can track your crop rotation for you. When you draw out your garden beds on what is essentially digital graph paper, the Planner will automatically color-code your crops by family. Then, when you map out your planting arrangement the next year, the Planner will alert you if you’re planning to put a crop in a place where you recently planted a crop from within the same family. If you’d prefer to plan your plot on a mobile device, try the Grow Planner for iPhone or iPad.
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Google+.