Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Ghetto Greenhouse Part II

IPlastic Bottle promised an update when I transplanted seeds… I’m a bit late since I actually did this almost 3 weeks ago. I did save the pictures though, so I can still run through that bit. My daughter is at school and I didn’t want to be covered in joint compound and drywall dust to go pick her up, so I have almost an hour to write! 🙂

So seed starting next steps…

We drink a lot of bottled water and Gatorade which comes in plastic bottles and yes, I know, it’s terrible for the environment- but, I reuse mine for all sorts of things instead of just tossing them in the trash. Seed starting time for instance, I save bottles for several months and use those for my transplants instead of buying seed starting kits at the store. It saves money and it helps recycle many of those bottles that would otherwise wind up in trash. Clear plastic bottles make excellent seedling starters for several reasons; they are thin enough to cut through with household scissors and don’t require special tools, they hold water well without disintegrating like paper pots or peat pots, they are the ideal size for individual seedlings, are easily transportable if you’d like to give some plants away (which I do every year) and best of all, you can actually SEE the root development on your plants. There’s no questioning whether the root systems are well established and ready to plant, all you have to do is take a look. It’s also fun to be able to show my daughter all parts of the plant so that she she can see how they grow, not just the leaves and stems above ground, but all those essential roots too.

1) I prefer the 20 oz. Gatorade bottles for my transplants, but I use 17 oz. water bottles as well. The Gatorade bottles have a wide mouth, so I take the tops off, cut the bottle just above the label and turn the top upside down inside the the bottom. (Like in the photo) I filled both the top and bottom with soil. I’ve seen some gardeners cut the bottle closer to the middle, put soil only in the top portion with the roots sticking out the mouth and use the bottom to fill with water- makes a sort of self watering planter.
The water bottles I just cut the tops off above the label and only use the bottom 3/4 of the bottle as a container.

teaspoon and straws2) Roots are the single most important thing to the success of seedlings. Mine were a little leggy from starting off with not quite enough light, so I buried them deep,  leaving all that extra stem below the dirt. Tomato plants will just grow roots along the extra stem and give you a better root system. I used the seed starting soil again from Miracle Grow, since it claims to support and help create  healthy roots. I used a tablespoon from the kitchen to lift the seedling’s root ball out of each egg carton cell. You have to be VERY gentle when transplanting seedlings. The stems and leaves are  soft and delicate, not like those already hardened-off, ready to plant greenhouse plants you buy at the nursery. They’ll get there, but right now they need a little extra TLC when moving them about. The spoon helped me lift out the entire root system of each seedling with minimal handling of the stems and leaves. Those seedlings that didn’t have great roots established or were smaller, weaker plants I didn’t transplant. There are SO many plants when you start from seed, you can afford to be selective and choose your strongest and best growers.  I put only one or two seedlings per bottle, depending on how large they’d grown in the egg cartons.

3) As you transplant each seedling, you want to make sure and label them. I’ve used cut up pieces of the egg carton tops in the past, I forgot to save them this year. >.<
I’ve seen quite a few gardeners use Popsicle  or craft sticks, writing on them with a permanent marker. I didn’t have any of those handy; what I did have was a huge bag of bendy straws that had only cost me about $1.48 for the entire bag. I bent the straws, wrote my tags on the bent part and stuck the rest of the straw in the dirt.
Added bonus, the straws acted as little stakes to support the floppy plants until they grew into their new homes.
Tomato SeedlingObviously, you can tell pepper plants from tomato plants by their leaves fairly early on. If you’re planting more than one variety of tomato or pepper though, as was my case, you might have a difficult time discerning which is which until they start to flower or fruit. If you’re giving plants away or want them in a very specific place in the garden, you don’t want to have to play a guessing game, so label everything. Unless you like surprises…

