Growing Tomatoes Vertically Using T-Frames
Here’s how to grow tomatoes the way “the big boys” do it! Do it right and your yield will amaze you as well as your neighbors. Use one T-Frame every 10 feet maximum. Between the T-Frames use heavy-gauge wire, galvanized steel pipe (1/2″ is adequate) or even 2 X 4’s on edge. If your growing season is short and you want to build a frame strong enough to support a plastic covering in early spring and late fall, use the 2 x 4’s. Then arch PVC on top using 45 degree slip fittings, and cover the entire structure with 6 mil clear greenhouse plastic for the world’s least expensive greenhouse. This works best tying two adjacent beds together into one greenhouse.
Graphically illustrated instructions for building and installing T-Frames are also contained in the Mittleider Gardening Course – advanced section, Chapter 15. This chapter is available free on the Food For Everyone Foundation’s website at www.foodforeveryone.org, and great illustrations are contained in the Appendix.
For a 30′ Soil-Bed or Grow-Box, buy 6 – 8′ treated 4 X 4’s. Cut two of them into 6 equal-sized pieces 32″ long. Four 32″ lengths become the top of the Ts.
The other two 32″ 4 X 4 lengths then are cut into 4 equal-sized braces using 45 degree-angle cuts as follows: Measure and mark 10 5/8″ along the bottom edge, then 3 5/8″, then 10 5/8″, then 3 5/8″. On the top edge, measure and mark 3 1/2″, then 3 5/8″, then 10 5/8″,then 3 5/8″. Draw lines between these marks, then using a table saw cut on the lines. Pre-drill through the top center of the 32″ tops, then use a 6″ spike to nail into the 8′ post. Screw or nail the braces to both the top and the post.
Bury the T-Frame 15″ in the ground at 10′ (or shorter) intervals just inside the ridge on one side of your Grow-Bed, or inside the side frame of your Grow-Box. Use #8 gage wire and eye-bolts between the T-Frames, or 1/2″galvanized pipe, held in place by two nails placed 1″ and 1 ½” in from the outside edges, or 2 X 4s on edge, nailed to the outside of your 4 X 4 cross-pieces.
To extend your growing season several weeks in both spring and fall, use 2 X 4’s on edge to tie the T-Frames in two adjacent beds together, and make an arched canopy with 7’-long 3/4″ PVC and 45 degree Slip fittings every 2′, then cover in early Spring and late Fall with 6 mil clear greenhouse plastic. Some heat may be necessary to protect from hard frosts, so consider an electric heater or other heat source. Again, excellent illustrations are in the appendix of The Mittleider Gardening Course book.
Growing Tomatoes Vertically – How Close to Plant
How close together should you grow your tomato plants? The answer depends on several factors, and ultimately it is all up to you. If you are growing vertically and using T-Frames, with tomatoes growing up baling twine string, you can plant them as close as 8″ apart.
The key to success is in how diligent, accurate, and consistent you are in pruning the sucker stems! gently guide your plants around the string at least once every week in the spring, and every 4-6 days in the summer, and take off all sucker stems also at least that often. This will give you a single-stalk plant with large hands of tomatoes every 5-7″ all the way up the stalk, and your fruit production will amaze you, with anywhere from 15# to 30# of fruit per plant.
On the other hand, if you neglect to take off all the suckers, your plants will become big, bushy masses of leaves and branches. The plants will compete with adjacent plants – and even with their own sucker branches – for light, and you will have a big mess on your hands, with much less fruit for your efforts.
So, if you are not diligent in pruning, even 14″ apart is too close together. I recommend planting your tomatoes every 9″, with ONE ROW ONLY in your beds, and then guiding every other plant up baling twine strings to opposite sides of T-Frames.
Growing Tomatoes Vertically – How to Prune
In order to harvest a large amount of healthy home-grown tomatoes in a small space, indeterminate plants should be used and grown vertically using stakes, or more preferably, T-Frames and baling twine strings. This requires that you allow the plant to have only one or two stems, and eliminate all others by pruning.
Let’s first discuss how to remove all the sucker stems. This is the major function of pruning tomatoes.
Where the leaf branch grows out from the main stem (in the crotch) pinch off the new growth that comes out of that area. But make sure you don’t pinch out the top growth. When in doubt stay away from the top of the plant.
Also, stay away from the blossoms that grow about an inch above the leaf node or crotch. Those become your fruit.
To maximize your tomato yield, you must manage the plant’s growth. This could be compared to the biblical pruning of the vineyard.
A single plant, taking up less than one linear foot of space, can produce 15 to 30# of fruit – but only if you keep it to one or two main stems. Remember, we’re doing “Modified ” here, and the hydroponic and greenhouse growers know what they are doing when they prune to one main stem per plant.
Prune the sucker stems from Indeterminate varieties only! Right at the point where each leaf grows out from the stem, a new (sucker) stem will appear and begin to grow. Take it off, and the sooner the better. Don’t let the plant waste energy growing the sucker stem. But DO NOT remove the leaf – only the sucker stem growing between the leaf and the stem!!
Once your plant has several sets of leaves, it will begin producing blossoms. THESE BECOME YOUR TOMATOES. They appear about one inch ABOVE the leaf joint, or node as it’s called. NEVER take off the blossoms. Remember, that’s your fruit!
Both pruning and guiding your tomatoes up the baling-twine string should be done religiously, at least once each week for every plant.
You should prune all leaves that touch the ground, and you may also need to prune some leaves, or parts of leaves, to prevent them from overlapping with the leaves of adjacent plants and competing for essential sunlight. Minimize your problems from over-crowding of your plants by allowing adequate space for each plant to grow to maturity in full sunlight.