DULUTH — This is the first year Emily Ford, head gardener for historic museum Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, has made the switch to growing tomatoes vertically, and she's hooked.
"One of the goals that I have here is to kind of pack a lot of food in a really small space, " said Ford, noting that she had drawn inspiration from some of the techniques used in the greenhouses of Bay Produce in Superior, Wis.
"I asked a few people around, a couple farmers, 'Can you do that outside?' And they're like, 'I'm sure you could.' So, I gave it a go this year," she said.
While some gardeners construct frames and train tomatoes to grow up strings attached to them, Ford opted for the flexibility of stakes as she tried a new technique.
"I didn't want to build a whole infrastructure and then not like what I did," she said.
But Ford hasn't been disappointed. Some of her tomatoes are now topping 6 feet in height. To provide needed support, she has cobbled together stake extensions "MacGyver-style," as she puts it. Ford said she uses zip ties to attach additional lengths of wood. She also uses the same plastic ties to train the vines and keep them climbing upward.
In order to grow tomatoes vertically, it's important to start with the right variety. Look for vining plants, classified as indeterminate.
That's a good starting point, but Ford points out that you'll also need to learn how to properly prune your tomatoes as they grow if you hope to keep them under control. That means removing the suckers from the vines.
Left unchecked, a sucker will turn into a whole new vine, with leaves and fruit growing in a whole new direction. This can destabilize a tomato plant, cause it to break and make it less productive, as the plant's resources are stretched out further and further.
Once you learn the drill, suckers are pretty easy to recognize. There's a main vine that grows upward, alternating between branches of leaves and branches of flowers/fruit. But the plant often wants to send out an additional shoot of growth from the crotch of the leaf stem. Watch for those and pinch them off. If you miss one or two, you can still come back and remove them even if they are several inches long without compromising the health of the tomato.
Besides making for a more tidy and productive garden, Ford said training tomatoes to grow vertically seems to offer another advantage.
When allowing tomatoes to do their own thing, she said her overgrown and tangled tomatoes would often become diseased, "because they need so much air flow."
"So, this really opened up the air flow quite a bit," she said. Even though Ford said she has had some blight and disease surface on lower leaves of the climbing plants, she has been able to remove those branches as they yellowed, and the remaining vines have remained healthy and productive.
The whole process of growing tomatoes in this fashion has focused Ford's care, too. And that, she says, may arguably be the greatest benefit.
"I think that this version of growing for me, because I have to prune every week, forces me to pay way more attention to what's happening with my tomatoes," she said. "I had a botanist buddy who said the most sought-after attribute for any botanist is the attribute of observation. It will take you from the world's worst gardener to the world's best."
Ford said that the crowd-favorite tomato in the Glensheen gardens this year has been the Indigo Cherry Drop. They're about an inch in diameter and grow in tight productive clusters — black on top and red/green on the bottom.
Besides being visually striking, the Indigo packs plenty of flavor punch, with a bit more acidity and a hint less sweetness that can make a nice counterpoint to goat or feta cheese in a salad, she said.
In all, about three dozen tomato plants are growing at Glensheen this summer, but Ford said little fruit ever goes to waste, as she is able to share them with hungry fellow staff members.
She stressed the importance of gardeners having patience with themselves, as there is a learning curve with vertical gardening.
"You need to keep trying if your structure fails. Just be creative with it and take notes. That's the other thing I tell people when they try something new. Keep notes, man, because next year you're likely to forget. The winter's so long."