from the employee owners at Gardener's Supply Co.

Coddling Your Tomatoes for an Earlier Harvest

If you grow tomatoes in a cold or windy location, try this simple technique of wrapping your tomato cages with garden fabric.

Inside this cocoon of Garden Quilt fabric, are two very cozy ‘Sun Gold’ tomatoes.

Tomatoes are tropical vines that evolved in a climate about as different from Vermont as you can get. So here in the north, we need to do whatever we can to fool our tomato plants into thinking they’re not living on the 45th parallel.

I’ve developed a super-easy way to get my tomato plants off to an early start, yet keep them safely protected from cold spring temperatures and winds. I talked about this technique in an article about spring weather protection but I just took some photos to show you what it looks like.

You may already know from an earlier blog post about ladders vs. cages, that I’m a fan of our hinged tomato cages. The ones in these photos are all about 10 years old and still in perfect condition.

As an experiment, I wrapped only the north and west sides of this row. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the plants on the far end that were almost completely enclosed, are at least 20 percent larger than the others in the same row.

The tomatoes went into the ground May 10. Nights were still in the 30s. I dug compost into the bed and then added a handful of
organic fertilizer
to each of the planting holes. I put a tomato cage around the tomato as soon as it’s been planted. This helps me position the next plant in the row. Once all the plants are in the ground, I water them thoroughly using a watering can to make sure each plant receives a full gallon of water.

Now comes the wrapping. I use Garden Quilt fabric, which is a thicker and more durable version of the regular All Purpose fabric. In a windy location and cold climate like mine, I find it’s the best choice. If you’re in a slightly milder climate or a relatively protected area, the lighter fabric will work just fine.

Wrap the fabric around the outside of the cages, leaving at least 12” at the bottom so it can be secured to the ground with rocks or Earth Staples. Bunch up any extra fabric at the top and secure it to the cages with clothespins. I leave the top of this enclosure open for ventilation, but there’s enough extra fabric so if frost threatens, I can just pull the fabric over the top of the cages.

We had our last frost May 29. I had already put out most of my annuals, so I had to run around and cover lots of stuff. For the tomatoes, I just pulled up the extra fabric at the top of the cages and sealed them up. It took about 15 seconds.

The pictures here show what my tomatoes looked like on June 10, exactly one month after they went into the ground and about a week before I put away the fabric for the season. All the plants are flowering and most have already set fruit. When the fabric does come off, all the plants will get side-dressed with a cup of organic fertilizer. I also give them monthly drinks of All-Purpose Plant Health Care, which is immediately available to the plants and helps guard against stress.

If all goes well, I should be picking tomatoes (at least the cherries and early varieties) in my zone 4 garden by July 10.

-Kathy LaLiberte, Director of Gardening

Last weekend we had temperatures in the 90s, so I removed the fabric entirely on June 13. By this time the plants were in flower and starting to set fruit. Other years I’ve left the fabric in place until the end of the month.

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