Growing a Healthy Plant.
Our tomato varieties are indeterminate. This means that unlike in a typical garden, our vines will continue to grow until cut at the top to stop the growth. Our plants are usually 36- to 40-feet tall when we take them down. In order to support such tall plants, the vines are clipped to strings that are hooked to the greenhouse structure. The concept is similar to supporting home-garden tomatoes with a stake or cage to keep them upright.
One of the most important elements to growing great tomatoes is actually limiting the amount of fruit any single plant produces. The key is suckering. When the plants begin to grow, they produce “shoots,” which are smaller vines that sprout off of the main plant. (Fact: a vine or shoot that produces tomatoes is called a “head.”) These must be removed. Limiting the number of heads allows the plant to focus its energy on the main head, directing all the water and food into the flavorful tomatoes we bring to market.
This is exactly what it sounds like. We take some of the leaves off the plants to open up the crop and let in the sun to ripen the fruit. It’s a balancing act to retain the right number leaves. Fewer leaves let in more sunshine, but the plants need the leaves to bring water and nutrients to the fruit. Also, plants cool themselves through respiration like we do. The plants need a certain amount of leaves to properly regulate their internal temperature. It’s our head grower’s job to get this balance just right based on plant health, time of year, and many other factors.
As the plants begin to flower, bumblebees take care of pollination, turning yellow flowers into red tomatoes. To ensure we get nicely sized, strong tomatoes that can hang on the vine until they are perfectly ripe, we remove extra flowers. How many and when depends on the time of the year and light. When light levels are low, we will remove more flowers to ensure that the plant can carry the fruit load. When it’s sunny, we keep more tomatoes on a cluster. A plant needs to be able to hold about 8-weeks worth of fruit at different stages of maturity to stay healthy and make sure all the fruit is in balance.
The plants grow about a one-foot each week in the summer and a little less in the winter, growing up a string which is hooked onto the greenhouse structure. Once the plant reaches about 10-feet tall, we regularly unwind the string from the hook and slide it down so the fruit is always about waist high. By repeating this throughout the life of the crop, the plant travels down the row as far as 25 feet from its root system. The older the plant, the harder the roots have to work to supply the head with the nutrients needed to sustain new growth. Lowering is one of the more difficult jobs towards the end of the crop season when the vines get long and heavy.