Your Tomatoes Need Your Support!

By Ashley Troth, PhD, Durham County Extension Agent, Agriculture-Consumer and Commercial Ornamental Horticulture

(Image credit: A. Van Public Domain Mark 1.0)

They may look small and sweet now, but don’t let your tomato plants fool you. Without proper support, tomatoes are sprawling vines that can often have problems with disease, leading to poor fruit set. By planning ahead and selecting the right supports for your type of tomato, you can keep plants off the ground, increase air flow around leaves, and give your plants a fighting chance against many southeastern tomato diseases.

Tomatoes come in two major varieties: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes set fruit over a short period and are typically smaller plants overall. Many dwarf tomato varieties are determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes grow and set fruit throughout the season, leading to large plants that can reach 10+ feet tall. Many cherry and grape tomatoes are indeterminate, as well as many heirloom tomatoes.

While many dwarf tomato varieties require little support and can get by with tomato cages, for larger determinate and indeterminate varieties, it’s worth doing some extra work upfront to set your tomatoes up right.

Determinate Varieties

One good option for supporting smaller determinate tomatoes is the Florida weave (also call “basket weave”) system, which uses fewer stakes than individually staking plants. This system can be used for indeterminate varieties as well, but they will need to be trimmed once they reach the top of the stakes and are overall more likely to be too heavy at maturity for this support system.

Florida weave system used to support determinate tomatoes. (Image credit: UNH Extension)

To begin, place 5 to 6 feet sturdy wooden or metal stakes every two to three plants at transplant, with double stakes at the end of each row for strength. Stakes should be set at least 6 inches deep, although consider setting stakes up for a foot deep for extra support. For indeterminate varieties, taller stakes will provide better support.

Once stakes are set, weave twine in a figure eight pattern between tomato plants, wrapping twice around each stake down the row. At the end of each row, begin weaving back down the same row in the opposite direction, gently sandwiching young plants between twine rows. The first row of twine support should be placed 6 to 12 inches above the soil and can help plants from leaning and allowing leaves to contact the soil. As plants grow, weave another layer of twine every 6 to 8 inches to keep plants well supported.

Indeterminate Varieties

Larger indeterminate varieties of tomatoes truly are vines that will just keep growing given the right conditions. These large plants will benefit from heavy trellises or cages. Large cages can be built from wood, rolled wire fence, or agricultural fence panels. Examples abound online, but keep in mind that whatever material you choose, you will need to be able to easily reach around the plant to collect fruit, prune, and scout for pests. Openings in the trellis or cage that are at least 4 inches square are recommended. Secure plants to trellises with soft materials such as jute twine or bits of old stockings or t-shirts to prevent ties from cutting into the plants. Always tie plants gently, with a bit of give where they are secured.

Overhead trellis system for large indeterminate vines. (Image credit: MSU Extension)

Another option for larger plants is to provide overhead support. In this system, tall posts (8 feet or taller is preferred) are anchored on either end of tomato rows, with heavy wire run between the posts. A length of twine is hung from the wire for each individual plant, and plants are secured to the twine as they grow using specialty tomato clips. Prune plants to keep only the central vine (remove suckers/off-shoots), and clip every 12 to 18 inches to secure. Removing suckers will cause plants to produce fewer fruit, but fruit will be larger overall.

Want to learn more about growing your dream tomatoes? Check out the excellent resources below.

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Resources and Additional Information

The University of Maine has put out a great video series on multiple approaches to support tomatoes. Check out all three short videos to see what’s best for your plants!

How to Grow and Stake Tomatoes

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmpQE6s_PEY

How to Stake Tomatoes: Basket Weave Technique

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSf3aSj46jo&t=4s

How to Stake Tomatoes: Trellis Technique

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giJwIJSHoqo

Author Ashley Troth’s Video on Tomato Staking Methods

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI04WIifeCQ

Pruning Tomato Plants

An excellent resource from UNH Extension covering multiple training and trellising techniques as well as pruning.

https://extension.unh.edu/resource/pruning-tomato-plants-fact-sheet

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Ten Plants That Can Take the Heat

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

The pilgrimage to local nurseries has begun and warm-weather gardening is upon us. With so many plant selections available and a heat wave due by the end of the week, it seems like the perfect time to revisit one of our most popular blog posts: “Ten Plants that Can Take the Heat,” by Andrea Laine. Grab a cold iced tea and plan your garden for the long hot summer to come. 

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Come July, I am unlikely to be outdoors — much less gardening—unless watering or weeding is absolutely required. I dislike the heat of a North Carolina Piedmont summer. Luckily for my garden and the birds and insects who visit it, there are perennials and annuals that do just fine despite the heat and even when rain is not plentiful.  

