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A developing tomato

Doing the tomato shake

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Shake your tomato flowers to help with pollination and set fruit, writes Penny Woodward.

My heirloom tomato plants have been growing really well and I had good fruit set early on, but almost none over the last few weeks. I’d been too busy to do more than water and feed them, but finally decided I needed to get the pollination rate up or I’d have very few tomatoes this summer.

Tomatoes are mostly self-pollinated, so the pollen drops from the anthers to the tip of the pistal in each flower. Wind helps this to happen by vibrating the flowers, ensuring the pollen loosens and falls. But my tomatoes are in a really sheltered position and until recently our days had been very still, so very few tomatoes were setting fruit. So I took action. Now at least twice a day I wander into the garden and do the tomato shake. This consists of holding the stake or rio mesh and gently shaking it for a few seconds, I have to admit that while doing this I also quietly chat to the plants in a friendly manner, encouraging them to grow some fruit.

I have a friend who swears by his electric toothbrush as a tool for increased pollination. He takes it into the garden, rests the brush against the stem of each flower cluster and gently vibrates the flowers to release pollen. Whatever pushes your buttons I guess. Tomatoes grown in greenhouses and polytunnels usually have strings that run the length of the plants. These strings are regularly vibrated to ensure pollen release.

While 95 per cent of tomatoes are self-pollinated, the other 5 per cent can be pollinated by insects. So in Tassie the insects might be bumble bees that buzz the flowers, loosening the pollen. Honey bees don’t generally pollinate tomato flowers because they don’t vibrate, but on the mainland it could be blue-banded bees pollinating your tomato flowers by rapidly head butting them, and dislodging pollen. If you end up with some tomatoes that don’t resemble all the other fruit on a vine, then the chances are that these have been cross-pollinated by blue-banded bees or their like.

As well as doing the tomato shake, I also dissolved a little potash and watered it into the soil around each plant, to encourage more flowers and fruit.