Lots of Tomatoes From a Little Space

Over 50 years ago, the husband-and-wife team of George “Doc” and Katy Abraham wrote a syndicated gardening column and hosted a call-in radio program on WHAM 1180 AM in Rochester. Here is a reprise of one of their folksy “Green Thumb” articles. The complete archives of their life’s work can be found at the Kroch Library at Cornell.

Some gardeners like to stake their tomatoes, rather than use the mulching and “sprawling” method, in order to save space. The latest wrinkle among gardeners is the “Chinese Tomato Ring,” also known as “tomato trellising” or growing tomatoes on a “corset.” Many commercial growers in the South find it advantageous to grow tomatoes on trellises like grapes. This method enables them to get more plants in a given space, and the fruit is kept free from snails and other pests. Tomato plants grown on trellises will bear heavily until frost, and according to some tests, a single plant can produce as much as 62 pounds of tomatoes. According to the University of Maryland, 25 tomato plants produced over 1,500 pounds of fruit, using the corset or trellis method.

Preparing the soil
The Chinese Tomato Ring method is simple. After the soil is worked with organic matter (peat, compost, leafmold), you scatter in 2 pounds of a complete plant food (such as a 5-10-10 or similar ratio fertilizer) for every 100 square feet. If desired, you could wait and feed your plants liquid plant food.

Choosing the cylinder
Basically, the new trellising method amounts to keeping each plant inside a wire cylinder, which measures 1-1/2 feet across by 5 feet tall. The result is a column of vine growth held in place and supported by the wire cylinder. Wire with a 6-inch mesh is best because it makes it easy to reach in and pick the tomatoes. Concrete reinforcing wire is ideal because it is rigid enough to be self-supporting. You can get this in lumberyards. Cylinders or other wire supports only half as tall may be used to give partial support to the plants. If the wire is weak, a few stakes around the cylinders will keep them from blowing over. I like the concrete reinforcing wire because it is sturdy.

Planting the tomatoes
Set the plants 3 or 4 feet apart, water them well, then apply a mulch of straw, sawdust, aluminum foil or plastic. Place the wire cylinder over each plant soon after transplanting and keep all the tomato branches inside the wire framework. The tomato plants will eventually grow over the top of the cylinders and down the outside to make a vine length of about 10 feet.

DO NOT PRUNE ANY OF THE BRANCHES. From time to time, you’ll have to keep training the top as it climbs. Some folks tie the shoots to the wire with a soft cloth; others just weave them in and out of the mesh.

Watering and feeding
Some people punch a couple of holes in the bottom of a large metal juice can and sink it into the ground near the edge of the plant. Then they just pour the water into the can and let it soak to the roots. Every three weeks, add a liquid or Rapid Gro fertilizer to the can. Water is not lost this way, and goes directly to the roots. Mix the plant food 1 teaspoon to a quart of water.

Water plants frequently during the early part of the season and then only in dry spells. Keep plants watered with liquid plant food from the time the first cluster of blossoms is set until the end of summer. Tomatoes grown this way are clean, bright red, free of growth cracks and rot. The plant is capable of producing a larger amount of food over a longer period of time than any other vegetable in the home garden.

More tips for using a Chinese Tomato Ring
If you don’t want to grow individual tomato plants in each cylinder, use a larger corset and grow several plants on the inside or outside.

Add a mulch of leaves, sawdust, straw, or grass clippings around the cylinder and pour water, as needed, inside the cylinder. It will conserve moisture and there will be no weeds or snails to harm the fruit.

Spray tomato plants with malathion or Sevin. Use 2 tablespoons to 1 gallon of water for insect control.

by Doc and Katy Abraham
Doc and Katy Abraham were both Cornell graduates with double degrees in horticulture and journalism. Following WWII they opened a small greenhouse business before achieving newspaper and radio fame.

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