Before we can eat the tomatoes we must grow the tomatoes.
I am following the methods advocated by Charles H. Wilber, who holds the Guinness record for tomato production. Wilber has achieved tomato plants that tower nearly 30 feet high and produce more than 300 pounds of tomatoes per plant.
And, no, I don't plan on growing any 30-foot-high tomato plants in my front yard. But please follow along.
The main point is to build sturdy cages the tomatoes can grow in. That means getting a 100-pound roll of concrete reinforcing mesh into the trunk of my car at the lumber yard and borrowing a pair of bolt cutters to cut it with.
Wilber makes cages three feet in diameter by cutting lengths of mesh 18 squares across. He then fastens the ends together with hog rings. Most importantly, he then trains 18 suckers from the tomato plant to climb the cage, one sucker for each of the vertical wires in the cage. To anchor the cages to the ground, he uses lengths of concrete reinforcing bar, or re-bar, to which he welds a small piece at the top to make a hook that grabs the cage. When the plant reaches the top of the cage, he fastens a second cage on top of the first one and so on.
I didn't have any hog rings handy, so I just cut a bit of extra mesh and used the loose ends of wire as fasteners, bending them back with my thumb.
My plans are not nearly as ambitious as Wilber, who just enjoys growing huge vegetables. I will be happy if I can figure out how to identify the vines and train them up the cage. If they continue growing over the top of the cage, I'll just let them grow back down to the ground.
Wilber mulches around the tomatoes with a thick layer of straw. That's another challenge for me here in the District of Columbia. I've identified a source for the straw (usually I just liberate it from local construction projects) but none has actually made the trip to the garden.
I also believe adequate distance between plants is critical. Tomatoes should get plenty of ventilation and room for the roots to spread. According to Wilbur, tomato roots will extend 10 feet. He advocates at least five feet between plants.
This year I have three varieties of tomatoes, two heirlooms, Brandywine and Cherokee Purple, and a yellow cherry tomato. I am betting on a tomato salad by August, and tomatoes well into October. With any luck, we'll have a bushel of green tomatoes for pickling as well.
To tell the truth, I was a bit terrified of getting involved with these heavy-duty cages, but they've turned out to be fairly easy once you get past the heavy lifting. And they are almost invisible in the garden.