4) Once the seedling is planted in the bottle and labeled, you’ll want to give it a good drink. I use an old Tide liquid laundry soap bottle with a few holes poked in the cap. It works better than the huge water pitcher I use for my house plants, giving enough control to water the seedlings thoroughly without drowning them. If you’re concerned you’ll overwater, poke a couple drainage holes in the bottom of your bottles. Make sure to sit them on trays or in troughs if you do that though! I used the black garden trough that was the bottom of my greenhouse and commandeered a plastic crate from the closet; pepper plants went in one, tomatoes in the other. Segregating them keeps them out of trouble. For some reason, my tomato plants try to wrap themselves around other plants if they’re too close. They’re territorial little buggers.
The reason for the big containers is to make it easy on you when it’s time to start the hardening off process. You’ll be moving your seedlings in and out of doors (unless you have a greenhouse or cold frame) and it’s much easier to carry large tubs than move 30 or more individual plants. Even using trays last year, I had some near deaths when plants decided to base-jump off the trays while I was walking.
The tubs are also real life-savers if you need to move your plants FAST. Mid-Missouri is notorious for strong spring storms from March – May. New seedlings break in strong winds, are crushed in torrential rainfall and torn to bits in hail storms. If you live anywhere near the middle of  the country, you know storms can come on fast and be unpredictable. Being able to move your plants quickly can save you from starting over.

5) I removed the plastic cover over my ghetto greenhouse when I transplanted to bottles. They have plenty of soil around the roots now to hold water, they didn’t need the extra protection of plastic over them. Keeping the cover on will filter your light too, which can make them leggy. Even with the additional light source, my seedlings always seem to be slightly leggy plants. One thing I have found to help remedy this is to have the window open as much as possible so they get a breeze. I also put a fan on them sometimes, it makes them feel pretty when their hair blows in the breeze. Ok, in truth, I do this to make them stand up and grow a backbone- a slight breeze during the hardening off period, strengthens the plant’s stems. You don’t want wimpy plants that lie there and look pitiful when you move them out to the garden.TomsPeppers
Until the hardening off period, I keep the light on them as much as possible and just check the soil with a finger to see if they need water. The clear bottles are handy in that respect as well, you can see if the soil is dry past the surface and how far down. I’ve been adding water about every 4-5 days.

6) Pepper plants like HEAT, so I won’t be moving these little guys into the garden for a few more weeks. I’ve read that pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted outdoors until the ground temperature has reached around 65 F. This means that it should be staying in at least the 50’s during the night. If transplanted too early in cold soil, it can stunt the pepper plant’s growth, the leaves may turn yellow and the plants look sickly. Tomato plants aren’t as particular, but you shouldn’t put them out until all danger of frost has passed.
This year has been an especially cool spring and most of my landscape plants are off to a slow start. Last year, I had my entire garden in the last couple weeks of April; I’m thinking this year it will be more like the 2nd or 3rd week of May. Even if you do make the mistake of moving your plants out too early and you aren’t great at knitting tiny sweaters, you can heavily mulch and /or cover them during especially cold nights. (Plastic shower curtain liners make great frost covers, need to change yours?)
As long as it doesn’t kill the root, the plant may recover and do well once it gets the heat and sun that it needs.

I’ll write the final bit of this series when I move my transplants outdoors. In the meantime, I’m saving up all my eggshells and coffee grounds. Tomato plants need calcium to avoid blossom drop, a common tomato plant issue (eggshells) and leftover coffee grinds are a great green material for the compost pile.

-B


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Ghetto Greenhouse

004I learned a few things last year when I started peppers and tomato plants from seed, so I decided this year to improve on my experience. I started my plantings this year with an actual seed starting formula instead of just generic potting soil. Even though, I almost always buy Miracle Gro, this particular blend is supposed to help with good root development- which if you read my previous article, this is one of THE most important aspects of successful tomato plants: excellent root growth. It was a few more $ than the regular potting mix, but one small bag was more than enough for starting all my seedlings.