I’ve been noticing those plants more lately as it has been almost two weeks since a measurable amount of rain has fallen on my garden. And, we’ve had some very hot days, with heat indexes of 100 or more. I watered six days ago and again this morning (July 20).

Plants begin suffering physiological damage at 86 degrees and above1. Keeping up with watering is important, especially for the newer additions to the garden or those recently transplanted. An established tree, shrub or plant will fare better due to a stronger, more settled root system.  

Here are 10 plants that tolerate sunny, hot, and dry conditions reasonably well:

Perennials

Blackberry Lily or Leopard Flower (Belamcanda) This is my first experience with this semi-hardy summer bulb. It prefers morning sun, but this plant is doing very well in afternoon sun in well-drained soil. The dainty flowers began blooming in July atop stalks 30 to 36 inches high. Blackberry refers to the black seeds that follow flowering. Store corms in dry sand at 35-41 degrees.


Catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) This is another plant I had never grown before this year and so far I am very pleased. Lavender spikes of flowers (10 inches high) appear late spring to mid-summer and flowers are always crowded with bees, moths and butterflies. It is deer resistant. Photo credit: Debbie Roos


Lantana (Lantana Camara) The ‘Miss Huff’ cultivar is a generally reliable perennial in the Piedmont region of NC. Treat all other cultivars as annuals here. Miss Huff is a woody evergreen shrub that will grow 4’ high and wide in full sun. It blooms from late spring to fall and flowers are a mix of orange, yellow and pink. Cut it down to four to six inches in the spring before new growth begins.


Garden Sage (Salvia Officinalis) This plant is the star of my herb garden – good-looking, evergreen and productive all year. It is planted in well-drained soil and receives four to six hours of sun; that’s about as ‘full’ as my heavily wooded property allows, but obviously it has been good enough for this plant.  


Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)  Being native to the southeast United States, it’s not a great surprise that the purple coneflower tolerates heat and drought. But it also tolerates humidity and poor soil and can grow in full sun or part shade. Pinkish-purple flowers appear from May to October. It is deer resistant, too. Photo credit: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/echinacea-purpurea/

Annuals

Summer snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia)  For years now I have relied on this annual to add color and grace to my front walkway. I choose white and purple flowering cultivars but there are pink and variegated ones, too.  It grows at a medium rate and flowers from June through September. I bet it would do well in a container. Actually, most plants that tolerate drought probably would.


Begonia x ‘Dragonwing’ This has long been my favorite begonia because it fills out so nicely. I don’t readily think of begonias as being heat and drought tolerant, but I’ve included this one because of my firsthand experience with it under exactly those conditions. I love its drooping clusters of flowers. I usually plant this in a container on my deck which receives morning sun. This year I put it in the ground outside my front door,  a western exposure that also receives a good bit of shade. As you can see, it is doing well.


Evolvulus  glomeratus ‘Blue daze’ It was serendipity when I spotted this plant in a nursery in Mebane last summer. I was through with my planting for the season (or so I told myself) but just couldn’t resist its charms. I do like plants with blue flowers. I brought it home without knowing anything about it. I put it in the ground in full sun among some perennial grasses and it proceeded to take over! I eventually learned that it is a ground cover in the morning-glory family. It’s flowers close at dusk or on cloudy days. If planted in the ground, it forms sprawling mounds nine to 18 inches tall2, which was precisely what I experienced. I would plant it again, but in a more open space. It was yet another lesson in “right plant, right place.” Photo credit: JC Raulston Arboretum


Mandevilla (Dipladenia sanderi) Every summer my mother planted this tropical vine in a container (with trellis for climbing) on her deck in Southeast Pennsylvania. In a short time, it looked spectacular. I’ve often considered doing the same, but the vines have become more expensive than I care to spend for a one-season plant. So, imagine my glee this spring when I noticed a new compact mounding cultivar for $6 in a big box store. I planted three in the ground; I mulched but have not been aggressive with water. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies. NC State Extension says they can be wintered indoors in a container.  


Portulaca grandiflora This is an old favorite of mine that I have not planted in a great while but is such a crowd pleaser. I think it might come to own this sloped spot (therefore, well-draining) among the native pink muhly grasses. There are varieties that flower in a single color, but I enjoy the ones with a variety of colors on one plant. So cheerful! Like evolvulus, the flowers close on cloudy days.

I’ll be looking to add more of these plants to my garden in future years. I am so grateful that some like it hot!


