Clearing Tomato Plants

These tomato plants have served us well, and their time is up. We have pulled them out of the ground and left them suspended in the twine to wilt, before hauling them to the compost pile. The bed behind the tomatoes is being solarized to kill fungal lettuce diseases. Photo Pam Dawling

Here in Virginia, we pull up our two beds of tomatoes in the hoophouse at the very end of July or early in August. I realize this will horrify people in colder climates. I’ve been there. Every tomato plant was to be cherished until the frost took it. But in hot, humid Virginia, we have harvested from these plants for nine weeks, and the outdoor plants are coming in strongly. We don’t need the hoophouse ones; they’ve grown taller than we can reach, and we’ve lopped the tops off with hedge shears several times. Fungal diseases are to be reckoned with, and we only manage a two-year rotation in each bed, as far as nightshades go. In the past, we grew “high summer” food crops or seed crops, and needed to get the tomatoes out to make way for the new crops. Nowadays we only grow cover crops in the summer, until it’s time to prepare the beds for fall planting.

String-weaving diagram from Extension.org

We use the Florida String Weaving method of supporting our tomatoes. One thing I like about this method is that it is easy to take down, and all you have to store for next year are the stakes, which take less space than cages, or individual T-posts. We have a descriptive list of steps, and also a Worksheet – see below.

Another feature of our life with our hoophouse tomatoes are the Peanut Root-Knot Nematodes. When we pull our tomatoes, we examine the roots and carefully remove the ones with nematode lumps in them, usually to the parking lot on a dry sunny day, to die in the heat and be run over by cars. We don’t even want to send them to the landfill, because we don’t want to do anything that increases the number of nematodes anywhere. Nematodes need a film of water to survive, and the parking lot deprives them of that.

Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles). We forgot to take photos of the tomato roots.
Photo Pam Dawling

We spread the tomato clearance job out over a week, doing one step each day, so we don’t have to be in the hoophouse after 11 am, when the temperature becomes unbearable. After harvesting all the fruit (ripe and unripe, separately) in the first bed, we pull up the plants and check the roots. If we see nematode lumps, we carefully cut off the roots and take them outside. We mark the area with a blue flag in each corner, and later measure the distance from the end of the bed and mark the problem area on a map of the beds. This is in case the flags mysteriously fall out.

When we plan the winter crops, we plant the more nematode-resistant crops in the infested areas.With the non-nematode infected plants (most of them) we shake the soil off the roots to speed up the wilting. Plus of course, we don’t want to be removing precious topsoil from the hoophouse! We leave all the plants still hanging in place in the rows of twine, to dry out for a couple of days. We are going to haul them to the compost pile, and it’s a lot less work (fewer cartloads) once the plants have wilted.

Cutting down through the layers of twine in preparation for clearing string-woven tomatoes. Photo Pam Dawling

The second day, we collect up the plant labels and put them in either the “Successes” bucket or the “Failures” bucket according to whether we want to grow that variety again. We cut the twine, pull out the long pieces and collect them in a trash bucket. We don’t try to save the twine, partly because it would take a lot of time, and partly because we don’t want to use twine that might be infected with fungal diseases. The easy way to remove the twine is simply to cut downwards beside a stake, through each of the pieces of twine, then go to the next stake and do the same, but this time gather the twine in the non-knife hand. Next, slice down the other side of the same stake, to reduce struggle, and make the lengths of twine easy to pull out! We use sisal twine, so we let the small pieces, which were wrapped around the stakes, drop to the ground. Most of them will get collected up when we pull the stakes, and a few will go with the plants to the compost pile.

Gathering the lengths of twine after cutting at both sides of each tomato stake. Photo Pam Dawling
Tomato clearance, after cutting and pulling the twine, and removing the stake extenders in the near bed. The bed to the right still has the extenders in place. Photo Pam Dawling

The third day we pull up the stakes. To reach the full height we needed, we have tied an extension stake onto each one, so first we remove those, then we pull the stakes that are in the ground. We like to use a T-post puller for this job, as it gets the wood posts out nicely without breaking them off in the ground. We only use the wood stakes for hoophouse tomatoes once, and the next year we use them outdoors, often for the snap peas. This is to reduce spread of diseases. When we pull out the metal T-posts we scrape the soil off, then spray them down and scrub with a brush.

Our (welding-repaired) T-post puller makes fast effective work of removing wood stakes too. 15 seconds per stake.
Photo Pam Dawling
When I’m collecting things togethe, I throw them into clusters as I work, and make them ready to move easily. Photo Pam Dawling

The fourth day we haul the wilted plants to the compost pile. We make a little effort to keep the zipper spiders in the hoophouse, but they have minds of their own! We do gather up any egg cases we see, and hang those on the metal framework of the hoophouse, to provide spiders next year.

A large zipper spider in our hoophouse in early August. Photo Pam Dawling
Zipper spider egg cases overwintering in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

On day 5 we rake and (if in time) sow a summer cover crop. We like to use soy as a warm weather legume that will supply some nitrogen, but it needs 6 weeks to be worthwhile. If we are a bit late, we’ll just sow buckwheat. We need our first bed for fall and winter crops on September 6. The others won’t be needed until Early October or later.

The steps for the second bed happen one day later than they happen in the first one. See the worksheet to get the full story.

Hoophouse Tomato Clearing Worksheet

If you live in a cooler climate than I do and you want to learn about keeping tomato plants growing (and accessible) in a hoophouse, read Andrew Mefferd’s book The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook. There he explains the lower and lean method of supporting tomato vines.

And I’ll close out with this photo which shows a tomato stem that I accidentally broke when doing the first round of stringweaving. I bandaged it back together with electrical tape from our drip tape first aid box. In the past I have also repaired stems with band aids. It works really well and the plants recover to live a normal productive life.

Yes, this really works! Tomato stem repaired with electrical tape 5 months earlier.
Photo Pam Dawling