001Last year, I started  seeds in gallon milk jugs that I’d cut the tops from. I dumped all the seeds in together into the jug and set the top back on the bottom half to make mini-greenhouses. This seemed a great idea at the time, I found out that when the seedlings outgrew their milk jug homes and needed to be moved to individual containers, it was very difficult if not impossible to separate their roots without destroying some of them. This year, I opted for saving egg cartons. I tried to keep it to no more than 1 or 2 seeds per cell. I did run out of cartons and had to put a few in a lid and a few more in a halved milk jug. I tried to keep them further apart than I had the previous year though. If the individual cells work well, I’ll be sure to use all egg cartons with cells next year.
The egg cartons are sitting in a big, black plastic garden tub I picked up at Lowes for only $8. I figured it would be much nicer to move about than several different trays- I used cookie sheets to hold all my bottles and containers last year, which worked ok, but it was kind of a pain in the butt moving multiple sheets in and out when it came time to harden off the seedlings. This tub contains everything nicely, it’s waterproof, easy clean up and it’s black, so it will help absorb heat.

002We were having trouble getting those tiny little tomato and pepper seeds to stay put where we wanted them, so my daughter helped me make seed tapes. Some very tiny seeds will come from the seed companies already in paper tapes. Seed starting kits from the store often come with miniature pots made of peat and a thin, biodegradable net to keep them from falling apart until the roots create a network to hold the pete in place when removed. I cut small squares of paper towel, and sprayed them with a couple squirts from a spray bottle while she held it in her hand. We then set the seed on the wet towel, which stuck very nicely. I was able to move a bit of soil from and egg cell, put the paper down with the seed and have it stay in place while covering it back up with soil. The paper towel degrades naturally and doesn’t stop the roots from growing, just like the net-wrapped pete cells. The pete cells are convenient, but can be costly for a large set up. This method only costs you about 1 paper towel per 20 or so seeds. 🙂

003Once all our seeds were planted I used a tea spoon to lightly firm the soil over the seeds. You don’t need to really pack them down, you want the soil to stay a bit light for those tiny, tender little roots to take hold. Watering will help to further settle the soil around the seeds and help them to start germination. A fancy tool isn’t necessary for planting seeds, this old teaspoon and fingers worked well.

007After all the seeds are covered in soil, you’ll need to give them a good drink. I’ve found that pouring water displaces too much soil when you’re dealing with small seeds and shallow cells. I use a spray bottle filled with water, the same one I keep for training cats, cleaning houseplant leaves, etc. It cost me $2 at the grocery store. I’ll continue using this to water while the seedling are in these tiny cells. Over watering could cause mildew to develop or rot the roots.

006Tomato seedlings are pretty distinctive and it isn’t difficult to differentiate between tomato and pepper plants once they get a few leaves on them. However, I planted two different types of tomatoes and two different types of peppers. If it’s important to you that you can tell what you’ve planted where later, make sure to label everything. Otherwise, you’ll be playing roulette with your seedlings when you put them out in the garden, since they won’t have identifiable fruit when they’re transplanted. I used toothpicks wrapped in cloth tape and wrote on them with a permanent laundry marker. I’ve seen people use old silverware, which looks elegant in the garden itself, Popsicle sticks, plastic cutlery- last year I cut triangles from my left over egg carton lids and wrote on those. It’s not important WHAT you use. Just make sure it’s A) Waterproof and B) Won’t degrade before your plants are ready to be moved outdoors.

009In case you forget when your plants are supposed to germinate, would like to remember the specific water, spacing or sun requirements or just want to know the  plant name so you can choose the same for next year (or brag about the particular type of heirloom you planted and grew with great success)- you’ll want to keep your seed packets or write it down somewhere. If you order your seeds online and created an account with the seller, they’ll probably have your order on file and you can refer back to it that way. Personally, I find it easiest to just hang on to the seed packets themselves. I put them in a Zip-loc baggie to keep them from getting dirty or wet and tucked them into my plastic tray right next to the seedlings. Easy reference, close at hand. Stick them in a file to reorder next year after moving your plants to the garden.

