Maximizing and Extending Your Tomato Harvest, by Andrew A.

I’ve always wondered why some people tend to plant all of their garden at one time. It never made sense to me. Why have 30 pounds of tomatoes come in at once, only to can it all? Sure, canning is great (in fact we just put away 14 quarts of peaches today), but fresh is better than canned, 100% of the time. And yes, I understand home canning is so you have food to eat in the winter. But why not get fresh for as long as you can? But just hold on, we’ll get back to that later on. Being an unemployed teenager, I decided to do a little bit of experimentation in our garden. One day, I went across the street to talk to my neighbor, that also has a small, but successful garden. I complemented his garden, and we walked through it. When we got to some of his tomato plants he began to explain a way to root new tomato plants from your existing plants. They’re called suckers, and they can change the way you garden, and how much you can produce from Spring until frost. And who knows, maybe one day they could save your life. Okay, tomato plants really aren’t that exciting and dramatic, or are they?

What is a sucker? Stick out your left hand, with the back of your hand facing you. Make an “L” with it. Now, in the curve of that “L” on a tomato plant, there will be a branch that grows out of the “armpit” of the plant. It normally grows out of more mature plants, and can grow to full size and bear blooms and baby tomatoes, just like any other tomato plant branch. Some people say you can remove these “Suckers” off to enlarge your fruit. I personally can’t attest to that. But, suckers also have another special ability. If you remove them off at the base of the “armpit”, and stick them into some potting soil, or dirt, and water them once a day, you can have new tomato plants. Now, Suckers can be rooted very tiny or pretty large. However, when removing suckers from your plant, be careful not to tear the skin down the branch. This can expose your plant to diseases, and it diverts more energy to scabbing the tear open. Now removing a sucker from a tomato plant does not harm the tomato plant, and I have yet to kill a tomato plant in harvesting the sucker from it’s branches. Try and pinch the sucker off, more than cutting him. Cutting the sucker away can damage the plant if you slip, and it really seems to be counterproductive to growing for some odd reason.

Now, how big are you supposed to start them at? Well, I started a number of them anywhere between a single leaf (it broke off so I tried to root it) and up to about 8 inches. The bigger you start them at, the more apt they are to grow. The bigger ones grew more than the smaller ones, I suppose because they had more energy stored up that than the tiny ones. However, the smaller ones still grew. The leaf that I rooted actually developed a root system, about 2 inches long. Also, some of the smaller ones failed to grow much at all, they just got thicker and harder. So my suggestion is to start bigger, at about 6-8 inches.

So, you’ve got your suckers. Now, where to put them? Well you’ve got that empty spot in the garden, that 44 ounce slushie cup from the gas station, and a 6 pack seedling tray that you bought some plants in. Well, I tried all three. All I did to the ones in the garden was poke a hole in the dirt, stick the sucker in there, and water. I filled up every empty spot in the garden with them. And unfortunately, I had about a 50-60% casualty rate. Yikes! Well, I got a couple of the slushie cups, filled them with potting soil, and planted two large tomato suckers in them. They were actually the most successful of the containers, the plants grew fast, and matured fast. They even had blooms on them only two and half weeks after I planted them. I believe they did so well, because the roots had room to grow (If you use the cup method, be sure to dump excess water out of the cups since they have no drainage. We left for one week and had the neighbor take care of them, and there was some heavy rain, so when I got home the ones in the cups were very near floating in their homes). But I also planted about 48 suckers into the plastic 6 pack trays. How did they do? Well, they did okay, I only had one die out of the entire lot. They didn’t get too large, as the roots were confined to the small containers. But, beware, if you use these 6 packs, the taller ones will shade the smaller ones and effectively stunt their growth. I’ve planted my suckers that were mature enough (and I gauged that by how much the roots had grown inside the container) into the garden.

I had actually placed my tomatoes on a retaining wall in part sun / part shade. One of the advantages of putting them into this sort of area is that the sun will not dry out the plants and wilt them. I had no problem keeping my plants happy and wet (and there‘s no problem over-watering them either, as long as they have drainage) . Although because I did this, I also wonder if I could have made my plants grow more, and perhaps let the little ones grow more if I would have moved them into the sun more. But, when you put them into the sun you run the risk of blistering them. Worth the risk? I don’t know, but trust me I intend to find out next year when my tomatoes mature and grow. I also didn’t use any fertilize in any stage of my growing, mainly because I did not have access to any (one of my goals in this project was to keep it low cost). Perhaps if I had, I would have had more success with it. Again, that will be another factor that will be manipulated in next year’s sucker growing.

Okay, you’ve got your suckers planted into your packs, cups, whatever, and may have even transplanted some into the garden. Here’s some helpful hints and tips, that are pretty basic tomato gardening. One of the best things for tomato plants are cages and stakes. Of the tomatoes we planted this year, the ones that were caged grew exponentially more than those that were not caged (Note: None of my suckers have yet to reach a size suitable for caging. However, they have been staked). The stakes also seemed to promote growth. Be careful to try and attach your tomato plant to it’s cage or stake. Simple twine will do. If they grow too much, they will grow out of the cage, and can topple it over (High winds can also damage your caged tomatoes. Unfortunately this has occurred to one of my Roma plants, and has nearly severed one of the most loaded branches on the plant. The plant has started to die back, and I can’t help but wonder if it might be some sort of disease it got when it was opened up. Creating a tomato plant is easy, destroying one is easier.

So, Mister Prepper Extraordinaire, how can this simple, inexpensive, and reliable method be of benefit to you? Well, because it’s just that. Plus, I can give you a few more reasons. Firstly, Heirloom plants are more expensive than your hybrid tomatoes. And they normally come in one packs at the farm supply store. So what we did, was plant these heirlooms and grab the suckers off of them. This increased the amount of our heirloom tomato plants by tenfold, as most plants can give you a ton of suckers. And guess what? When you have more plants, you have more fruit, and more seeds to save. So, say you grab four varieties of your farm supply store’s first shipment of heirloom tomatoes in Early Spring. Plant them soon! Get them growing! As they grow, they will give you suckers (and lots of them). So while you’re gathering fruit from your 1st batch of tomatoes you bought, you can be setting out the suckers from those plants. And guess what? Tomatoes will produce until frost. So you can get a lot of tomatoes from just this little bit of investment. Of course there is some sweat equity, but hey, that’s part of the fun. And believe me, it’s really kinda fun to watch your tomatoes grow. So, you can have fresh tomatoes throughout the Summer and into the Fall by planting these suckers, and staggering your plantings. This will give a lot more seed to save for next year, and plenty of tomatoes to can and preserve for your pantry. And, you will have fresh tomatoes for your enjoyment. Happy Suckering!

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