Tomato Brush-off

Gardeners know short and stocky tomato plants are the best type for transplanting. But no matter when I start my tomatoes indoors, or how close I put the lights to the seedlings, they still get leggy. Now there's another technique I can use to keep my plants short and stout.

Thomas Bjorkman, a vegetable crop physiologist at Cornell University's Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, found that brushing his hand over tomato transplants' tops--10 strokes daily starting when the plants are 2 1/2 inches tall until they're transplanted outside--produced a 20 percent height reduction compared with unbrushed plants.

More than 10 strokes didn't significantly enhance the effect. It's also okay to miss a day or start brushing once the plants get a bit leggy, but you may not see the full height reduction. Bjorkman calculates that every day you brush equals a 1/10-inch reduction in height. "Just brush them with your hand gently, as you'd pet a cat," he says. Who would have thought that petting your tomatoes would make them grow better.

Charlie Nardozzi is senior horticulturist at National Gardening.

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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