008

I put my finished seed tray in front of our big bay window, which gets all but the late afternoon sun. It’s sitting on top of my daughter’s wagon, so it moves around nicely. That’s a leftover bit of drywall board underneath it for stability. I use what I have and re-purpose what I can. I see lots of fancy shelving systems with installed grow lights and such. Get them if you feel they make your life easier, your growing space look more attractive, or whatever the reason- but know that they are absolutely NOT necessary to successfully grow plants, regardless of what the salespeople or online ads tell you. The black plastic tub with help absorb and retain warmth on the seedlings, since I don’t use seed warming mats either. I put a bit of clear plastic over the tray that was leftover drop cloth from a painting project; it helps to retain warmth and moisture while the seeds germinate. They don’t really need a grow light until they actually break through the soil.

ghettogreenhouseThis photo I took today, it’s about 3 1/2 weeks from our initial plant date. You can see that I have some pretty decent sized seedlings already. The tomato plants all came up first, the peppers took about a week longer. I did notice after a week of good growth that the tomato plants were getting a bit leggy (long, thin stems from not enough light); I had this lamp in our bedroom that is adjustable, Tom picked me up a plant light bulb during a trip to Lowes to get a snow blower. The bulb was $7 plus change, but made a HUGE difference in the amount of light my seedlings were getting. I also cut up a box into three parts and covered the insides with tinfoil to act as light reflector screens. After a week, the tomato plants are already thickening up and less leggy and the peppers have all come up as well. I kept the plastic and draped it over the top- my ghetto greenhouse. Drop cloth plastic, foil, diaper box, plastic tub and some egg cartons. It’s working beautifully and I spent next to nothing on it.

LeavesTomatoes are ready for transplant when they have two sets of true leaves. These guys are already very close; I’ll probably be moving them into bottles in a week or so. My husband drinks a lot of bottled water and I drink a lot of Gatorade when I work out, so I’ve stockpiled the leftover bottles in our utility room. These were great planters last year. They let in light, they’re easy to remove when it’s time to plant and since they’re clear- I can see the root development on the plants and whether they actually need water or not.  I’ll post updates when the seedlings are ready for transplant.

-B


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TOmato, ToMAto

Tomato01I’m just going to start by saying there is a MEGA PSYCHO-CRAP TON of information out there on growing the perfect tomatoes. I ran into several forums where they were practically ready to kill each other in the debate of which form of calcium is the best soil additive for tomato plants. I’m not a scientist folks; I’m not a farmer, not even a master gardener. I’m a mom that gets tired of worrying about where my food has been, who it was picked and packaged by and whether any of them bothered to wash their hands in the process. I also get sick of paying ridiculous prices for stuff that should have been thrown in a hog trough instead of being put on my daughter’s plate. We’ve had tomatoes from the store that looked ok on the outside, only to slice them and discover moldy seeds inside (I did NOT feed these to my daughter, in case you were wondering) or that they were half green- some looked beautiful, but had absolutely zero flavor.
A friend told me that they saw a tomato fall off a truck on its way to the store and it actually bounced and remained completely intact, going down the highway at 60+ mph. You have to wonder, what in the world have they genetically engineered into those? If you’ve experienced any of the above or similar issues with your produce, you too might be considering growing a few of your own groceries. Tomatoes are one of the first veggies people usually start with.

Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow successfully, even for a novice. They’ll grow in containers, in the ground, even upside down in bags. You can start them from seed or plants. There are tons of different varieties and types so there’s a little something for every taste. To keep this halfway readable and hopefully curb some of my tendency to ramble, I’m going to write this post in individual tips.

