A well developed set of fruit that resulted from hand-pollinating.

- Paul Betz is the owner of High Ledge Farm in Woodbury, VT, and in the winter months is a High Mowing Organic Seeds Sales Associate.

We grow a fair amount of tomatoes for our markets, but like I have said many times in the past, our small plantings have to perform to the fullest to give us what we need to be profitable. We spend some extra time in the greenhouse to make sure that all the other work we do pays off.

Like Jacob mentioned in his tomato trellising blog post, trellising has lots of advantages, and in the greenhouse it’s a necessity. We are growing grafted plants, and are running two leaders on each plant. We are constantly clipping, suckering, and pruning our plants, and we expect a lot from them.

Sometimes individual plants do odd things, or need some special attention. We tie a piece of flagging to the trellis of that plant, so whoever is working with that plant next knows to look with some extra attention. Another rule that we follow is that we do any clipping up of the plant before we remove suckers. If something breaks, we have a spare leader that we can then train as a replacement. That’s a perfect place for some flagging tape.

A few years ago I was having trouble getting a good set of fruit on the plants. Let’s face it; a tomato plant with no tomatoes on it is about as useful as an ice cube tray on the counter. In the field, the wind and pollinators who visit the flowers do great job of setting the fruit. But there isn’t that kind of wind in my greenhouses. Our houses aren’t really big enough to have bumble bees brought in. I had been shaking the trellis with mixed results, but was getting frustrated. At this point I went to using a hand pollinator.

An electric toothbrush with the brush part removed and a piece of wire attached to the shaft of the toothbrush. Hold the vibrating wire against the tomato flower for 2 seconds to encourage pollination of the flower.
An electric toothbrush with the brush part removed and a piece of wire attached to the shaft of the toothbrush.

It’s a minor pain. It takes about me 8-10 minutes to pollinate a five row, 60’ long greenhouse, and it gets done every day. But the results are pretty amazing. If you look at the numbers, at $10.00 an hour, it costs less than $2.00 to ensure that all our hard work is paying off. Another way to look at is about one tomato a day pays for the pollination. Not a bad return on investment. It also forces you to spend that time in the greenhouse, looking at every plant every day. When there’s a problem, it’s great to catch it early, and this daily visit is a great tool.

My pollinator is pretty high tech -  an electric toothbrush with a piece of wire taped to the end. Be sure to get the sonic kind, not the ones that spin the brush head. All you need is a few seconds to adequately vibrate the flower enough for the pollen to move within the flower. Touch the vibrating wire to point where the flower comes off the stem.

So now you have all these huge tomatoes because of the work you’ve done pollinating. There’s one more step to consider. A truss clip will hold up the extra weight of these fully pollinated tomatoes. They’re cheap, they only take a few seconds to install, and they avoid lots of heart ache at the sight of a cluster lying on the ground.

All of these steps add up to more work, but the work makes sense when it actually improves yields. There are certainly times when it feels like one more thing to have to do, but I still force myself to do it.

I hope your season is bringing you everything you and your farm need.