Footnotes, Resources & Further Reading

1. https://www.ahsgardening.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map

2. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/evolvulus-glomeratus/

https://extensiongardener.ces.ncsu.edu/extgardener-salvias-for-the-sage-gardener/

https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/begonia-dragonwings.aspx

Learn more about other plants listed above: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/

(Unless otherwise noted, photos taken by A. Laine)

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Specimen Spotlight: American Wisteria

By Cathy Halloran, EMGV

American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens), a better non-invasive native choice for the garden. (Photo by Pamela Dempsey.)

I’ll never forget the first time in Paris over 30 years ago. It was springtime, and the wisteria was in bloom. The smell and the purple flowers dangling in mid-air will be forever in my memory. Then, 4 years ago I moved to North Carolina, and in springtime once again saw wisteria. But, this time it was everywhere and somehow choking all the trees and shrubs it surrounded. I’ve learned there is invasive wisteria and native wisteria.

The invasive species are Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) and Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda). The non-invasive, or native species of wisteria is American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens). If you want to incorporate a wisteria vine into your garden, a good option is the American wisteria. This deciduous wisteria blooms after the leaves emerge. Twines are counterclockwise woody vines that grow to 40 feet or more. Its stems are thinner than the invasive species, and they won’t damage wooden arbors or trellises. It’s well-suited for our planting zone.

The cultivar ‘Amethyst Falls’ has deep blue/purple flowers and blooms in spring and summer. The American wisteria is a larval host plant to both the silver-spotted skipper and long- tailed skipper butterflies, an added bonus of adding this plant to your garden.

(Left) American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) ‘Amethyst Falls’ is sometimes referred to as a dwarf variety because of the smaller leaves, flowers and more compact form, offers another native alternative for vine-loving gardeners. (Photo by David J. Stang courtesy of NCSU Plant Toolbox site). (Right) While beautiful, the Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) can quickly become troublesome in the landscape due to its highly invasive nature. (Photo courtesy of NCSU Plant Toolbox site.)

*References and Additional Reading

NCSU Plant Toolbox Wisteria frutescens

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/wisteria-frutescens/

NC Plant Toolbox Wisteria sinensis

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/wisteria-sinensis/

Missouri Botanical Garden, Wisteria frutescens

https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=280631

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Learn With Us, May 2022

Bull City Gardener Series-Live- Problem Solving and Propagation: Air Layering
Tuesday May 17th, 10-11 am or Sunday May 22nd, 2-3 pm
Briggs Ave. Community Garden

Learn to identify and treat common vegetable gardens problems, and even how you can prevent some before they get out of hand. Bring samples and stories from your own garden and learn how to handle whatever’s bugging you. For the second half, learn how to propagate plants by air layering, one of the most exotic and ancient forms of propagation. It uses the same principles as pinning a low branch to the ground, only with air layering, you bring the ground to the branch. It’s a good technique to use with trees and shrubs whose branches don’t bend down.

Two identical sessions of this class are available. Click below to register. REGISTRATION REQUIRED. https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/garden-problem-solving-and-propagation-air-layering/

Durham Garden Forum: The Perkins Orchard Experience
May 17th, 7-8:30 pm via Zoom
“The Perkins Orchard Experience: since 1970” with Donovan Alexander “Alex” Watson, owner, Perkins Orchard.  There are good reasons why Perkins Orchard is the largest and oldest produce market in Durham.  For 51 years Perkins Orchard has been committed to high-quality service and products for the benefit of all in Durham.  Please join us to learn about Perkins Orchard and their farming techniques.

We would like to continue increasing our membership and are asking your continued help to spread the word about the Durham Garden Forum to your neighbors and friends.  Those who are interested in attending and/or joining can send an email to durhamgardenforum@gmail.com and they will be sent a membership form. A Zoom registration link for this program will be sent out about one week before the scheduled presentation.  If you plan to attend this program, you must register using the Zoom registration link.  After registering, you will receive a join meeting link. 

May: To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Just another confused spring.  Our April showers all came in March and the winds of March have persisted throughout April not to mention the late frosts.  Sheeesh!  And May??  Who knows?  Might be July hot or April cool or all of the above.  Guess we’ll have to wait and see.  There don’t seem to be any gopher prognosticators for the spring/summer interface.

At least the Accidental Cottage Garden appears to have escaped serious damage (mostly).  The peonies (Paeonia officinalis) are spectacular as are the white with purple fringe iris (Iris x hybrid).  I used to know their name, but I can’t remember anybody’s name anymore, so it’s the “Hey, you” iris.  They are joined by two clumps of dianthus (Dianthus ‘Sweetie Pie’) and the little orange flowered plant.  $100 (in Monopoly money) for an ID of it. 