Let the sun shine in!
All varieties of tomatoes will benefit from full sun; recommended is 10 hours of light in summer, minimum of 6 hours direct sun per day. Seedlings should be in direct sunlight for 8 hours or get 14-18 hours under grow lights. If your tomato seedlings don’t get enough light, they’ll be leggy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they’ll be top models, but it does mean that the stems will be weak and won’t support the weight at the top of the plant. The closer to the light seedling is, the stronger and bushier it will be.
Plants bought from a store generally are grown under ideal conditions: the stems are strong, the plants have plenty of leaves, root systems well developed and they’re already hardened off and ready to plant. Many first time gardeners may prefer to go with plants, they require less trial and error. Garden centers will tend to choose proven performers that grow well in your local climate and are disease resistant.

Roll over, I’m crowded…tomatoseedlings
Seedlings and young plants don’t like to be smushed together so that they can’t get air. Too little space between plants will create lazy, slow growing seedlings. As soon as they get a set of leaves, I move mine from egg cartons or a community flat into small individual containers. For tomato and pepper plants, I use 17 oz. plastic water bottles with the tops cut off. I’ve seen pins on Pinterest of people using cardboard toilet paper rolls. If you don’t feel like recycling or reusing a container, most garden centers sell individual pete pots that you can plant directly into the ground when the seedling is ready for transplant. Seedlings will benefit from being placed outside for a few hours on a warm, windy day or set in front of a fan. This helps the stems strengthen up and resist breakage when you kick them out of the house and they’re on their own.
If you plant seedlings in pete pots or cardboard containers- be certain that no portion of the container is above ground and exposed to air. If it is, the container will act like a wick, drying out the root ball and either stunting the plant’s growth or killing it outright.
When choosing seedlings in a nursery or garden center, don’t pick the most crowded, lush leaved plants you can find. These are the plants that will actually get slow starts when transplanted. Pull the plant out of the container slightly and look at the root system. A strong, well developed root system will do more for a new seedling that all that showy top growth.
If you grow your plants from seed, the new seedlings will need to be hardened off before transplanted to the garden. You don’t need to slap them around, just take them outside for a few hours each day. This is easiest to do if you have all your little containers on one big tray or trays- take your seedlings outside each day, gradually increasing their outdoors time. A slightly cloudy day with a bit of wind is the ideal first day; but the main point is, adjust them gradually. If they show signs of shock, like dropping leaves or wilting in too much sun, move them to the shade for a bit. Once they can tolerate some full sun, leave them out overnight, so long as the temperature is over 50-degrees F.

Make a bed they’ll be happy to lie in
All successful plants start with a good foundation. This is where I saw the greatest argument on forums and other sites related to successful tomato planting; they debate to the death whether soil should be tested, what additives to put in, etc., etc.
I suppose you could get all scientific about it- test your soil, adjust PH, start adding chemicals, fertilizers, lime, calcium and so forth. I’ve read detailed recipes of using starter solutions, mixing 8-8-8 fertilizers, phosphorus, lime, peat moss, apply this every two weeks, apply that at the start of the season…

If this is all sounding more like a science experiment than growing food, I’m with you, I thought so too. I had about 5 plants last summer; 3 cherry tomato, two roma- one of the cherries was even left in a pot because I was going to give it to someone and they decided they didn’t want it. I was too lazy to take it out and dig a hole, so I just sat it next to the house. I didn’t use fertilizer. I didn’t do a soil test; add lime, chemicals, or starter solutions. I used potting soil, some kitchen scraps and a compost bin. That’s it. If you have a neighbor with livestock or chickens, you’re golden. Go scoop some poop, mix it with some crushed leaves and work into the soil. Some of the absolute BEST store-bought tomatoes I’ve ever had were from our local Farris Fruit market. They sell these HUGE Mennonite tomatoes every year. I’ll bet you that the big secret behind the flavor and size of these beautiful, awesome tomatoes is probably nothing more complicated than… horse shit.Tomato02
I start my plants in Miracle grow potting soil. We have clay and rock for earth here naturally, so it has to have something added to it or you get one of two states: muck or concrete, depending on if it’s wet or dry. One of the absolute BEST garden tools I have is my compost bin. I dump yard clippings, chopped leaves, cardboard, kitchen vegetable scraps and livestock poo (when I can get it) in the compost bin. That is the ONLY fertilizer or additive I’ve put on my yard or garden for years. I don’t have to worry about keeping the animals or children off my lawn or washing everything to death before we eat it to avoid the chemicals, because there aren’t any. Use what you have. You can start a compost bin or pile in a relatively small space. You can even throw a little of the stuff directly in the garden and mulch over it, if you have it fenced and don’t have to worry about critters, it will break down naturally.
Tomato and pepper plants LOVE warm soil; a great way to prep your planting space ahead of time is to put down your scraps, leaves, etc., then cover the entire planting area with some cardboard and a layer of black landscaping fabric or plastic. Do it a few weeks before you intend to plant, or better still, do it in the fall and let it sit that way all winter. This also has the added benefit of baking the hell out of the weed and crabgrass seeds so you’re not hoeing or weeding right away.

