The first time I saw them, I had no idea what they were.
The wood tomato cages in master gardener Debbie Courson Smith’s garden are about 7 feet tall and painted in bright colors. Who knew tomatoes grew that tall?
My tomato plants have always seemed to grow horizontally instead of vertically.
One thing novice gardeners should know about growing giant tomatoes: Indeterminate varieties grow the tallest, and they produce fruit all season. Determinate tomatoes don’t grow as tall and typically produce fruit all at once (preferred by those who are canning).
Tomatoes come in so many different sizes, shapes, colors and flavors that it’s helpful to grow some new ones each year to see what appeals to you, Debbie says. She’s grown all the colors of the rainbow and warns that blue tomatoes don’t taste as pretty as they look.
I don’t yet have a favorite tomato but Debbie’s is Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which she describes as sweet and tangy. My work podmate Dana Oland, an avid gardener, said her favorite tomato is the Brandywine, which is well-regarded by many.
“For every ounce, they give you the best flavor,” she said. “It’s a true tomato flavor without being overly sweet. You put a wisp of salt on it, and it’s like magic.”
The Brandywine has been a consistent winner when The Tomato Independence Project — a group that promotes tomato growing in the Treasure Valley as a way to raise public awareness about our food system — has held tomato tastings, according to a recent article in the UC Food Observer (author Teresa O’Connor is a former Boise resident). Topping TIP’s 2015 tasting lists were: Sun Gold (best small tomato); Jersey Devil (best paste) and Kellogg’s Breakfast (best slicers).
Other tomatoes in Debbie’s garden — and why: Supersweet 100 (high-yield cherry tomato); Early Girl (medium-size, and fruit sets earlier than other non-cherry tomatoes); Better Boy (robust vines and a good slicer for making caprese salads); and Mortgage Lifter (enormous late season tomatoes with lots of structure).
Last year, I helped my dad with his garden, which was almost entirely tomatoes. We put some of those 3-foot wire cages around the plants but somehow most of the plants ended up falling over on the ground. It was disappointing to see so much fruit get spoiled because we couldn’t keep the plants upright.
In this week’s Dig In gardening video series, Debbie talks about other reasons why keeping tomatoes upright — and off the ground — is necessary.
“We don’t want the leaves touching the ground because they can pick up pathogens and bugs from the soil,” she said. “It also makes it harder to harvest tomatoes when they’re not in a cage.”
Debbie offers some tips for making those common wire cages a little sturdier. She recommends doubling them — and if needed for taller plants — stacking them. She used zip ties to connect them.
Another option, other than building wood cages like Debbie’s or stacking wire ones, is to plant a trellis next to your house and let the tomatoes grow up that. That definitely looks the easiest to me, though I’ve never tried it.
If you’re interested in learning more about tomato growing in the Treasure Valley, check out the Tomato Independence Project’s Facebook page.