Going from square one in plant-knowledge (famous in my family for murdering cactus plants) to having a jungle on the balcony and kitchen counter. It took a lot of reading, listening and watching, and in between the learning I squeezed in two growing seasons worth of tomatoes in a span of 7 months. Not bad! Here is a short recap, yield results and why I’m switching over to 100% cherry tomatoes.
“The plants look so naked!”, was my girlfriend’s response to what I had done: Using a pair of scissors to cut all extra foliage away from the plants for the last stretch of this tomato season. I picked this practice up from Urban Farmer Curtis, a Youtuber famous for growing on rented land in a patchwork all over the suburb where his house is.
The logic is two-fold; if the plant doesn’t have to “waste” energy and nutritions on the excess leaves and only funnel these precious resources into the fruits, they’ll grow faster and fruiter. The second use is that it allegedly triggers a self-defense mechanism within the plant. The plant, simply put, thinks something is eating it up and it needs to produce seeds to survive, so any flowers turn into fruit almost for certain. I’m not sure where I picked up the second point, I’ve filtered through so much material the last year that some of the sources gets blurry.
I should probably have been better at removing suckers and trimming the plants as they grew, but I wanted to keep my tomato-gardening upkeep to a minimum, which probably cost me a lot of tomatoes in the long run. It felt weird to cut away the very things I had poured my heart and soul into growing, taking care of since they were mere seeds.
I remember how much anxiety I had when I accidentally ripped the roots off a little seedling. 80 or so tomato plants later I learned to get over the small things like that – I probably saved and raised more plants than I should. The “shotgun planting” I used in the first season didn’t do me (or the plants) any favors, where I tried to save every tiny seed that showed some form of life. I got more experience under my belt in figuring out which ones are worth saving from observing which ones made it and which ones didn’t. The short cut to success is to fail a couple of times, right?
I tested growing in containers on the kitchen counter and I found out the disadvantage of regular tomatoes fairly quickly – The greatest disadvantage of growing indoors is that the plants won’t get an even sun-tan without help (turning the pot over every other day or so). The larger regular tomato plants grew big so I had to string them up to the lights above them and that made turning the pots…very awkward. It was a lot easier to give a generous and even amount of sun to the smaller determinate cherry tomatoes that needed less outside help to stay straight and the difference in yield was obvious from the start.
A practical experience like that is worths it’s weight in gold for later. Another thing that I observed was that the cherry tomato plants smaller leaves make that variant ideal; less competition between the same amount of plants for sunlight and they don’t end up shading each other as much as the larger tomato plants did.
The upside-down Growing tomatoes was a success
Outdoors, on the balcony, I used hanging wall-pots and coke-bottles from the ceiling to grow tomatoes, in addition to the small growing box. The coke-bottle experiment was a fun one, inspired by this video. I used way too small bottles but successfully got fruit from them – But if I had used something bigger there wouldn’t have been a need for so much micromanagement, the root system of the tomatoes grew too big compared to the soil so I had to water them 50% more often. This lazy gardener prefers less work, so next year there will be bigger upside-down containers for sure. (Or an automatic drip system, need to think about that one for a bit).
It was freaky (in a good way) watching the plants grow upside down. It hit me what a space saver it was to grow tomatoes that way, using space you normally don’t use! The whole point of the kitchen-counter growing was to make a point of that you don’t need a whole lot of space to grow something – The hanging bottles blew that part out of the water.
This is another way to grow where cherry tomatoes smaller fruits have a huge advantage over the regular tomato: One of the branches snapped from the weight of the fruits on the regular one, even when I had supported it with some string.
I’ll make some changes to the designs the next time around: Larger bottles, nicer looking ones (decorations?), making the opening a bit tighter to keep more water inside (and not make a mess of things) and if I get something that looks aesthetically pleasing I’ll see if I can hang up a couple at work or in the wild to expand my available “farming space”.
Yields, and what’s next?
Sadly, the tomatoes decided to pop up at un-uniform times so it was hard to keep track of them, what I did was keeping a count of amounts of fruits instead of weighing them when I harvested them that I thought I’d do. So I got about 140 cherry tomatoes (the regular ones aren’t finished yet, but preliminary its about 6 times more) and at about 20grams each, that comes out to 2.8kg (6.1 pounds) – Not bad, but not fantastic either. We can squeeze a lot more fruit out of the smaller space than that, I’m positive of it! It’s good to have some baseline to work with though. Data is data!
One way to improve the yield is upping the focus on quality over quantity, the approach of desperately trying to save too many seedlings wasn’t a particularly productive use of time and very fiddley. Having learned to “let go” of plants not going anywhere and just taking up space for the more healthy ones was hard, but necessary going forward.
Another way to improve yields is to take advantage of companion-planting, a book recommendation I got from Toby Hemenway (and other permaculture-thinkers) was “Carrots love tomatoes” which was very helpful. I’m not going to use carrots, as the book title suggests, the growing space isn’t very suited for it, but basil and beans can be worked in without a problem and give synergistic effects to each other. Those are two crops I already grow as fun side-projects parallel with tomatoes, combining them seems like a logical step.
I’m going to switch up to only cherry tomato plants though: Easier for the spots I grow in, better yield, easier to take care of, can fit more of them, much more tolerant to hanging upside-down and with more space in the pots its easier to companion-plant with them.
Can’t wait for February and the next round of trial and error 🍅