Tuck them in and give them a blankie
So- your garden plot is ready, your seedlings are ready, now what? Dig a hole and plop them in? Eh- close. Just a couple things first…
Dig your planting holes deep enough to bury seedlings up to the first set of leaves. If you’re buying plants from the store; do the same, even if it means putting them deeper than they originally were in the pot. New roots will develop along the bare stem. I read some silly rhyme about more roots equals more fruits, but silly or not- it’s basically true. The stronger and deeper your root system is, the better the plant will produce. So give them lots of root space and bury them deep. Seedlings that are too wobbly can even be trenched: Dig a trench, pull off all but the uppermost leaves and bury the stem under 2-3 inches of soil. Don’t pack it too tightly around the upper portion to prevent breaking it off and be careful when driving your cages or stakes so you don’t puncture the plant. Don’t worry about them growing sideways, the plant will develop roots all along the stem and straighten up as it moves towards the light.
Even if you aren’t trenching your plants, they may benefit from removal of the bottom leaves once they are about 3 ft. tall. These are the leaves that get splatter from the soil when watered and are usually the first to show fungus issues.
Once your plants are all tucked in and the soil has warmed up (mulch will keep cold soil cold longer) cover them with mulch. Mulch is a young plant’s best friend. It prevents root burn, retains moisture, attracts worms to your soil bed (unfortunately armadillos too and I’ll be writing about this later) and helps hold all those carefully worked-in nutrients in place when you water or it rains. Leaf, straw and wood mulches also break down into the soil over time and add to your compost. Some claim that red mulch reflects red light wavelengths back up onto your tomato plants, which supposedly stimulates their growth. If you can’t find red, it’s ok; regardless of its color, mulch is beneficial to your plants.

If you want your plant to be a lush, give it a drink
Every plant needs some form of moisture to grow, even cacti and succulents. Tomatoes need a fair amount of supplemental water, unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area where it rains like clockwork. Last year, our little part of the world had not only record high temps, but a very long lasting and severe drought. We wound up at the end of the year with a 14 inch or so rain deficit.tomato04
I watered our entire garden almost every other day this past summer. The ideal is to water your plants deeply (6-8 inches deep) once a week or 2-3 times a week at the height of summer. Consistency is one of the keys in tomato watering.
I heard SO many complaints about blossom rot on tomato plants last year and one of the most common causes of blossom rot is poor watering practices. The other is calcium deficiency in the soil, which can also be caused by too much watering. Under-watering and then suddenly giving too much water can not only create conditions for blossom rot, it can split fruits as well- causing them to absorb too much water too fast.
Too frequent watering doesn’t allow the sugars to develop in the fruit; so you won’t get maximum flavor potential from your tomato. Consistency, consistency, consistency- if you can’t be bothered, or remember to water regularly and deeply- then you should attach your hose up to a $10 timer. If the plants are stressed from lack of water, especially if you see wilting at the leaves, they may drop their blossoms or their fruit. Caveat to this: I have read that if the plant wilts a bit in the middle of the day that this is normal because tomatoes will close their stomas in the hottest part of the day to prevent water loss by transpiration. If they look like this in the morning though, they need water.

