Cloning Tomatoes

Even those who live where gardening is a twelve month activity sometimes have trouble finding just the plant they want when they want it. If we can find one we like, we clone it to keep it. At other times unfortunate things happen and our desire is to salvage the situation drives us to propagate. Sometimes it’s just pure fun to see if we can do it! In the last 2 weeks, different individuals have asked me how to deal with all of these contingencies and the answer is the same – clone that tomato!

Lots of people in warm climates grow fall tomatoes, planting them in late July for harvest through November. More people would grow them if plants were available but often they are not. You can start seeds for heat resistant varieties or clone your own from the spring plants if they are not pest-ridden. Tomato plants often outgrow their cages or poles. Right now I am looking at a cherry tomato supported by 3 huge bamboo poles that is busting out all over, its branches heavy with fruit. If a storm hits like last week, it will break as one did that is now a bowl of green tomato pickles and two cuttings in water on the windowsill. 3 people have related the same experience (it was a big storm) and asked if they can root the breakage to start more plants. Fortunately, they can clone.

You have a choice of rooting media for tomatoes. Unlike most plants, healthy tomatoes are ready to root and will develop decently thick roots in either water or a lightweight rooting medium. The type of cutting is more critical since those taken from the tip of a branch are much more durable. Some people will root suckers, shoots that form where a lower leaf springs from a main stem, but I much prefer the results from tip cuttings. Take a 6-8 inch cutting from a healthy, insect-free, bright green tip and strip the leaves off of its lower half. Slip the cutting into a bottle of water, preferably a tall, narrow one shaped like a beer bottle so the leaves are supported by its rim out of touch with the water itself. The stem will root at the bottom first but also along the stem itself in most cases. I dip the end of the cutting into Hormex Liquid Concentrate and put 3 drops into the water, too. To start new tomato plants in lightweight, soilless mix such as Metro Mix, use a deep or wide pot. Like when you use water, the idea is to get most of the tomato stem into the pot because it can develop roots all along its length. That results in a much sturdier plant, one that is better able to grow in the heat of summer because it has more roots to take up water and fertilizer. Such cuttings can be more difficult to uproot in a thunderstorm, too. It’s a win-win for the propagator and simple to set up.

Where to put those future tomato plants during the cloning process depends in large part on the medium and the conditions where you live and garden. A temperature around 65-70 degrees works well for both and can usually be found outdoors in the shade or inside on your windowsill. I live where it is much hotter than that outside, so I use the windowsill for water rooting and put the tall pots under a plant light in the spare room. We call it the spare room even though my husband’s lifelong friend and his dogs live there most of the time. Why we do that, I cannot say for sure, but it is probably because to do so suits him.

Extra humidity in the area is not usually necessary for cuttings in a bottle of water, but if it is needed for those in a pot of soil, a simple plastic cloche will suffice or you can make a simple rooter out of a 2 liter bottle. Cut off the top 2/3 of the plastic, poke holes in the bottom of the base, and fill it with the media. Dip the base of the cutting into HLC and slip it into the pot, then use the top to cover the base by sinking it into the mix. Leave the top off to allow fresh air in and remove it completely when you water or if condensation forms inside the top. Once you get either method set up, it is just a matter of adding water to bottle as it evaporates and watering the soil in the pot often enough to keep it just damp. Add HLC once a week for fastest rooting – a drop or 2 in the water will do just fine. Within 10 days to 2 weeks there will be about an inch of roots; in 3 weeks either kind of cutting should be ready to pot up or plant out.

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