Building a Garden: On Raising Your Tomatoes Right

The trick to raising summer’s most precious crop? Treat it like a teenager

Grow, NYC, Garden

Tomato Cages, GrowNYC

Matt Taylor-Gross

Maintenance is never all that sexy: getting your car serviced, re-caulking the tub, getting a body part waxed. We do it because it has to get done, and then promptly forget it ever happened. It's the same with gardening—not everything is all juicy tomatoes and shockingly crisp lettuce. As Shawn Connell, a farmer with GrowNYC, tells me, growing fruits and vegetables involves a lot of pretty mundane upkeep.

At the teaching garden on Governors Island in New York City, Connell has already shown me how to weed. And now it’s time to talk about a couple of other chores that will specifically help your tomatoes grow more perfectly: pruning and trellising.

To Connell, plants are like adolescents: you want to encourage them to grow, but you still need to put some pretty strict boundaries on them. That’s where pruning comes in. The goal with growing something like tomatoes is to encourage more growth, but not just any growth—you want fruit growth. More and more tomato leaves do not a delicious salad make. So you have to prune away growth that isn’t helping your cause; as Connell says, “like a good parent, you have to put some restrictions on them.” That means keeping the plant to basically a single stalk—you should to take off any tomato branches that form that are smaller than your biggest five. That way you are keeping the plant focused on making fruit, and not on growing big (bigger plants don’t equal bigger tomatoes). You also want to remove things called suckers—little buds that appear in the junction of two tomato branches. These, again, divert energy from fruit production and don’t help your cause.

Big, fat juicy tomatoes are also (hopefully) heavy, which means they weigh the plant down unless you add support. That’s where trellises or cages or the hairpiece-sounding Florida Weave come in. You can get tomato cages anywhere, and they give the plants something to lean on so the fruit doesn’t drag them to the soil. You can also individually stake each plant, or put stakes on either end of a row and run twine between them, weaving it around the plants as you go (a technique perhaps invented in the Sunshine State, thus its name). There’s no right way except that you have to do it, or your tomato plants will never grow tall and healthy.

Ready to eat your perfectly ripe tomatoes? Here are our favorite things to do with them »