I save my egg shells for a couple months prior to planting tomatoes and add the crushed up shells to my soil when I move my seedlings into the garden. This helps to slowly release calcium into the soil in the event that it is washed out by too much water. Egg shells are also good slug and snail repellent, they don’t like dragging their soft bodies over all those sharp little edges.  I didn’t have any issues with blossom rot until the very end of the season last year, when my egg shells finally began to be depleted. (I also got lax in my watering practices, which could also have been the culprit) If you’ve been watering consistently and are pretty sure calcium is the problem, I’ve heard that a little antacid (calcium carbonate) crushed up and side-dressed (added to the soil next to the plant’s roots, not directly to the roots) into the soil can be a great quick fix. Side-dressing prevents burning tender roots, especially when adding fertilizers. For long term calcium control, I swear by my eggshells- and if you’re already eating the eggs in them, re-using the shells costs you nothing.

Help them hold their heads high
I’ve seen lots of methods of staking tomato plants and even some growing methods like the Topsy Turvy that can ignore staking altogether. It’s just the nature of the plant, they grow heavy fruits on thin stems and the plant needs supplemental support to keep from sitting on the ground where the fruit and leaves will rot.Garden2012
You should stake or cage your plants right after you put them in the ground. Just about anything can be used; wooden stakes, poles, teepees or wire cages. I grew cherry tomato plants on my yard fence last year, letting them vine along the fence just like a morning glory would. Instead of cages and trellis or teepee supports; I’m growing my tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, roses and anything else that climbs right up the side of my house. Our siding is butt-ugly, so I put screws in the house in about a 1 ft. block pattern from ground to roof and strung pliable galvanized wire on the screws. Not all of you are going to want to put permanent trellises directly into your siding, I realize.
There are TONS of options for tomato cages out there, it simply comes down to personal preference and aesthetics, which method of support you decide to use. The only thing you really need to remember is that the cage should be strong and sturdy enough to support the weight of a fully grown tomato plant- you’ll be surprised how heavy these little suckers can get! Recommended is 5.5 – 6 ft in height of concrete reinforcing wire or pasture wire for cages.
For ties, any material that won’t cut in to the plant’s stems is ok- I’ve seen everything from panty hose to pipe cleaners.

Ow quit it! Pinching and Picking
Non-fruiting suckers that develop in a crook between two stems can be removed to encourage development of the rest of the plant, especially toward fruit growth- which is kind of the whole purpose for planting tomato plants in the first place. Let the big leaves alone. (I started to write: “Leave the big leaves alone, but that sounded redundant) Removing too many leaves can let the sun burn your fruit, but a little pruning off the top and removal of suckers is helpful.tomato3
Pick your produce often to encourage the plant to produce more flowers and fruit. Taste is also a factor, some cultivars can develop an odd texture if left on the vine too long.
Store your picked fruit in a cool, dry place- not the refrigerator, it will cause them to loose flavor and I’ve found some garden tomatoes just turn to instant mush in the fridge. Try different varieties to see what suits your palette best. Last year we grew romas and cherry tomatoes. This year, I’m trying an heirloom beefsteak variety and a grape. In the fall, right before first freeze, you can harvest even your green tomatoes and store them for later. They won’t have the flavor of vine-ripened, but mine were still better than store bought. I put the greens in a brown paper bag and removed the ripe ones every few days until we’d eaten them all.
If you store your stakes, cages or ties inside- they might benefit from a bleach water wash before using them again the next season.

I didn’t delve into a lot of the tomato pests and diseases here, since this is primarily meant to be a guide to grow them under the best conditions to prevent many of those issues in the first place. However, Wiki has a very comprehensive list of tomato plant diseases and problems here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tomato_diseases if you’d like a good guide.

Hope all this was helpful! I’d love to see comments about methods, your tips & tricks or growing success.
-B