Strong-willed plants need a little guidance in the garden


Plants grow when you’re not looking. Don’t believe me? Just try to leave your garden for a quick vacation at this time of year. When you return, you’ll likely find that a jungle has replaced your once tidy yard. Tomatoes, in particular, seem to have a way of growing as soon as your back is turned. One minute they are tidy and corralled, and the next they have made a break for it, clearly intent on garden domination.

That’s why staking, tying, caging and generally directing plants where to go are so important at this time of year. If left to their own devices, they will head in exactly the direction you don’t want them to go. And once they do that, you risk breaking precious stems if you try to  coax them back into line.

Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of methods for staking tomatoes. I started, as most gardeners do, with those cute, rather flimsy, circular cages you can pick up at the hardware store. It didn’t take long to realize that all but the smallest tomatoes will quickly overcome such supports, pulling them to one side and turning them into more of a hinderance than a help. Fortunately, those cages work well for propping up floppy perennials and peppers, so the collection of them

Then I moved onto tall square cages made of heavy gauge wire that fold flat for storage. I was sure these would be the solution for the big, burly heirloom tomatoes I like to grow. Once again, the tomatoes laughed at my efforts, uprooting the cages and, worse yet, sending stems through the cage that were so big there was no bending them back into line, thus trapping the now useless cages in the garden.

I once tried something called a tomato tower, a V-shaped contraption that was tall and made of thick metal. The idea, I guess, was to guide the leader of the tomato up the center and half the branches would grow through the sides, supporting the whole plant. Chalk that one up to an expensive lesson learned.

I also tried growing them up a string supported on top. You tuck the end of the string under the plant when planting and sort of gently wind it around the main stem as it grows. There was some merit to this method, but it required a great deal of pruning to maintain a leader.

A few years ago, I discovered the Florida weave, and it’s the best method I’ve found yet. In it, you sandwich plants between twine or string supported by sturdy posts. I like to put posts — I used thick 8-foot-long bamboo posts but anything tall and sturdy works — between each plant, but some gardeners skip the center posts. Tie off the twine at the end post and weave between plants, wrapping it around the center posts, alternately front and back, then double back and alternate sides, trapping the plant between the twine. Then add additional tiers of twine as the plants grow.

It’s not a perfect system — frequent tending is necessary — but it’s easy to store and keeps things more or less upright. At least until you turn your back and the tomatoes start growing.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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