(Left to right) The Accidental Cottage Garden comes to life featuring Dianthus ‘Sweetie Pie’, iris, peonies (Paeonia officinalis), and a mystery plant with orange blooms despite unpredictable spring weather. (Photos by G. Crispell )

I suppose you really came to this for a gardening calendar, like it says at the top.  If you insist.

LAWN CARE

Do you have a cool season lawn (Fescue or Bluegrass)?  Recent research has indicated that fertilizing after mid-March will not cause a cataclysmic decline of your turf grass.  The use of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or equivalent) be used as opposed to a high nitrogen slow-release variety.

For those of us with warm season lawns (Bermuda, Zoysia) now is definitely the time to put out a high nitrogen (the first number on the bag) slow-release fertilizer.  Y’all with centipede lawns would do well to wait until late May or early June to make a similar application.

Mow cool-season grass at 3”-4” and warm-season at 1 ½” to 2”.

FERTILIZING (other than grass)

Crops that take all season to produce or those that produce all season (subtle difference in wording—big difference in crop) would be most delighted with a feeding of a balanced fertilizer about now.  Same goes for your annuals that will reward you with prodigious quantities of blooms.

Acid loving (ericaceous) plants (E.g. azaleas, other rhododendrons, camellias)  can be fed with an appropriate amount of acidic fertilizer.  (You know the appropriate amount because you got a FREE SOIL TEST earlier).

PLANTING

For ideal veggie planting times check out the NCSU website’s Central NC Planting Calendar for Annual Vegetables (see link in resources section below). The site is very helpful and includes flowers plus when, how, and how far apart to plant all things annual.

PRUNING

Grab those shears and loppers (the ones you sharpened and oiled in December) and put ‘em to work.  Any of your spring flowering plants that need pruning should be pruned very shortly after they finish blooming.  Many of them set next year’s buds within six to eight weeks of blooming.  Pruning procrastination will have a deleterious effect on next year’s floral display.

Check azaleas and camellias for leaf gall.  It doesn’t harm the plants, but it ain’t purty to look at.  Just prune out the galls as necessary.

Keep garden mums (Chrysanthemums spp.) pinched until mid-July if your intent is a Fall bloom time.

I know your grandmother always cut off the foliage of her spring bulbs right after they finished blooming.  Don’t.  Just don’t.  The leaves produce sugars (that’s what photosynthesis does) that feed the bulbs so that they can produce flowers next year.  Wait until the leaves turn yellow before cutting them. 

SPRAYING

To prevent borers on iris, rhododendrons, blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) and squashes apply a properly labeled insecticide now.

Spray fungicide on all of your fruit trees & bunch grapes and any tomatoes that show signs of early blight.

Keep on keepin’ on with any rose programs.

Check trees and shrubs (especially evergreens) for bagworms.  They are out and about this month as none of them has ever had the foresight to make a bag big enough to mate in.

Many vining undesirables are more susceptible to herbicide application right now while they are actively growing.  Think poison ivy/oak (Toxicodendron radicans/T. toxicarium), honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), English ivy (Hedera helix), etc.

OTHER THINGS TO DO FOR FUN AND PROFIT (well, fun anyway) IN MAY

Replace your pansies (Viola hybrids) with summer annuals.  The pansies may still look decent, but as soon as it gets hot and stays that way they will whither and perish.  Can’t take the heat and no way to get to the mountains.

Take those house plants outside and feed them.  They will appreciate the outdoor vacation and the meal.  Just don’t set them immediately in the direct sun.  Let them get used to the light by setting them in a semi-shady spot for a few days.  Coppertone doesn’t work real well on houseplants.  They do not take to it kindly.

Pollen season should be over now.  Wash the deck/patio furniture, raise the umbrella, pour a good cool beverage and sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labors. 

*Resources and Further Reading

NC Extension’s Carolina Lawns: A Guide to Maintaining Quality Turf in the Landscape

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/carolina-lawns

NC Extension Gardener Handbook – Herbaceous Ornamentals (learn about choosing annual and perennial plants, care, fertilization, and garden design)

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/10-herbaceous-ornamentals

NCSU’s Central NC Planting Calendar for Annual Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs

(https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/central-north-carolina-planting-calendar-for-annual-vegetables-fruits-and-herbs)

Vegetable Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/home-vegetable-gardening-a-quick-reference-guide

General Pruning Techniques for Trees and Shrubs

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/general-pruning-techniques

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